Look out for the OVC (poster)

OVC poster by way of Saturn

OVC poster by way of Saturn

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.

PakMan_Boston_Intl_Records

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.)

Sun Ra at Mass Art

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.

1978 – According to Tompkins (p. 117), this was the year Bill completed the OVC in Ore City, Texas. At around this time, Bill was placed at the Starsystems Loft on Thayer St. in Boston. Apparently Sun Ra and Bill spent some time together there using the OVC.

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”

Back of the Other Side of the Sun

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.

GuRumors

The strangeness gets stranger in the world everyday. I was reading Faraone’s tidy summary of the Gurumormill in the Phoneix this week and realized I needed to remove the “glad Guru recovered” P.S. from the webprayer post I put up when the news broke about his “coma”. Wtf? This would have been a total and unmitigated downermindfuck except that it got me rereading Brian’s thoughtful reflections on the passing of one of hip-hop’s greatest (imho). Anyway, since reality seems to be pretty much up for grabs at this point, I decided to do a little historical audio reconstruction myself. Here’s a little Boston scratch track I made that ends with a “lovingly corrected” version of Place Where we Dwell”.

Guru’s first tapes

Insane news of Guru’s coma today threw me for a loop. I thought there would be a lot of people out there in shock and figured it might help to hear some of the old tapes from before things got complicated. For those needing an update, the whole history has been recounted today by Dart Adams.
keith gangstarr spine
Here again (but this time set to video Ken Burns style) are the tapes Keith sent to Magnus at the Lecco’s Lemma show on WMBR in Cambridge in 1986. Among all the tapes in the boxes, he had the most by far (maybe next to DJ Prime – a strange coincidence actually). Its a sad day in Boston hip-hop whenever one of our own gets felled for any reason. Hopin’ for good outcomes and listening to these tapes is helping. Hope it helps you too. We know Guru always had Boston in his heart and recent years proved it. Peace.

Here are two of the tracks

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Epitome Spree

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Take a lesson

P.S.
SUCH great news that he pulled out OK. Man, I was praying hard in my way over here and I know a lot of others were too. Hopes for a fast and full recovery and many more years of dopeness! :-( WTF?!?!?

Europe’s Society Orchestra Animation Redux

Modern Dancing Delivery

This weekend, my pal Rob reminded me of the incredible book, Modern Dancing. The first time he showed it to me, I got obsessed and did some lame animated gifs from a photo I took. Since then I married a modern dancer and got a scanner. The combination was irresistible so I spent my weekend immersed again in this incredible tome. Here’s what I uncovered rediscovered.

Mr Ms Castle

Back in the teens, a high-society dancing couple named Vernon and Irene Castle made a name for themselves in Europe performing and teaching African American derived dances like the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. Returning to America in 1913, they found that social dancing and ragtime music were the rage in New York and quickly assembled a show to capitalize on the craze. As the story goes, because their dances “required syncopated music of a type that few New York bands were playing at the time” they needed a band that could cut the mustard. They found one in Europe’s Society Orchestra, an African American band playing a syncopated kind of driving ragtime that was circulating just prior to the first Jazz recordings.

Europes Society Orchestra

James Reese Europe was already a successful African American band leader in New York when the Castles saw him performing with his band at a private party. The pairing of the au courant dancing of the Castles with the syncopated ragtime of Europe’s Society Orchestra created an extremely popular show which went on to break some important color barriers in American pop culture. In 1914, when the Castles were asked to perform at the top New York venues, white musicians objected to having black performers share the orchestra pit. The Castles refused to compromise and solved the problem by having the band join them on stage. Apparently, this was the first known appearance by an African American band in a major vaudeville theater. Their 1913 Victor recording was also the first by an African American band on a major label. More on that in a minute.

As part of all this excitement, in 1914 the Castles published a book called Modern Dancing, which was an instructional manual complete with plates from a film (perhaps the newsreel Social and Theatrical Dancing 1909-1936). The book is available from a few locations including Archive.org and Google.

Unfortunately, none of these sites provide a re-animation of the plates themselves. I could not resist. Here are some simple re-animations of the classic Castle plates showing Europe’s Society Orchestra playing along. While I have not been able to sync them up to music yet, the following MP3 of Castle House Rag and Castle Walk will give you a good sense of the vibe.

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Castle Walk 8 Step

Castles 8 Step

A note on my methods may be of interest here. Because these plates are probably excerpts from longer segments, the frames are not always continuous. Nevertheless, I decided it was worth having all the plates for a given dance together even if it adds some choppiness. I also used really low tech approaches (e.g., an orange highlighter and time) and certainly don’t claim any film restoration expertise. If it looks amateurish, that’s because it is. Here’s what I did.

