At Earlham College in the 1980s, Rob Jones (R.I.P.) did an incredible series of radio shows on our college station, WECI FM. These included a blues show called Shades of Blue, and two audio collage shows (Root Of An Out of Focus and Kandy Korn). While I seem to have lost my only tape of Kandy Korn (rumor has it that others exist), here is an early Shades of Blue show from November 1986.
It’s great to hear Rob’s voice and selections after all these years. If you listen to the whole show, as I did while digitizing it, I think you will agree that he covers a deep, wide, and tasteful range of well notated selections. He was one of those people who explored the edges of human experience and always came back to tell you the fascinating tale. Until one time he didn’t. Like many of these explorers, he was always creating soundtracks for his travels and (tall)tales. However, unlike most, he always found the deepest shit to do it with.
His musical tastes ran from Sonic Youth to Sonny Terry to Sweet Tee and back by way of Glen Branca and NY post-punk outfits like James White/Black or The Offs. However, I always thought he seemed most at home in the blues. At 22, Rob knew more about living and playing the blues than anyone I have met before or since. The Shades of Blues show was where he let that love shine.
I had many incredible adventures (musical and otherwise) with my brother Rob over the years. Even back then, some of my favorite times were spent with him virtually, listening to (and occasionally taping) his radio shows on WECI. This tape of Shades of Blue provided the soundtrack to many long car and bus trips between Boston and Richmond between 1986 and 1990. In the early 1990s, it remained on heavy rotation until I finally gave up on tapes when CDs took over in the mid 1990s and mp3s replaced them in the oughts. It has been in a box of “my most precious tapes” ever since. Until today.
I love that the internets lets me share it with you. Rob would be so psyched to know that we are listening to Shades of Blue here in the future. Just squeezing donuts.
The title of this blog becomes increasingly ironic the bigger the piles of cassettes become around here. But then, they are mostly tapes of records, or at least radio shows of records and music made with other records. So that’s something. They are also revealing long lost tales of Boston’s largely overlooked urban and dance music scene in the 1980s. This new little collection also provides some important pre-history for the Leccos’s Lemma show, Boston’s first rap radio show that started in 1985. Allow me to offer a little context while you listen. I hope you like scratching.
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Lecco’s Lemma story, but those who are just getting here may consider starting with this piece from the Boston Phoenix. There have been big new developments on that front and Chris Faraone did an amazing job telling the tale of the tapes and the couple of crazy caucasians who kept them all these years. Just this past Sunday we finally got the whole collection together for the first time.
The proximate cause of this reunion was a visit up to see Willie “Loco” Alexander to collect the last two boxes of his Lecco’s Lemma show tapes. While conducting an interview (more of a paean to our pal Magnus really), Willie pulled out a small pile of other local college show tapes that he had set aside. Luckily, I was running video at the time. Watching it now, it’s cringe worthy how giddy and excited I become as he rattles of titles of shows I have never heard of with dates descending back into the electro infused daze of early 1908s. But then, these are the moments I live for. One of the most incredible and earliest in the pile was this tape of the Mastermix show on Emmerson’s WERS 88.9 FM from 5-21-83.
Magnus Johnstone was always a bit ahead of his time where music was concerned. He’d discover, devour, disseminate, then depart once the next new thing came along. He was into reggae, Chicago house, Kraftwerkian electro, all before they became widely popular. And then in the early 80′s he got in on the ground floor with hip-hop. In 1985, he got a radio show on MIT’s radio station WMBR 88.1 FM, on Saturday afternoons, and would play the newest rap records from Spin City, Skippy White’s, Nubian Notions, and Nancy’s Record & Book Store downtown. Although some rap had been heard previously on WERS 88.9′s “Special Edition” (Cosmic Crew, pre- Def Jam Beasties, UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” in Hosh Gureli’s 1984 Mastermix), that show featured mainly current urban dance like Jonzun Crew, Shannon and Freeez. Kiss 108 had played “Planet Rock”, “Jam On It” and “Rapper’s Delight”, but that was really just for novelty’s sake. And Boston’s preeminent black music station, WILD 1090 AM, utterly refused to play rap at the time. So hip-hop fans from all over Boston tuned in as best they could to Lecco’s Lemma, this tiny signal down at the bottom of the dial. The origin of the show’s title was that the whole thing was being run at the behest of a master computer named Lecco, and these songs were the “lemmas”, or things he desired.
