How Nina Simone Became Hip Hop’s “Secret Weapon”: From Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and Kanye West

In 1996, the Fugees burst on the scene with “Ready or Not,” and most listeners were not ready: for the ominous, eclectic, Caribbean-inflected production, the smooth, sexy menace of Lauryn Hill’s hook (“you can’t hide / Gonna find you and take it slowly”), or the interplay of references in the breakout star’s rhymes. “Rap orgies with Porgy and Bess / Capture your bounty like Eliot Ness,” Hill raps, and then a few lines later, “So while you’re imitating Al Capone, I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.”

The tongue-in-cheek line introduced a generation of fans to the iconic singer and virtuoso pianist, who could and did play everything from blues, jazz, soul, cabaret, classical, and Broadway tunes like those from the Gershwin classic (hear Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy,” here).




Hill has paid homage to Simone ever since. In 2015, she promoted the tribute album, Nina Revisted—the soundtrack to documentary What Happened to Nina Simone?—at the Apollo. Reporting on the event in The Verge, Kwame Opam likely spoke for thousands in admitting he’d “first heard Nina’s name in that classic line on ‘Ready or Not.’”

Last year saw the release of The Miseducation of Eunice Waymon, a title combining Hill’s acclaimed solo album with Simone’s birth name. The record, produced by Amerigo Gazaway, is a “mashup of songs by Fugees emcee and hip hop legend Lauryn Hill, and the jazz and soul icon Nina Simone." What might have come off like a marketing stunt trading on both names instead “elevates them to new heights,” writes Zack Gingrich-Gaylord at KMUW, “putting them in conversation with each other and making it sound like the collaboration was always meant to be.”

Maybe one reason these imaginary studio sessions work so well has to do not only with Hill’s veneration of Simone, and the harmonious meeting of their two voices and sensibilities, but also with Simone’s prominence in so much recent hip hop. Among the dozens of soul artists whose grooves have given loops and hooks to many a rap classic, she now holds a special place, as the Polyphonic video at the top shows in an exploration of four Simone songs that have left an indelible mark on hip hop’s current sound.

The first of those songs, “Feeling Good,” appears on both the Hill/Simone mashup album and in a powerful cover by Hill on Nina Revisited. Simone’s soaring version of the song—originally from the British musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd—“turned it into a musical standard” for the next several decades. In the 2000s, it popped up in tracks from Wax Tailor, Lil Wayne, and Jay Z and Kanye West, “two artists who have made careers out of sampling the high priestess” of soul and whose names come up frequently in this discussion.

The second song identified as one of “hip hop’s secret weapons,” Simone’s interpretation of the gospel “Sinnerman,” may be her “greatest accomplishment" and appears in tracks by Timbaland and Flying Lotus and in the Talib Kweli track “Get By,” produced by a young Kanye West.

Simone’s appeal to hip hop artists goes beyond her incredibly powerful voice and piano. She was a fierce civil rights activist who used her music as a form of protest. Her version of “Strange Fruit,” a song first turned into a civil rights anthem by Billie Holiday from a poem by Abel Meeropol, has inspired tracks by Cassidy, Common, and, most famously, West again on his 2013 “Blood on the Leaves.” West uses the song as a backdrop for a narrative of his personal problems and relationship woes, which doesn’t really honor its history, the Polyphonic argument in favor of his use notwithstanding.

That’s not the case with reimaginings of the last Simone song in this explainer, her original composition “Four Women,” which imagines four different women expressing the pain racism has caused them. In 2000, Talib Kweli and producer Hi-Tek came together as Reflection Eternal and recorded their own version, mentioning Simone’s Southern inspirations in the intro before telling contemporary tales of four women in New York. “More than just a sample,” the track “reinterprets the message” of “Four Women" and applies Simone’s 1966 insights to the present, something Jay Z also does on 2017’s “The Story of O.J.”

It is worth noting that all of the tracks the Polyphonic video mentions as examples of Simone’s influence on hip hop were released after Lauryn Hill and the Fugees brought Simone to the attention of young rappers, DJs, producers, and fans just coming of age in the mid-nineties. Since then, Simone’s music has since left its mark all over the genre, and it’s easy to see why so many would be drawn to her intense, authoritative musicianship and political urgency.

