back-to-black-anniversary back-to-black-anniversary

Amy Winehouse's 'Back To Black' Was A Magical Yet Haunting Foreshadowing

...because what's inside her never dies.

Pretend for a moment Amy Jade Winehouse's ending isn't documented, that she never joined the wretched 27 club and her downward spiral—south of the musical greatness she so effortlessly dwelled in—didn't begin as tabloid fodder and later morph into sadness and grief by fans and music lovers the world over.

Make believe the beehive, winged black eyeshadow and tattoos weren't sold for profit as mock Halloween costumes the year she passed, and instead is just an outward declaration of her respect for singers of yesteryear, as well as her individuality from the littered pop-music scene.

Think back to the first time you heard her booming voice; full of color, texture and layers and that moment you assumed Amy was surely a jazzy, bluesy black girl from a jazzy, bluesy black town past the Mason Dixon, and not a white chick from North London.

Pretend that Amy finally worked on that third album and that Back To Black wasn't her final goodbye.

Pretend... just for a moment.

Amy's first and only top 10 U.S. hit would also become an eery reminder of what could've saved her. The Mark Ronson-produced and autobiographically written "Rehab" is Amy being the stubborn mule she is. On the doo-wop influenced track she sings matter-of-factly of her defiance—not pride—in refusing to enter a treatment facility stating she doesn't have 70 days when all she really needs is the wise words and melodies from Donnie Hathaway to cure her blues. And on top of her conviction, she believes she's justified because after all, her father thinks she's fine.

The insanely sticky single made Winehouse and Ronson the industry's newest darlings. Radio couldn't get enough of "Rehab" and David Letterman invited the singer and her fleet of black men background singers to his late night show back in March of 2007. "Rehab" would later become her lyrical suicide note we all placed in our spam folder when sh*t was sweet, and then went digging to find for clues when we learned of her heartbreaking, yet unsurprising death. "Rehab" (no pun intended) was the perfect cocktail. It was honest, fun, tongue-and-cheek and sounded like you finally found the original song that had been sampled by an unworthy artist. It gave you Motown vinyl feels with its robust horns, rhythmic claps and rolling drum patterns. Amy created pop music, yes, in the sense that it was popular, but there was nothing artificial about the sound she developed, or the addiction that enveloped her.

I told ya I was trouble/Yeah you know that I'm no good.

When fans heard the lyrics to Back To Black's second single "You Know I'm No Good," listeners should've taken heed because Amy knew Amy better than we knew Amy. Even while singing of cheating on her beloved Blake, the man whose name is tattooed over a pocket square right above her left breast, we were enticed. We wanted more of the trouble she sang of because whenever Amy sang—whether it be of her drug addiction and alcoholism, or the f**kery caused by Mr. Jones (a song aptly titled "Me & Mr. Jones" rumored to be about her friendship with Nas)—it made us crave her. We'd all like to believe we're responsible, emotionally intelligent human beings, but fire, temptation and pain are bigger aphrodisiacs then we're willing to admit, and Amy's voice kept all of us aroused.

Somehow Ronson, Amy and Salaam Remi, the album's second producer, decided 2006 wasn't a suitable time to be in musically and transported all of us to a place where live instrumentation was dominant, and like lap dogs panting at the sight of our owner, we followed.

The album's first real left turn comes with "Just Friends." While the horns are still palpable on the track and throughout the entire 34 minute album, the heavy island influence is new to the listener's ears. It isn't overwhelming, though. Remi somehow fits it quite snuggly into the pocket and theme of the entire project, but you can't help but feel like you're in Negril, where Jamaican men beg the DJ to replay the chuunnne. While Remi is tight lipped about his relationship with Amy, he still keeps her close with a photo of the two embracing that sits on top of his office desk.