Here is an even more detailed recollection from DJ Spinelli (Ed Note: Check out his amazing list of DJs including lots of local ones!)
Hosh Gureli (88.9 WERS) – One of the best DJs in the early 80s here in Boston. Known as the “Mastermix” on 88.9 WERS, he was far ahead of his time with mixing/remixing/editing and everything else in between.
His style of mixing wasn’t just “mixing one song into another” like most would do. Instead, he would have 3 or 4 songs going at once, throw some edits in and then go into another 3 or 4 songs (keep in mind, this is back in 82/83). Fortunately, I have many tapes of his mix shows that I recorded back then.
Interestingly enough (during the late 80s), I was in a “Battle Of The DJs” contest with Hosh at Faces nightclub in Cambridge and couldn’t believe I was going up against him (which he won, of course).
There are countless people in the Boston area that can thank Hosh for being an such an inspiration to them – myself included!
In case you missed it, let me repeat the most important line for you: “Fortunately, I have many tapes of his mix shows that I recorded back then.”
Mind = blown.
Dear DJ Spinelli, let me take this moment to publicly thank you for keeping your tapes of this amazing show and preserving Boston’s musical history. I think I can speak for all past, present and future Beantown beat heads and club kids when I say “we would sure love to hear some of your tapes”.
Honk is here again! The seventh collection of activist street bands has been the best so far (despite some light rain last evening). Yesterday I had a blast wandering around Davis Square with my buddy Will, both of us with our little digital recorders vacuuming up audio all over.
The whole thing (but especially the high tech field recording aspect) reminded me of a new record I recently rescued from the trash. In the now familiar sequence, a friend was getting rid of the last mildewy pile of old LPs and I was the last to look at them before they hit the trash. Mostly light 70s and 80′s rock and random things like the Flashdance soundtrack. Ahhhh, but what’s this?!?!
Folkways Music of the South Vol. 10 Been Here and Gone. “Oooh…I’ll take this one! Thanks!” People seemed slightly perplexed as they watched all the popular (and perhaps their favorite) records banished to the trash while only this oddity was rescued. One man’s trash…as they say…and what a treasure it is!
This album originally came out in 1960 as an audio companion to a book of the same name. The tracks on this volume are selected from recordings made by Frederic Ramsey between 1951 and 1957. It is essentially a greatest hits compilation of the Folkways series “Music of the South” which began in 1955. The PDF of the liner notes are available free from the nice people at the Smithsonian if you want more details (and beautiful pictures as well).
The piece I wanted to share is the wonderful street recording of the Eureka Brass Band in New Orleans. In addition to the amazing performance that really heats up toward the end, I love the ambient crowd sound and the little discussion you hear between a man and a woman you hear throughout (listen for her mention of “Rock and Roll”!). If the content wasn’t good enough, its also on YELLOW VINYL!
I could not resist making a little re-edit of the original video replacing the CVS-inserted (yet strangely beautiful) audio with the Ronnie Ruff track, “It Comes From Boston“. Now I loved the original mind you and need to give props to Dennis, all his Brockton (East Side) breakdancing friends and especially his mom, who apparently was handy with the Super 8 (thanks MOM!). But adding the Ronnie Ruff track just seemed too perfect. Apparently, the gods of Hip-Hop agreed. Notice the reference to “frosting” right as the cake comes out? That was complete luck. I just dropped the audio in and it lined right up. I must be doing something right.
There are so many things I love about this video. Having grown up in Boston in the 1980s, I just love how it looks. Like home.
