Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Godfather Of Soul Meets The Godfather of Hip-Hop

I've already talked about James Brown's dalliance with rap music in the late 80s, courtesy of Full Force; but that wasn't his first hip-hop project. In 1984, he released the collaborative single "Unity" with Afrika Bambaataa. there was a music video for it and everything, but I don't think it broke out of the smaller markets too much. And to make things a little more complicated, the original 12" has six different versions of "Unity:"

Unity Part 1: The Third Coming
Unity Part 2: Because It's Coming
Unity Part 3: Nuclear Wild Style
Unity Part 4: Can You See It
Unity Part 5: The Light
Unity Part 6: World III

I've never seen anyone attempt to break down all the parts and how they're different. And they are, it's not just a fancy way to label "Radio Edit," "Instrumental," etc. Well, not mostly. There's some very distinct, different music and lyrics at play here. So I guess, once again, it falls to me. Heh

"Part 1: The Third Coming" is the one they had the video for, the one Rapmasters included in their series of cassettes; and the one most of you are probably familiar with.

The music should be very familiar. Like how I said in my last James Brown video that he was being oddly cannibalistic by sampling himself, he does that here, too. Except strictly speaking, the band is replaying the same riffs, not sampling them. And when I say band, I'm actually talking basically about The Sugarhill Band. Even though this is on Tommy Boy, it's Sugarhill's house band: Skip, Doug and Keith. And they're sort of making a medley of classic James Brown music over hip-hop drums and synths, with some extra live horns. It's all great stuff, but it's not like we're getting fresh new James Brown grooves here. We're getting James ad-libbing over his old music while Afrika throws in the occasional short rap verse.

Yeah, that's the biggest shortcoming of this record. Bambaataa's rapped before and since, but there's a reason he was basically known as the DJ and had The Soulsonic Force and other rappers be his MCs. It's really a shame he didn't get any of the Force to kick proper rap verses on here - or, hot damn, could you imagine if they brought in Melle Mel? This project would be perfect for him. But instead Bambaataa handles all the MCing here, so the raps are very basic. They're fine; there's nothing wrong with them. He doesn't say anything stupid or sound terrible, and it's a worthwhile message. But I think that's what held this the top rank of hip-hop classics. If "Unity" had a "child is born with no state of mind" level verse on here, it would be on every old school rap compilation ever. And the famous hook, "Peace! Love! Unity! And having fun" says it all. The rest of the vocals don't really impart anything more.

Pay attention to James's acapella ad-libbing on the introduction to "Part 2: Because It's Coming" and you'll hear where Steady B got his hook for "Believe Me Das Bad" from. The Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump" also comes from here. This is a highly sampled record, actually.

Instrumentally, "Part 2" doesn't stray too far from "Part 1," with most of the same riffs recurring in the same pattern. But lyrically, it's totally different. Now Bambaataa's rapping against nuclear war and his fears of an imminent World War 3. This one's also got a bit of James actually singing, as he and Bambaataa go back and forth singing "all throughout the land." And some other outside vocalists even get in on it as well.

"Part 3: Nuclear Wild Style," like its title suggests, is more World War 3 future world problems. This one's got more of a punk feel to it. In fact, it has more of a Time Zone feel to it, specifically. James is barely on this one. He has his acapella instrumental, and about halfway through they start bringing some of his instrumental themes back in. But I have a feeling James wasn't even in the studio for the recording of this one; we never hear his voice apart from the intro. It's got a great bassline and some funky, more modern playing on it, which is cool. But it feels like Bambaataa's getting a little carried away at this point.

"Part 4: Can You See It" brings it back to the original. James is back, the original non-nuclear lyrics are back, the original horns and music are back. So what's different about it, what makes this one special? Well, every version up to now was about three and a half minutes long. This one's nine. It's basically a a giant extended mix of "Part 1." And it has stuff from "Part 2," too, like a shorter version of the "all throughout the land" bit. "Part 1" is the version with the most life beyond this 12"; but if you ask me, this is the preferable definitive version.

"Part 5: The Light" makes you want to see what they're doing in the studio while they're recording their adlibs, because James proclaims whatever Bambaataa's doing is going to wipe out the moonwalk. This one has some - but minimal - vocals and a lot more emphasis on the horns. That's really it. The production's a little more modern (for its time), and it's a funky little production pretty much created to give the horns their time to shine. Fun, but definitely the kind of thing that could only exist on a 12" B-side.

And finally "Part 6: World III" is an acapella. Always cool to get an acapella, especially for all the young producers out there looking to make their mark with remixes; but it's disappointing that they label it as a whole sixth "Part," because it makes you expect one more full version of the song, rather than just an element floating by itself. It's not even a complete acapella, really; it's just some parts strung together. All the isolated James Brown screeches have surely made a great DJ tool for a lot of heads over the years, though; and The Jungle Brothers used a crazy Bambaataa laugh as a distinct piece of their "Sounds of the Safari" instrumental.

Overall, it's a pretty fun record, albeit more for instrumental enjoyment than lyrically. It's also important just by virtue of what it is, historically: James Brown coming together with Afrika Bambaataa to make a record together, showing musical and generational unity as much as all the other types of unity they talk about in the song. Today, if Drake switched places with Justin Beiber, I'm not sure anyone would even notice. But in 1984, this kind of thing was a big deal.

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