Simone may not have had the chance herself to enter into conversations with Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Common, Kanye, or Jay Z, but through hip hop’s endlessly creative ability to make the musical heroes of its past live again in song, it is as if she is still speaking, singing, and playing to the current generation of black artists—and through them, to the future of hip hop.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Peanuts Rock: Watch the Peanuts Gang Play Classic Rock Songs by Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Journey & More

In a very crowded field, Garren Lazar's comical take on Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a stand-out.

Comical in the literal sense. Lazar, aka Super G, struck a rich vein when he thought to mash the Rolling Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil" with footage culled from Charles Schulz’s animated Peanuts specials.

And over the last six years, he’s mined a lot of gold, using Final Cut Pro to pair familiar clips of a drumming Pigpen, Snoopy slapping a double bass, and the iconic “Linus And Lucy” scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas with rock and pop classics.

Schulz, an ardent music lover, frequently pictured his characters singing, dancing, and playing instruments, so Lazar, who has an uncanny knack for matching animated mouths to recorded lyrics, has plenty to choose from.

Charlie Brown’s anxieties fuel the introduction to a 15 minute remix of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Free Bird," until he gets hold of the Christmas special’s megaphone…

The megaphone serves Charlie equally well on "Stayin' Alive," the Bee Gees’ disco chart topper, though depending on your vintage, the vision of Snoopy in leg warmers and sweatband may come as a shock. Those clips come courtesy of It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown, Schulz’s 1984 goofy spin on FlashdanceFootlooseSaturday Night Fever and other dance-based pop cultural phenomenons of the era. Although that special—Schulz’s 27th—features a rotoscoped Snoopy busting moves originated by Flashdance’s stunt dancer Marine Jahan, that old holiday chestnut still manages to steal the show.

And whenever you need a lift, you can't do better than to spend a few minutes with Lazar’s heady reboot of Chicago’s quintessential 1970s single, "Saturday In the Park," wherein the normally reserved Schroeder reveals a more exuberant side.

Begin your explorations of Garren Lazar’s musical Peanuts remixes on his YouTube channel, warm in the knowledge that he entertains requests in the comments.

via Ultimate Classic Rock

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How William S. Burroughs Influenced Rock and Roll, from the 1960s to Today

It can be difficult to know what to do sometimes with adding machine heir and Naked Lunch and Junky author William S. Burroughs. In the trickle-down academese of contemporary jargon, he is a “problematic” figure who doesn’t fit neatly inside anyone’s ideological comfort zone, what with his unrepentant heroin addiction, occult weirdness, conspiracy mongering, and extensive firsthand knowledge of criminal underworlds.

There was no one better qualified to midwife the counterculture.

NME’s Leonie Cooper calls Burroughs “a dour punk in a sharp suit,” and lists some of the highlights of his biography, including his famous accidental shooting of his wife and mother of his only child—an event that did nothing to diminish his love of guns. “He wrote bleakly comic tales which were subject to obscenity trials in the States thanks to their dwelling on sodomy and drugs but which later saw him elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.”




The mainstreaming of Burroughs happened in part because of his appeal to musicians, from Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie to Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Throbbing Gristle, and Ministry’s Al Jourgenson. “Musicians flocked to him in a quest for authenticity.” Although the deadpan Burroughs usually appeared “massively unimpressed” by their attentions, he was “happy to comply and associate himself with artists both up and coming and established.”

David Bowie went further than seeking a photo op or one-off collaboration, adopting Burroughs’ cut-up technique as his primary method for writing lyrics, a technique also put into practice at various times by The Beatles, Cobain, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Other artists, like Steely Dan and The Soft Machine, took their names from Burroughs’ work but shared little of his nightmarish sci-fi-cult-noir sensibility.

Burroughs “preferred to associate himself with an edgier kind of performer,” collaborating with R.E.M., Waits, and Cobain and “hanging out at seminal rock club CBGBs” in the 70s and 80s. He became a friend and mentor to artists like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Thurston Moore. Although Iggy Pop is often referred to as the “godfather of punk,” that title might as well belong to William S. Burroughs.