Modern Dancing Prep

First, I cracked a bottle of wine and put on some appropriate music (the awesome Victrola Favorites worked perfectly). After scanning the plates, I adjusted them to get each one as vertical as possible. Then I used Photoshop to chop out each frame, trying to get them all the same size. I created a folder for each dance and saved all the jpgs for that dance in order in the folder. Then I used Adobe Image Ready to “import a folder as layers”.

Highligter Registration

This got them into Image Ready as a set of frames, but I still needed to line them up (register them). This proved a little harder than expected. Not only are the images different sizes, but they are not all continuous frames. Therefore, the image jumps around a lot. Since I was most interested in the music, I decided to stabilize them around the band and let the Castles dance where they would. I found a few spots that seemed to work as registration points (highlights on chairs, corners of tablecloths and the nicely positioned circle on the bucket in front of a table). Using a highlighter pen, I marked these. Then I stepped through each frame (and often back and forth) moving things around until the highlights were all lined up.

Voila. Very analog in a way, but pretty effective.

There are two things that are especially fascinating to me about the Castle/Europe story. The first is the apparently close synergy between the dances selected by the Castles and the songs recorded by Europe’s Society Orchestra (Castle Walk, Maxixe, etc.). It serves as a powerful reminder that the cultural artifacts we study as “firsts” are themselves the result of complex processes of gatekeeping, meaning-making, status and so forth. The second is the obviously international flavor of these plates.

Innovation-Cortez

Castles Cortez

Castles Maxixe

Castles Maxixe All

From the Cortez, to the beautiful Tango to the Brazilian Maxixe, the Castles certainly seemed hip to the latest global dance trends. They even provide some historical guideposts. “The Tango is not, as commonly believed, of South American origin. It is an old gipsy dance which came to Argentina by way of Spain, where in all probability it became invested with certain features of the old Moorish dances”. What’s more, the first recording made by Europe’s Society Orchestra was the tune Maxixe (though it’s rarely never included on Europe comps). I don’t know the story behind the selection of this Brazilian themed tune for the first song recorded by an African American band on a major label, but I’d love to hear it. In any event, with my pals tracking more recent/rapid diffusions of global dance/music trends, I love finding antique examples that seem so similar (if kind of slow mo) in their features.

So there you have it folks. The first real reanimation of these important documents of American pop culture history. I am on a quest now to find the original newsreel and have a good angle on its whereabouts. But if you know of a copy available somewhere, please let me know.

Meanwhile, here are some additional links and background info I used for this post.

James Reese Europe
@redhotjazz
@jass

Modern Dancing
@ Archive.org
@ Google books

Here comes the judge meme

I almost entitled this post “I discovered the first rap song” as a bombastic attempt to get some new readers over here while poking some regulars in the eye. Cooler heads prevailed, but it still seems a benign bit of bluster compared to say, James Chance/White’s claim to have “invented rap”. Certainly, titling a blog post something like, “I discovered the first rap song” pales in comparison – even if its just as big a fib. But its just too misleading for too many reasons. The truth is that I just want to share a song that my friend Wayne shared with me that he described (with a wink) as “the first rap song”. I think what he meant was, “here’s a tune where someone rhymes over an open breakbeat that most people don’t know about.” Needless to say, he got my attention (as usual).

Just to be clear, I don’t actually believe there was a “first” rap song. The first one that most people heard was certainly Sugarhill’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979. It was definitely the first one I heard. But others in the know were obviously aware of Fatback’s King Tim III which barely beat Sugarhill to the presses (but was far less well known in the end). But of course, these were just the first “recorded” rap songs. There were obviously countless earlier versions being performed at parties and less formal settings way back into the 1970s. Still think there was a first rap song?

At this point, academic approaches start to trace sources of the practices and things get dicey. Of course, there seem to be similarities among things like Jamaican toasting, the blues tradition of the dozens, the rhythmic vocal talkovers of R&B radio jocks, the slick street talk of pimps, jazz scat singing and even the musical storytelling of West African griots. But we need to be careful about holding these too closely. In particular, that last turn toward the motherland is particularly tricky as it gets you pretty close to reaffirming some ugly old stereotypes about racial origins of “the funk”. So looking for the first rap song is at best quixotic quest and at worst an affirmation of old racialist stereotypes. In fact, all of these practices probably played some role in creating the cultural foundations for the song form that would eventually come to be called (and more importantly marketed as) rap.

All I am really doing here is tracing the history of a song that is less often mentioned as one of these many potential sources. Specifically, the tune/routine “Here Comes the Judge”.