Amy doesn't opt for the big Celine, Whitney or Mariah riffs. Instead her power is demonstrated in the slight tremors of her voice, the cascading notes that fall from her mouth like sweet rice grains and the overall depth of her voice. Amy's voice stains you like red wine. Once you hear it, you can't un-hear it.

One I wished, I never played/Oh, what a mess we made/And now the final frame/love is a losing game

Perhaps the album's most relatable track and proper ballad is "Love Is A Losing Game." With her rich voice that echoed of hopelessness and defeat, Amy describes the hurt and anguish one experiences when your love affair expires. Maybe Amy was singing of the break up between her and Blake, or spoke to a friend and interpreted their turmoil, but either way Amy sang away the salt in our wounds on the days when we could manage the separation, and then punctured what we thought were healed wounds with her soulful voice on other days. Amy could do that, love you then hurt you and all she had to do was stand in front of a microphone.

At the 50th annual Grammy awards, Amy walked away with Record of the Year beating out Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna and Jay Z's "Umbrella" along with Song of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for "Rehab." The elder statesmen of the evening, Herbie Hancock, took home album of the year with his River: The Joni Letters. But it's all to the good, the world was convinced. Amy had "it." Whatever "it" is, she owned it and freely let her fans bask in it. But despite our pretending and our unhealthy belief that good art can only be spawned from a self-destructive artist, this good time with good music would only last for so long.

Amy began to forget the words to songs she wrote. She was visibly intoxicated, stumbling on stage or just completely out of it. Amy—already a tiny Jewish girl before the drugs and alcohol—started to look frail, weathered and worn. Unflattering photos of her began to litter the Internet and our once bluesy beloved chanteuse was now drowning in her own personal hell. She was losing the battle of addiction, and all we did was sit on the sidelines and watch, laugh, judge and shake our heads.

On July 23, 2011, Amy's bodyguard found the singer in her bed unresponsive. According to reports, the 27-year-old died from alcohol poisoning. The "Rehab" she sung about and refused to go to was now a sick facetious joke. It was no longer in good taste to sing or hear the song. It was a horrible told-you-so laid to bed atop professional musical production.

Amy's rise and death allowed for other artists to have an easier transition to fame. Adele, Lilly Allen and others were all given a chance and not mocked before singing a single note because of Amy and Back To Black. The TRL generation now accepted beautiful rhythm and blues could come from across the pond. As a fan, would I rather have Amy here than savor the last record she offered and surmise about her future greatness? Of course, but death, as permanent, dark and scary as it is, is alluring and once again, Amy ever the seductress trumped us all.

Maybe it's better this way, y'know? Are we emotionally advanced as a society to truly appreciate great talents while they're still alive? Or do they only merit their rightful praise once they're gone and we can't critique their work, tear them apart and try to connect the dots of their personal woes made public with their lyrical content? Back To Black still sounds like nothing we've heard to date and it's 10 years old. We didn't deserve Amy's voice.

She told us she was no good and we didn't believe her. Yet despite the talent, the hearty voice and the wild troubled soul, maybe Amy knew her time with us would be short. After all, she did name her final album Back to Black.

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Music Sermon: Classic Conscious Posse Cuts For The Hip-Hop Generation

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

The year 1985 saw one of the biggest moments in music history when Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson gathered pop and rock stars from across the musical spectrum as U.S.A. for Africa for the anthemic “We Are The World,” raising funds for short and long-term humanitarian aid throughout Africa.

The following year, Dexter Scott King was inspired to create a similar moment. After decades-long efforts in Congress with pushes from public figures and notable artists, his father Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was finally being observed as a national holiday. King wanted to tap younger energy - the growing hip-hop generation – to put a spin on “We Are The World” in commemoration of the first MLK Day.