I also love how it transitions from hanging out with dad in the yard, to a quick dinner shot (mom was probably too busy making, serving and cleaning it up to run much tape) and then right to the impromptu breakdance parties in the street and driveway. Cardboard/linoleum + boombox + dope tapes (probably off the radio…maybe Lecco’s Lemma?) + friends = mini-kid block party. In this sense, the emergence of Hip-Hop was so very local and fractal…every neighborhood had at least one kid who could rhyme, dance, DJ or at least had some dope tapes and a boombox. Some neighborhoods had lots. The little block parties that happened all over sometimes got much, much bigger. Then it went global and the rest is history. But back then, before the big money got into it, it was more about your friends, their moves and who had the better boombox.
I especially love that the length of the video allowed for the shoutouts at the end and find it funny that we don’t get one for his own town…Brockton! (I have secretly considered doing a re-edit of the track to replace all the refs to “Boston” with “Brockton”. If someone posts a good “Brockton” drop, I am on it).
Another amazing aspect of the video (that only became clear after talking to Dennis this morning) is the way Hip-Hop attracted kids like a tractor beam and then mixed them together. When I watched the original video, I immediately noticed the older dudes who make a cameo appearance early on and then disappear. Apparently, these guys were from East LA and were out visiting one of the neighbors and came over when they heard the music and joined in. They were probably in their early 20s whereas the rest of the kids were early teens from Brockton, MA. Hip-Hop apparently bridged the significant differences between them. It just proves that one upon a time, kids loved Hip-Hop enough to forget their differences for a minute and just dance. Some of them still do.
The other day, I walked into the front room and was flabbergasted to find a little-known piece of Boston’s Hip-Hop history casually laid out on Ken’s Klipsch speaker as if I were meant to find it. This would seem like a magical manifestation under almost any circumstances given my fascination with Boston’s Hip-Hop history and the mindboggling connections between the Jonzun Crew and Sun Ra represented by this little paper triangle. The fact that I had recently been dreaming of building Pyramidal subwoofers makes it seem more like an intergalactic message dropped there by the Man From Saturn himself.
Although there is now a fair bit of information available about the OVC, when I wrote my chapter on Boston Hip-Hop, Tompkins had yet to release the mindbomb How to Wreck a Nice Beach and there was almost no information anywhere about the cryptic reference in the title of the Boston electrofunk classic Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC) by the Jonzun Crew.
As I did research for my article, I kept re-wondering “What the hell was this OVC anyway?!” Having whined about it enough to the right people, I learned the answer shortly after it was (re)discovered but swore a solemn oath to keep the story to myself. Which I of course did. Take my word for it, this whole OVC thing was seriously secret info only a few years back. Even now it’s a bit esoteric and the fact that the OVC is the link between Sun Ra and Hip-Hop still seems almost impossible. If you are not quite sure what the hell I am talking about, here it is in one ghastly sentence:
Boston’s Jonzun Crew was connected to Jazzman/Intergalactic traveler Sun Ra via the OVC (the Outerspace Visual Communicator), a light show-producing keyboard that was designed by MIT-affiliated inventor/funk keyboardist Bill Sebastian and used in several Boston Sun Ra Shows and one film.
Now even if you are not a Boston obsessed music obsessive like me, this is a pretty amazing story. For me, its fundamental. In fact, the whole Boston-Electrofunk-Sun Ra connection is a critical piece of evidence that Boston was an important (and overlooked) source for Hip-Hop’s electro/cosmic elements. Seriously, find me a place where early Hip-Hop and Sun Ra connect other than in Boston. Whatever your beliefs about the importance of the Bean in providing some of Hip-Hop’s deepest connections with intergalactic beings, at the very least the OVC deserves a special place in the story of the birth of Hip-Hop (and its Beantown roots).
Since I could not run this down in the chapter given my oath (and could never have done it better than Dave anyway), allow me to offer a few annotations to the now mythical story of the OVC. (Oh to have stalked the beast into the gloamy evening underbrush with Dave and Brian back in the dark ages of ’09…sigh.)