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Pigmeat Markham – Here Comes the Judge

While it was “discovered” by the mass market when it appeared in the late 1960s as a skit on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In in the 1960s, this routine had already been circulating around for some time in the “chitlin circuit”. Specifically, it was a signature routine for Pigmeat Markham, an African American comedian and performer who had been active since the 1930s and eventually became one of the most regular performers at the famed Apollo Theater. While Pigmeat was apparently annoyed that his routine had been appropriated by Sammy Davis Jr. for use on Laugh In, this exposure led to increased national recognition for Markham. In a strange twist, a novelty version of the song was recorded by Shorty Long and reached number-four on the R&B charts and number-eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. Later that same year, Pigmeat himself hit the Billboard charts with a “cover” of the Shorty Long version of his stage routine (which had itself become popular through being “stolen” by Sammy Davis Jr. on Laugh In). If these layers of appropriation and commercialization are not complicated enough, it gets a good bit deeper friends.

While Pigmeat seems to have claimed the routine as his own, research suggests that he may have borrowed it himself. I think most will agree that its hard not to hear strains of old minstrel tropes in the Pigmeat version of the song (and certainly in the Laugh In routine). Knowing that this tradition included some fairly standard routines that were widely versioned (for example, Louis Armostrong’s versioning of the Bert Williams’ Elder Eatmore routine). It got me wondering if there was an even earlier version of this routine lurking in the history of minstrelsy.

Sure enough. A little digging uncovered an old routine by Bert Williams called “Twenty Years” in which he plays cruel judge Grimes who doles out unreasonable punishments for non-crimes like “slipping on a banana peel”. Not only are there similarities in the content of these routines, they are both done in rhyme. While the 1917 Bert Williams routine does not use a funky breakbeat as an intro, it does feature a similar rhyming pattern. Pretty cool. Not only that, apparently Bert Williams was an early mentor to Pigmeat Marhkham. It seems likely that he would have known this routine.

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Bert Williams – Twenty Years

Apparently, the courtroom skit was one of the scenes used in minstrel shows as early as the middle 1800s as part of a larger set of parodies of professional occupations. Willaim Mahar’s Behind the Cork Mask (p. 75) suggests that the Christy Minstrels had a judge routine for example. Given the extent of standardization in minstrel routines, it seems likely that the judge skit has a long history indeed.

OK. To recap. Here is a song that was described to me as “the first rap song” that starts with a funky breakbeat and a rhythmic rhyming vocal that likely traces its origins directly to a routine done by one of the most famous early African American performers, Bert Williams. Phew. But imagine this, it gets deeper still.

Some googling and crowd sourcing found examples of the “here comes the judge meme” in reggae as well. Specifically, in 1967, the year before the Shorty Long and Pigmeat versions, Prince Buster did a tune with a very similar theme called Judge Dread. However, in this version, the judge is now a righteous force judging real world rude boys for crimes like killing other black people. Finally, there is the Wailers version which continues to transform the message to one of righteous judgment of all oppressors. This version flips the silly and cruel judge of minstelsy into a divine and righteous judge sentencing a long list of oppressors including Francis Drake, Alexander the “so called” Great and in an interesting similarity with the minstrel tradition of ironic lyrical inversions, Christopher Crumbulous.

And around it goes.

Cuz Faulkner’s Books Bibles and Records

Cuz Faulkner's 1965 Desk Close

Rob Chalfen came by recently to listen through some more of the Lexington 78 haul. Along with the Brian Rust book, he brought some recently discovered pictures of his original Wax Vallhala – Cuz Faulkner’s Books Bibles and Records on Columbus Ave in Boston, MA. (Close inspection of the picture of the facade makes me think it was 979 Columbus).

Cuz Faulkner's 1965 Front

As any reader of this blog knows, Rob is both a good friend and a walking encyclopedia of early music of the African diaspora. By the age of 12 he had absorbed his family’s pretty extensive 78 collection and was taking trips from the family home in Newton down to the South End to dig for old jazz and blues records in the prodigious piles at Cuz Faulkner’s.

ChalfenAtCuz Faulkners1965

I was particularly struck by the confluence of pictures and dates here. All these shots are from a trip Rob made in March, 1965 with his dad (who brought the family camera). He was 12 1/2 and already knew more about early jazz than most of us will absorb in a lifetime. Rob pointed out the MLK calendar above the desk and noted that it was jut one month before he was to arrive in Boston to lead a march of 50,000 on Boston Common.