During the birth of rock and roll in the 50s, Burroughs was a mostly unknown fringe figure. By the late sixties, his influence became central to popular music thanks to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones. But he would not be tamed or sanitized. An early gay hero who sided with outsiders and underdogs against corporate machines, he was defiant to the end, leaving a legacy that continues to inspire anti-establishment artists, even if they're unaware of their debt to him.

In the new book William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Casey Rae, you can learn much more about Burroughs’ major influence on rock and roll in the 60s, 70s, 80s, “when it became a rite of passage to hang out with the author or to experiment with his cut-up techniques,” as the book description notes. His direct influence continued into the punk revival of the grunge era and has become “more subliminal” since his death in 1997, as Rae tells Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot in the Sound Opinions interview above. (Scroll to the 14:50 minute mark.)

It’s hard to find contemporary artists who aren’t influenced by the artists Burroughs influenced, and who—wittingly or not—haven’t inherited some of the Burroughsisms that are everywhere in the past fifty-plus years of rock and roll history. Hear a playlist of Burroughs-adjacent songs referenced in Rae’s book at the top of the post (opening with Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle Oo," later covered by Steely Dan), and learn more about Burroughs’ musical adventures at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Electronic Musician Shows How He Uses His Prosthetic Arm to Control a Music Synthesizer with His Thoughts

The techno-futurist prophets of the late 20th century, from J.G. Ballard to William Gibson to Donna Haraway, were right, it turns out, about the intimate physical unions we would form with our machines. Haraway, professor emeritus of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, proclaimed herself a cyborg back in 1985. Whether readers took her ideas as metaphor or proleptic social and scientific fact hardly matters in hindsight. Her voice was predictive of the everyday biometrics and mechanics that lay just around the bend.

It can seem we are a long way, culturally, from the decade when Haraway’s work became required reading in “undergraduate curriculum at countless universities." But as Hari Kunzru wrote in 1997, “in terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the ‘world’ to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.” Three decades later, networked implants that automate medical data tracking and analysis and regulate dosages have become big business, and millions feed their vitals daily into fitness trackers and mobile devices and upload them to servers worldwide.




So, fine, we are all cyborgs now, but the usual use of that word tends to put us in mind of a more dramatic melding of human and machine. Here too, we find the cyborg has arrived, in the form of prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain. Psychologist, DJ, and electronic musician Bertolt Meyer has such a prosthesis, as he demonstrates in the video above. Born without a lower left arm, he received a robotic replacement that he can move by sending signals to the muscles that would control a natural limb. He can rotate his hand 360 degrees and use it for all sorts of tasks.

Problem is, the technology has not quite caught up with Meyer’s need for speed and precision in manipulating the tiny controls of his modular synthesizers. So Meyer, his artist husband Daniel, and synth builder Chrisi of KOMA Elektronik set to work on bypassing manual control altogether, with a prosthetic device that attaches to Meyer’s arm where the hand would be, and works as a controller for his synthesizer. He can change parameters using “the signals from my body that normally control the hand,” he writes on his YouTube page. “For me, this feels like controlling the synth with my thoughts.”

Meyer walks us through the process of building his first prototypes in an Inspector Gadget-meets-Kraftwerk display of analogue ingenuity. We might find ourselves wondering: if a handful of musicians, artists, and audio engineers can turn a prosthetic robotic arm into a modular synth controller that transmits brainwaves, what kind of cybernetic enhancements—musical and otherwise—might be coming soon from major research laboratories?

Whatever the state of cyborg technology outside Meyer’s garage, his brilliant invention shows us one thing: the human organism can adapt to being plugged into the unlikeliest of machines. Showing us how he uses the SynLimb to control a filter in one of his synthesizer banks, Meyer says, “I don’t even have to think about it. I just do it. It’s zero effort because I’m so used to producing this muscle signal.”

Advancements in biomechanical technology have given disabled individuals a significant amount of restored function. And as generally happens with major upgrades to accessibility devices, they also show us how we might all become even more closely integrated with machines in the near future.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Digital Archive Will Bring Medieval Chants Back to Life: Project Amra Will Feature 300 Digitized Manuscripts and Many Audio Recordings

Among historians of European Christianity, it long seemed a settled question that Irish Catholicism, the so-called “Celtic Rite,” differed significantly in the middle ages from its Roman counterpart. This despite the fact that the phrase Celtic Rite “must not be taken to imply any necessary homogeneity,” notes the Catholic Encyclopedia, “for the evidence such as it is, is in favour of considerable diversity.” Far from an insular religion, Irish Catholicism spread to France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Northern Spain through the missions of St. Columbanus and others, and both influenced and absorbed the Continent’s practices throughout the medieval period.