But first of all, where did the poster come from? Did Sun Ra really show up and leave it up front? Most likely not. Originally, this poster was from a series of shows at Mass Art on June 26-29, 1980. Most recently, it arrived by way of Roger Miller who had it floating around in the Alloy Orchestra van. Being a fan of Sun Ra, a gobsmacked bandmate asked if he could have the artifact for his ephemera collection (since it was just laying around the van anyway). Apparently Roger gave it up gladly claiming “to have plenty of them”. Wha?! Sometime after that point the cosmic communique was left on the speaker where I found it. But frankly Ken did not seem entirely sure about any of this, really. Maybe its more plausible that Sun Ra did drop it off.
Wherever the thing came from, it got me sleuthing around again about the OVC. I returned to Dave’s book, of course. Then I went looking for digital crumbs on the internet which I have assembled together here for you. This re-search turned up the following known and semi-known bits of additional info arranged in a rough timeline of the OVC and its interconnections with the Arkestra via Bill Sebastian and the Jonzun Crew.
1973 – Keyboardist/inventor Bill Sebastian is playing with the Johnson Brothers and invents a keyboard light show that plays the band’s name in lights. Perhaps the fractal-electronic seed of the OVC had been planted. Go read the whole awesome interview with Michael Johnson (did you know he and Maurice Starr did a bunch of backing tracks at Sugarhill, for example?). That same year, Sebastian sees sun Ra play in Boston (where was this show?) and spends the next five years building the OVC.
Sometime before 1977 – Sun Ra and the Arkestra play at Paul’s Mall in Boston. According to Warren, they were promoting Space is the Place so this show had to be before 1977. Please go see his amazing pictures of this show. Here is one I borrowed for this post.
1977 – Sun Ra plays the Cyclorama in Boston. No info on this show yet.
1979 – Sun Ra plays The Modern Theater in Boston. This is a week (or two) long run at which The OVC appears for the first time. Waren’s recollection of the show contains a nice reference to the OVC:
“He [Sun Ra] was to perform at a now-defunct theater in Boston, and it was to be a week-long run in which the Arkestra was joined by light artist Bill Sebastian, who had crafted an extraordinary device (the Spacescape light organ) that gave a dazzling visual accompaniment to the music. The photos of Ra and the Arkestra on the back jacket [The Other Side of the Sun] were taken during the band’s two-week stint at Boston’s Modern Theater in 1979. (Obscure digression: if you happen to see the film The Verdict with Paul Newman — filmed in Boston around the time of these shows – watch for the distinctive triangle-shaped flyer for these shows next to him in the scene where’s he’s chatting on an outdoor payphone.) Anyway: Two photos on the rear jacket of this LP show members of the band playing in front of Bill Sebastian’s eyeball-melting Outerspace Visual Communicator, an amazing light-sculpting device”
1980, June 26-29 – Mass College of Art. The OVC was clearly in full effect at this point, as was its inventor, who apparently spun around dressed as some kind of space Wizard. Perfect.
1984 – Sun Ra visits a new “OVC-3D” at the Johnson Brother’s studio, Mission Control. Somewhat earlier in 1982, the OVC was placed at Sebastian’s Munster-esque mansion in Roxbury, MA.
1986 – Sun Ra’s “Calling Planet Earth” video is released. Bill and Jonzun worked on this video with the Arkestra and it contains the best footage I have seen of the OVC (though it is still a little unclear to me how many of the effects were done with the OVC and how many were post production). The video once lived on the YouTube, but the only version I can find now is this one which I scraped off of the web:
Can we get a reissue/better version of this, Bill? Anyone?
More recently, rumors have been circulating around town that Bill and/or Sun Ra may be rebuilding the OVC. There is a tantalizing video called “The Return of the OVC” that claims to be footage from 1986. I can’t be sure what it all means but I hope posters about it keep showing up.
I’ll be looking into all of this as soon as I get that Pyramidal Subwoofer built. In the meantime, keep your eyes out for the OVC (or at least another poster). It may be appearing soon at a future mythical reunion show near you.
This one doesn’t need much explanation. Some time back I slowed down this classic from the Beantown boyband diaspora and did a little live delay work and scratching with a similarly syrupy track from a slightly earlier Boston band (bonus PhDj points to anyone who guesses what I am cutting up). Anyway, this one goes out to all the screwed hearts out there on this Valentine’s Day 2012.