Cuz Faulkners 1965 Chalfen Diggin

Sitting here this MLK day 2010, with with images of Hati and Cuz Faulkner’s crossing paths on the internet, it feels like the world is simultaneously imploding on itself and launching new technoutopic wonders distractions by the moment. I stare into these old photos longing for a simpler place and time. Of course, that moment was no less horror filled (Kennedy was killed in ’63 and the cascades of calamities in ’68 were a mere three years hence). But somehow, the notion of a white pre-teen record geek from Newton taking the trolley down to sift through Cuz Faulkner’s 78s in search of the origins of jazz provides some strange solace. I guess it just makes me long for a dusty room full of records, the optimism of youth and the sense that the future was yet to be written. For whatever reason, sitting here at the end of history, this little window into a not so distant past feels comforting. Like its not so far away after all.

Anyway, I have been so fascinated with these shots and struck by the timing that I e-mailed Chalfen asking for more detail. Who told you about this place? How did you wind up with a Nat Hentoff curated record collection as a 12 year old? What do you remember about Cuz Faulkner and his place. Here’s his reply.

[Snip]

Lessee…. I think Henry Schwartz, the great Boston Expressionist painter & pal of my dad’s hepped me to it. He was a classical 78 collector & prob discovered it trawling around for Columbia Vivatonals…My dad dropped me off / picked me up on the occasion when he took these shots, but often I would just schlepp in there from Newton Corner on the trolley, hauling my portable phonograph…The owner had a helper who lived nearby on an upper floor, who’s name I think was Milton or Mr Milton, a thin, hangdog older black man – i would yell up at his window & I even tossed gravel up to his window to wake him up, no doorbell…after a spell he would slowly make his way down & open the place up for me…I could easily spend 5 hours in there without any consciousness of time whatever…Next door was a black barbershop – I wandered in there once on a break from my record trance, looking for small talk, and all conversation ground to a halt upon the the intrusion of the white boy. I only met Cuz on a few occasions…I recall him in a 3 piece suit, cigar, of somewhat florid speech, a neighborhood pontificator; or that could just be an artifact of my reconstruction. He always had a few friends hanging out in the front of the shop, shooting the shit; what they made of me I can’t imagine. On the date shown in the photos he regaled my father about how unusual I was, most kids today have no appreciation etc etc, while I clutched the bag of that day’s gleanings, one of my best hauls ever. When I got it home I found I had taken the wrong bag, or it had been switched on me, I never found out which. I got a bunch of Nat King Cole records of no interest to me whatever. Calls back to the place discovered nothing, or so they said. Evidently it had been sold to someone else. I was devastated. I can still remember some of the records I lost. Curiously, Nat King Cole died almost immediately therafter.

My mom was a typical hit parade/big band swing fan bobbysoxer of the late ’30s…she got the discarded records from the jukebox at her dad’s resort in Gloucester when the were changed over by the distributor, at least once a summer, mostly white big band stuff, Goodman, Miller, Dorsey. (Though I think her copy of “South” by Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (1928) came from it too). Her girlfriend dated Nat Hentoff when they lived in Dorchester, c ’39/’40, while he was at Boston Latin, see Hentoff’s excellent “Boston Boy – a memoir”, Knopf 1986. Hentoff was already doing radio in Boston at WMEX and wrote jazz reviews while at Northeastern. He was the jazz guru of their set, leading forays to the Savoy Ballroom and other live jazz venues, making sure they were steered away from Commercial Crap and towards the Real Thing. He would lead expeditions to Boston Music Company, Kreys and other downtown record outlets and recommend what was hep amongst the new releases, mostly the 4-record sets then being reissued of classic ’20s jazz for fans of ‘real’ (small combo) jazz, jazz record collectors and other unfortunates: King Oliver, Armstrong Hot 5, Bessie Smith, Frank Teschemacher, Ellington’s Cotton Club band, no Bix for some reason. Sets of early New Orleans Revival stuff like Bunk Johnson. Also misc stuff like pre-war Chicago blues (Big Maceo, Art Hodes), and then-current 52nd St small combo jazz (Cozy Cole, Jerry Jerome & his Cats & Jammers, Chu Berry/Roy Eldridge, Big Joe Turner, Basie, Ellington, Billie Holliday, Eddie Condon, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Muggsy Spanier, Boogie Woogie (Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis), Capitol’s 1943 New American Jazz set, Coleman Hawkins. This constituted the bulk of her collection, prob @ 200 records, which I discovered in waves at various points growing up. So to a great extent my formative musical consciousness was curated by Nat Hentoff. Plus my dad’s classical piano playing & records. Plus the jukebox.

My folks would stack them up on the changer when I was bored on rainy days, age about 4, and I would watch them spin with hypnotic fascination. ( I could go on in this mode but that’s prob another essay, this is only part of the tale of my wax obsessions)

[Snip]

Peace on this MLK day 2010 and thanks to all the people trying to bridge the false divisions among us. Keep the dream alive.

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