Historians have recently set out to “restore [the Irish Church] to its rightful place on the European historical map,” writes Trinity College Dublin’s Ann Buckley in her introduction to a book of scholarly essays called Music, Liturgy, and the Veneration of Saints of the Medieval Irish Church in a European Context.




To varying degrees, all of the scholars represented in this collection write to counter the essentializing “quest for what might be unique or ‘other’ about Ireland and Irish culture” among all other European national and religious histories.

Buckley’s writing on the veneration of Irish saints has made a significant contribution to this effort, and her decade and a half of archival work has helped create the Amra project, which aims “to digitize and make freely available online over 300 manuscripts containing liturgical material associated with some 40 Irish saints which are located in research libraries across Europe.” So write Medievalists.net, who also point out some of the most exciting aspects of this accessible resource:

The digital archive, when completed, will also incorporate recordings and performing editions of all the chants and prayers from the original manuscripts, as well as translations of the Latin texts into a number of European languages. In this way, contemporary audiences can enjoy first-hand the devotional songs associated with Irish saints, bringing them out of their slumber after more than half a millennium.

You can hear one antiphonal chant, “Magni patris/Mente mundi,” from the Office St. Patrick, just above. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “no other Irish saint is represented so extensively or with such variety in medieval liturgical sources,” writes Buckley. Manuscript hymns, prayers, and offices for Patrick have been found in Dublin, Oxford, Cambridge, the British Library, and “in the Vienna Schottenkloster dating from the time of its foundation by Irish Benedictine monks in the twelfth century.” (See the opening of the Office of St. Patrick, “Venerenda imminentis,” from a late-15th century manuscript, at the top.)

Other saints represented in the archival material include Brigit, Colmcille, Columbanus, Canice, Declan, Ciaran, Finian, and Laurence O’Toole. The missionary monks all received their own “offices,” liturgical ceremonies performed on their feast days. Many of the manuscripts, such as the opening of the Office of St. Brigit, above, contain musical notation, allowing musicologists like Buckley to recreate the sound of Irish Catholicism as it existed in Ireland, Britain, and Continental Europe several hundred years ago.

The project is developing a digital archive of such recordings, as well as “a fully searchable database,” Medievalists.net notes, with “interactive maps showing the geographical distribution of the cults of Irish saints across Europe, and of the libraries where the manuscripts are now housed. A series of documentary films is also envisaged.” You don’t have to be a specialist in the history of the Irish Church, or an Irish Catholic, for that matter, to get excited about the many ways such a rich resource will bring this medieval history to new life.

via Medievalists.net

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bob Marley’s Redemption Song Finally Gets an Official Video: Watch the Animated Video Made Up of 2747 Drawings

Whoever Bob Marley was singing for, it could sound like he’s singing for all of us. Of course, this is received opinion, on the other side of almost 50 years of Marley worship since the Wailers crossed over to a rock audience with Catch a Fire and Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff.” Calling Marley an icon is perhaps ironically accurate in ways he would never condone. In death he has become a brand.

Though he wrote some beautiful love songs, Marley also didn’t water down his message to Rastafarian true believers, nor temper his pan-Africanism for scores of new white fans when fame struck. Like the waves of reggae bands that broke into the international scene in the 70s, the cultural particularities of Marley’s religion and politics didn’t seem much hindrance to his wide appeal.




Proof is in the listening, and no song in the Marley oeuvre seems more pointedly directed to the historic black experience—even quoting Marcus Garvey—while also appealing to universal sentiments, than “Redemption Song.” (To very different emotional effect, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” comes to mind as accomplishing a similar feat.)

The song telegraphs a kind of wise but tender strength, announces its intentions with confident candor, and invites its listeners, all of them, to join in. The references may not be part of your experience, but if this can be redeemed, Marley suggests, maybe everything can.