Here’s your formula for success tonight: <3=CTRL+ALT+DEL
Last week after Beat Research, I was so inspired by Trizlam and his “piquito sound system” that I came home and was rockin’ decks into the wee hours (as I do after the best of these nights). Earlier that day I had been to Stereo Jack’s where I scooped up some wax I had not yet digested and I was glad to have them waiting for me when I got home.
Among the new arrivals was a 12″ of Crosseyed and Painless (a personal favorite). When I dropped it on at 33 it was naturally screwed (it’s a 45)! Glad to have stumbled on this little gem (I love naturally screwed records and to find one of an old classic was a special treat), I was blissfully nodding along when my neck noticed it was flexing with a familiar cadence – 95 BPM or thereabouts. Mmmm, nice. Hip-Hop tempo. Perfect for the late hour and mixological ramifications.
Feeling inspired, I snatched up the first instrumental I could find, which turned out to be Mos Def & Diverse – Wylin’ Out. Perfect. The result worked both harmonically and rhythmically (and perhaps in other ways as yet undefined). To me, the combo had special significance because I hear these tracks as two Beat Research classics (or at least Flack classics). Anyway, thanks again for the inspirado Beat Research. I hope you enjoy my Screw Up* of these two tracks.
*I call this a Screw Up because its kind of a mashup where one track is screwed. Not chopped, just screwed. And in this case, nearly naturally (though It did wind up in Live for a little finishing and I slightly reorganized the Mos Def track to make the choruses fit a bit better.)
Tonight I will have the honor of being in the studio at WMBR in Cambridge at the Musenomix show for an interview with hip-hop legend Kool DJ Red Alert!! Clearly the man needs no introduction. Tonight, Dana and the dudes at Musenomix will celebrating his industry-defining career from 10PM – 12AM. From an early start as one of Afrika Bambaata’s DJs with cousin Jazzy Jay, to his 11 year run on NYC’s Kiss FM and much much more, this man has literally been there since the start and helped define the music that defined a generation. A true hip-hop legend.
For me, the night has a special personal significance as well. Although I never got to hear Red Alert live on KISS back in the day, my friend Rob used to tape the show regularly and bring these little time capsules of hip-hop culture back out to Indiana with him where we went to college together. Few memories are as sweet as driving all blazed up with Rob through the winding roads of Richmond Indiana late on a warm spring night rockin’ Red Alert’s show. That was back in 1988 or so.
Somehow, I wound up with one of these tapes and it remained a critical touchstone for me long before I ever picked up two 1200 and crappy Gemini mixer to begin my training. I used to listen to that tape and try to imagine the techniques the DJ’s were using cut, mix and strobe those records. Their ability to remix my favorite songs live in real time, literally made me want to become a DJ, which I eventually did.
Back in the late 1980s, I had yet to see any of those things done live and didn’t know any turntablists personally. So, like many aspiring DJs who came up before the proliferation of internet lessons, I tried to learn from the tapes and records I heard, imagining the techniques and slowly training my hands to do what I heard as best I could. In many ways, this tape has served as a goalpost for my own evolution as a DJ over the years. I have yet to make a mix even half as as good.
It remains a prized piece of my audio collection and a fond memory of my long departed best friend, Rob. Here are the first two parts for you. Headed off to the studio now to hear from a legend!
…was from Boston?!?! Back before Earl Simmons became known as the NY DMX, a Boston Beatboxer by the same name was tearing up local mics. I had not realized that the DMX we have come to recognize was also originally a beatboxer who got his start around 1984. I guess given the timeline, a DMX vs DMX battle was a possibility. Note to the hip-hop historians: Could we still put this battle together as a follow up to the infamous A-Train vs Solo Battle? (Yeah NYC, we won that one hands down). DMX (NYC) and DMX (Boston), you down?
