Friday, September 24, 2010

MC Shan Vs. Duke Ellington

"It Don't Mean a Thing" was the lead single off of MC Shan's oft - and understandably - maligned 1990 album, Play It Again, Shan.  That album, after all, featured the split from Marley and The Juice Crew, house songs, Shan singing(!) with some very cheesy computer manipulation to his voice, love songs, a duet with his wife and kid, and even a song by a girl group that Shan wasn't even featured on!  So, it's a bit of a mess*.  It was also his most heavily promoted and probably budgeted album - probably (though admittedly, now I'm just speculating) because he took every awful executive suggestion from the label and let them have their way at every turn.  But for all its myriad faults, it's an upbeat, enjoyable mess that at least has its moments.  And for me, "It Don't Mean a Thing" is one of them.

"It Don't Mean a Thing" is a pretty undisguised rap version of the old jazz standard "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" by Duke Ellington.  "IDMaTIFAGTS" (how's that for an abbreviation?) wouldn't be such a long-lasting standard if it wasn't a pretty catchy tune, so it's a reliable musical back-drop for Shan, who self-produced this song, and the rest of the album, along with co-producer John Ficarrotta.  So it's got a nice groove with some funky go-go percussion - a curious, but successful, combination.  And Carole Davis, who had her own album out on Warner Bros. at that time, sings a nice hook.  The horns do admittedly sound like they were played on a synthesizer keyboard, and Shan's lyrics are just your typical, unexceptional dance song lyrics ("As you can see, my rhymes are swingin' it, and when the punchline comes start singin' it").  Maybe I'm just too forgiving of the old school, but I get a lot of enjoyment from this song; and the lavish, jazz-era music video released at the time sure didn't hurt.

The 12" comes with two versions, LP Version and Fade.  The only difference between the two is that the Fade mix fades out twenty seconds earlier than the LP Version.  The longer version has a few more repeats of the hook, and Shan shouts, "pump it up!" at one point, but that's about it.  As you can see, it comes in a cool picture cover depicting Shan with four hands, and it's also b/w one of the better album tracks, "I Ran the Game."  The narrative-style lyrics are a bit corny but amusing, and the music's dope and the hook is a simple but fresh vocal sample.

So it's a cool, if pop and kid-friendly single, but the contents of the 12" are a bit underwhelming.  The only thing not on the album is a version that cuts off the last twenty seconds - who the Hell wanted those Fade versions Cold Chillin' used to do, anyway?  A DJ who wanted to fade the song out 20 seconds earlier could do that on his own easily enough, or he had no business DJing.  Oh well, regardless, it feels a bit like you're being short-changed on this one.  They couldn't throw in a remix, an exclusive B-side or at least an instrumental?

That's where this promo 12" comes in.  The "It Don't Mean a Thing (Remix)."  It's the same production team of Shan and Ficarrotta, but the music is completely different.  Shan's vocals and Carole's hook are the same, but all the music is completely different.  The drums are less go-go-ish, and all the chintzy horns and stuff are gone.  Instead you've got some subtle scratching, deep bass notes, some nice jazzy samples, a tuba loop, horn stabs, and an occasional piano riff.  If that sounds like a lot of elements, it is... the song as a whole sounds a bit too busy at times, and they would have been better off ditching the sung hook and just letting the scratching speak for itself at those points.  But it's definitely more straight-up hip-hop, and certainly a better sound than most of Shan's other stuff from this era.

Casual listeners will either just want to stick with the album version or pass on this song completely, but more serious aficionados who can listen to this with a more analytical ear will probably find it at least worthwhile.  It just doesn't quite work because the music doesn't really fit these vocals.  Or maybe more to the point, it's that the vocals just don't really make sense if they're not paired with a version of Ellington's music.  In other words... wait for it...  it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.  :P

*The LP was a bit less of a mess than the CD and cassette versions, however, as it left off five of the songs: "Ain't It Good To You," "Rock Stuff," "Clap Your Hands," "Mic Line," and "How I Feel About You."

1 comment:

  1. That almost makes me want to revisit the album again.