In its essentials, “Redemption Song” is classic Marley—tough-minded but gentle, hopeful but real, and pure melodic genius. But musically, it’s a significant departure, and perhaps a knowing farewell to the world, as the last song to appear on the Wailers’ twelfth and final album, 1980’s Uprising,

“While there’s no indication that Marley knew for sure that the song would be his last recorded document,” writes Jim Beviglia at American Songwriter, “the contemplative mood of Uprising and the fact that he had been battling the cancer for years seems to suggest that he knew the end was near.”

The song’s “empathetic strains and social concerns, along with its campfire sing-along quality,” has made it a favorite to cover almost since its release. Now, in its 40th year anniversary, it’s finally got a proper video, thanks to French artists Octave Marsal and Theo De Gueltzl. The “breathtaking animation,” notes Twisted Sifter, features “2,747 original drawings” and “uses powerful symbols to amplify the magnitude of the song’s timeless lyrics and importance in today’s world.”

Its black and white imagery directly references the Rastafarian themes and Middle Passage experience in Marley’s lyrics, but pulls back now and then to show his stadium-sized crowds, and the whole Earth, as if to say, “this is a global story.” The video is the first in a year-long celebration of Marley’s 75th birthday, which would have been February 6th, 2020. Learn more about upcoming events here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Grateful Dead Slip Past Security & Play a Gig at Columbia University’s Anti-Vietnam Protest (1968)

In 1968, the Vietnam War was not a catalyst for protests but a sort of nexus for all other injustices--the part contained elements of the whole: racism, class war, capitalist profiteering, imperialism. It was symptom and cause, much like climate change feels today. In April of that year, one inflection point happened on New York’s Columbia University campus.

The University wanted to build a military gym, not on campus, but in Morningside Park, a public space that bordered on Harlem. The student body immediately protested the construction. For one thing, it was planned to feature one entrance for students and faculty, and another entrance in the basement for Harlem’s mostly African-American residents. Protestors saw this, and the displacement of black residents from their neighborhood park, as racist. The Student Afro-American Society (SAS) of the University nicknamed it “Gym Crow.” At the same time, another activist group, the Students for a Democratic Society, discovered links between the University and the Department of Defense. The two events were separate, but stood for a bigger problem.




Students staged protests, sit-ins, and generally disrupted the University, vowing to continue until their demands were met--specifically divestment in the war machine and halting construction of the gym. Things got so bad, with some 148 injuries and 372 reports of police brutality from New York’s Finest, that the University went into lockdown.

That was April. On May 3, enter the Grateful Dead. Still a young band, the Dead were comparatively unknown on the East Coast, but set out to support the students with a free concert. What you see above is one of the few reels of footage of the illegal gig, with music from earlier gigs used over the silent footage. No sound recording exists of this event, but the uploader seems to think “The Eleven” was part of the set.

Mickey Hart, who had only recently joined the band as a second drummer, recalled how they made their way onto the campus:

[Grateful Dead manager] Rock [Scully] reached out to the strike organizers and offered to do a free show for the students. Always up for an adventure, we of course, went right along. Since the police and guards were closing off access to the majority of the campus – we were “smuggled” on campus to Low Library Plaza in the back of a bread delivery truck. Equipment and all. We were already jamming away before the security and police could to stop us.

This other footage shows more context--shots of Morningside Park, the protests, the police response, the sit-ins, a chalk noticeboard featuring messages from the outside to the students--all truly a time capsule. One YouTube commenter says he was there:

They set up on the porch of Ferris Booth Hall, which was the student union, in effect. A small crowd gathered; the Dead were not widely known yet in New York. I had a nice chat with Garcia [while] they were setting up. They started to play, but someone from the administration cut the power, which was not received favorably by the students. After some brief negotiating -- someone pointed out that legally Ferris Booth Hall was owned by the students and does the university really need another riot -- the power was turned back on and the show continued.

In the end, the student protests continued right through graduation--students held their own ceremony off campus--but they worked. The gym was not built and the University broke off its work with the DoD.

Flash forward to 2019 and it’s all coming around again: students and faculty demanded the University divest from all fossil fuels, in support of the Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers. As of this writing (February 2020), the University is still mulling it over. (No free concerts have been announced either...yet.)

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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