Anyway, a while back I got a request for some Boston DMX and being the keeper of the tapes, it is my responsibility to provide. Here is the classic DMX/LeCarr routine from the Leccos Lemma show ca. 1986. There are so many amazing things about this routine to me. From the quotation of Trans Europe Express, Inspector Gadget AND the Pink Panther to the huge number of people in the background shouting and cheering along to the whistle beatboxing (which according to A-Train we invented) to the seamless tradeoffs between these cousins, it’s another example of how Boston was right there at the start (and all along really).
Simply put, Think Tree was one of the most important and incredible bands ever. They also happened to hail from Boston, MA. The story goes something like this. In 1986, all but one member had been in a short lived punk/keyboard outfit called Psychotech. According to this description from their last interview “It was kind of a hard-core techno band. It was sort of like a hard-core band with keyboards instead of guitars and we used to smash up keyboards and stuff.” In other words a punk/funk/keyboard outfit before the chili peppers OR nine inch nails or any of the bands that later blended hardcore and funk and/or keyboards and samples.
Consider the following historical factoids:
Meat Beat Manifesto formed in 1987 – a year after Psychotech had been tearing up stages at Boston clubs like Chet’s and the Rat and the same year Think Tree had its first show.
Nine Inch Nails started in 1988 – a year after Psychotech disbanded to start Think Tree. Think Tree had already been playing around Boston for a year by the time Nine Inch Nails was formed.
The seminal Chicago based industrial band Ministry was out around that time on Wax Trax, but they never had the groove and punk/funk angle that always found its way into Think Tree sets.
Think Tree included Peter Moore (keyboards), Will Ragano (guitar), Paul Lanctot (keyboards), Krishna Venkatesh (keyboards) and Jeff Biegert (drums). Their music and live performances blended punk/industrial aesthetics with progressive prog rock compositions played live with plenty of electronics. The video above is sadly one of the only ones on the web, but it gives you a good sense of the band at their prime. Just before the grunge tsunami hit and obliterated many lesser keyboard oriented bands, Think Tree represented the ultimate synthesis of keyboards and live punk/prog performance. In their reign as one of Boston’s most progressive and influential bands, they released Hire a Bird in 1989 as a 12″ single, a full length record “Eight / Thirteen” (which included “Hire a Bird”) in 1990, and the full length record “Like the Idea” in 1991. “Hire a Bird” was included in the Boston Phoenix’s Top 500 records of all time in 1999. They were also hilarious and irreverent to the end.
Here is a super funny interview with them on WMWM (Tufts University’s station) in 1991. It gives a good sense of their aesthetic and sonic palette as they keep interrupting the talk with goofy and ghastly electronic punctuations.
To say Think Tree was influential is to put it mildly. Rumor has it that they had a strong influence on early Nine Inch Nails (though they never did perform the Devo/Zepplin live mashup “Uncontrollable Hop” that Think Tree had planned for a special gust appearance with Reznor). Brian Eno was a fan as were many other forward thinking punk/progressive/industrial/electronic tweakers. They literally helped invent the genre “synthesizer oriented industrial prog funk”.
In the classic indy rock band story, their label Caroline Records never really gave them the support they deserved and so they never toured or got the distribution they needed to break out nationally. Once the grunge wave hit, lots of keyboard bands were kicked to the curb in favor of small guitar rock outfits with big narcotic habits. Although Think Tree paved the way for the genre, brainy synth punk was definitely out in the mid 1990s and their distinctly non-commercial aesthetic certainly didn’t help them convince the bean counters of their mass market potential. In 1993, Think Tree played their last show.
Krishna went on to form the even harder sounding El Dopa with his brother, Bassist Alex Smoller and drummer Danny Lee from Cxema. Will and Peter went on to form Count Zero, who continue the Think Tree tradition to this day. The Count Zero story is rich enough for its own long post (they have released 3 full length records, appeared in Guitar Hero, etc etc). More importantly, they are having a CD release party this Friday, May 13 up at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA.
Go see them Friday and be sure to scream out the titles of old Think Tree songs. If you are lucky, they might even play one!
Meanwhile, here is a little live mashup I made a while back with DJ Flack’s “The Story of O” and Think Tree’s classic “Hire A Bird”. Enjoy.