4HERO / “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun”
4Hero is the London-based duo of Dego McFarlane and Mark Mac. They are the quintessential drum ‘ n bass producers who led the way into, through and beyond the jungle of drum ‘n bass. In addition to producing seminal d ‘n b classics, they also started their own label Reinforced Records which is one of the most respected d ‘n b labels of all time. But what is truly extraordinary about these cats is that they are monster musicians and producers, period—regardless of genre. It doesn’t seem to matter the style of music, they can hold it down, or lift it up, whichever is appropriate. For this week’s cover, I have chosen a cut that started off as a very early and very successful, intentional mixture of rock and soul, with elements of jazz and classical thrown into the blender for an extra jolt of flavor. Recorded by a concept group called Rotary Connection, whose main claim to fame is that the lead singer was Minnie Riperton, “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun” is one of those timeless recordings that is on time regardless of what time you’re in. Written by the brilliant Chicago-based arranger/composer Charles Stepney and guitarist/composer Richard Rudolph (who was married to Minnie), this song is much, much more than a '70s attempt at genre-hybridity. From the opening acoustic guitar ripples to the piano vamp, from the electric guitar solo to the choral multi-tracking of Minnie’s lead, from the soaring strings to the hip rhythms of the drums, the song is a monster announcement of pride and determination. It is excellent. Masters At Work (the New York-based production team of 'Little' Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez) undertook the seemingly impossible task of remaking what had already been exquisitely wrought. Is it possible to be hipper than hip? The answer is yes. Gone are the opening and solo guitar elements, but pushed forward are the vocals featuring the honey-voiced Jocelyn Brown whose reading of the lyrics enticingly jumps into your earhole as she passionately enunciates every syllable of the anthem. This version is simultaneously swinging and sweet. The piano vamp in tandem with the popping snare provides a dancing foundation, but then Jocelyn’s soft vocals sail atop the rhythm in a graceful glide that floats like a purple kite painting a picture-perfect, deep-blue spring sky. And then they end on a funky drum and string vamp that concludes with long tones from the strings. It is a more than excellent arrangement. 4Hero got some cajones, otherwise they would never have even approached a remix of the Nuyorican update of the Rotary Connection classic. They bring back the guitar intro and instead of rock guitar, they give us classic chicken-scratch guitar chords all up underneath, plus they push the drums right down front with the bass sitting on the drummer’s shoulder. You’re ready to dance from note one. Around the three-minute mark they break it down for a minute or so of rubato string music, and then boom, they hit you with jungle drums played funk style. This is the d ‘n b drum pattern but played by a live drummer (Luke Parkhouse, their favorite session drummer) with a funk feel and it is amazing how much this adds to the mix. Midway through the eight-minute opus, 4Hero’s compositional sensibilities take over with an innovative arrangement that features the animated drummer pushing the strings, the keyboards and the voices through various permutations of the melody. There is a symphonic sweep, albeit a phunky symphony, that invests “Black Gold” with all the grandeur inherent in the full title. Where MAW featured the voices, 4Hero gifts us with the gleaming beauty of the melody. As much as I loved Jocelyn’s vocal, I am more impressed by the instrumental textures that 4Hero coaxes out of the assembly of live musicians. I’m sure this is my love of jazz being stroked. Perhaps others will be more attracted to the vocal work of the MAW version, or the originality of the Rotary Connection version, but I challenge you, dear lover of music, to turn this version up loud and step back—let the music surround you, hear the fullness of the orchestration. (Note the subtle harp arpeggios leading into the three-minute mark followed by the sparkling electric piano beneath the strings, all working together to set up that drum break). Plus, the mix is so top notch, you can hear each element; they must have spent days working on the balances and EQs. To me, the 4Hero version is not only mo’ betta; it is most excellent! —Kalamu ya Salaam One of my all-time favorite records I was introduced to this song in reverse order. The first time I came across it, I caught the second half of the 4Hero remix on late night college radio while pushing 18 wheels through the D.C. area. Right away, I was entranced by the unlikely combination of those long, elegant melody lines mixed with those pounding and stuttering drum licks. Unfortunately for me, I lost the radio signal before I found out what I'd been listening to. A year or so later, Kalamu hipped me to the Nuyorican Soul album and I got to hear (what I thought was) the original. Actually, I thought it was the same version at first, but I kept wondering, "Where's the drums? Where's the drums?!" Like Kalamu says, Ms. Jocelyn’s vocals are honey-sweet, and it was nice to hear the lyrics, but all the Nuyorican version did was whet my appetite for the other version I’d heard. Now that I knew what the song was called, I iwent looking for the remix. When I found it, I was surprised to find that it was eight minutes long and mostly instrumental. Still, it was every bit as good as I’d remembered. So, finally, I located the Rotary Connection original. Of course, I had that satisfied feeling of knowing the whole story, seeing the big picture, putting it all together and all the other clichés, but I was still feeling that 4Hero remix. Minnie and the Connection’s version is the first, Nuyorican’s is the sweetest, but 4Hero’s is the one that really brings it home for me. Somehow, even though they’re remixing a remake and even though their version has virtually no lyrics, 4Hero brings a solar-like intensity to the song that makes you not only hear the message, but feel it. To this day, it’s one of my all-time favorite records. —Mtume ya Salaam it’s a re-MAKE not a re-MIX Mtume, your response, brings to my attention a mistake I made in writing about 4hero’s version of "Black Gold." What 4Hero do is a remake of the MAW cover, not a "remix." Remix is the error in terminology that I made in my write-up above. A remix would be if they used the music itself and manipulated the balances and EQs, and perhaps added some computer-generated effects. A remake is when you actually play the music yourself using either musicians or computers, or both. As you know, some remakes actually sample elements of the reference material, but the defining factor is that remake means playing the music anew, whereas remix means manipulating music that was previously recorded. What distinguishes 4Hero is the high level of their ability to both remake music AND the high level of their ability to remix music. Either way they do it, 4Hero is on a higher level than most folk who specialize in one or the other approach. When 4Hero hears something they like, they have at their fingertips all kinds of options that are not available to others, whether those others be cats with computers who get hold to or who sample original tapes, or cats in garages who practice sounding like the original. Indeed, 4Hero gives a whole new meaning to "cover band." —Kalamu ya Salaam
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