King reached out to Kurtis Blow, who’d been part of a mass anti-apartheid project the year prior. “I get a call… he says, ‘Hello, Kurtis. I want you to record a song for my father.’ I hung up on him,” Blow told Vlad TV. “He calls me back, ‘I’m serious, I’m Dexter Scott King.’ I said, ‘You playin’.” Kurtis finally realized nobody was playing on his phone, and they got to work. With Blow as producer, King and co-writer/co-producer Phillip Jones assembled a who’s who of young hip urban and urban crossover artists. “Anyone who was too young for ‘We are the World,’” he explained to Vlad: El Debarge, Stephanie Mills, Whitney Houston, Lisa Lisa, Full Force, Stephanie Mills, Teena Marie, Menudo (featuring young Ricky Martin), New Edition, Stacy Lattisaw, James JT Taylor, Whodini, Run-DMC, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Fat Boys and Kurtis.

They planned to shoot a video at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change — the designated recipient of all proceeds from the song — to give it a proper spotlight, but they needed money. A benefactor showed up in the form of Prince. Yes, that Prince. According to Kurtis, The Purple One donated $90,000 for a visual.

At this point, supergroups for a worthy cause weren’t a brand new thing. Prior to “We Are The World,” there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for Ethiopian Famine Relief. In 1985, Artists United Against Apartheid released “Sun City,” but it was nowhere near as big a hit or pop culture moment as the other two.

“King Holiday” was the first of these event songs for us. For something specifically and directly connected to and about us.

After that, black musicians teamed up were several other socially-charged collaborations that took on issues close to home or challenged us as a community to do better–and then there weren’t any more of them. It could be because of lack of incentive, or abundance of egos. Or shrinking of artist pools in some areas, or the shrinking of budgets overall. It’s certainly not due to lack of topical options. Whatever the cause, in honor of MLK Day, we’re going to look back at some of the great supergroup movement moments in black music.

STOP THE VIOLENCE MOVEMENT: “SELF-DESTRUCTION” – 1989

In the three short years between “King Holiday” and “Self-Destruction,” rap expanded from a niche genre to a full cultural movement. But along with that ascension came a growing affiliation with violence. In ‘87 and ‘88, melees were breaking out at rap concerts, and the art form was held solely responsible. Two incidents at New York’s Nassau Coliseum, one with a fatality, were the breaking point. Just as hip hop was coming into its own, it was in danger of stalling out. Media and community leaders were condemning rap as a negative influence. Venues started banning rap concerts, a pall hung that over rap shows and tours until the Hard Knock Life Tour ushered in a new era of all-rap shows more than a decade later.

The situation was dire. Journalist Nelson George contacted music executive Ann Carli with an idea: a posse cut with an anti-violence message. They took the name “Stop the Violence Movement” from a Boogie Down Productions song, and so appropriately enlisted BDP’s help. “This wasn’t about police brutality,” founding member D-Nice said around the song’s 25th anniversary. “This was about how we were killing each other and why we needed to put a stop to it.” The 17-year-old D-Nice produced the song, and BDP leader KRS-One laid his verse down first, followed by some of the best-known rappers on the East Coast: Ms. Melodie, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic and Just-Ice. Just was a controversial addition because he’d recently been accused of shooting someone, but his presence lent sincerity to the message. The video, shot in part at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was the largest gathering of rappers at one time to date. Beef was squashed, like former rivals DJ Red Alert and DJ Marley Marl pictured together at Scott LaRock’s grave. And though the record featured all east coast lyricists, Tone Loc showed up to rep the west in solidarity.

“Self-Destruction” was released on Martin Luther King, Jr Day in 1989, and received video support, but it didn’t get mainstream radio airplay. It still reached No. 1 on the rap charts in March and stayed there for ten weeks, driving enough sales enough to raise $500,000 for the National Urban League. The Stop the Violence Movement and “Self-Destruction” are still considered one of the most important moments in hip hop. The following year, the west coast took the baton.

WEST COAST HIP HOP ALL-STARS: “WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME GANG” – 1990

Even if you’ve never set foot on the left coast, you know that LA was embroiled with racial tension, gang violence and a confirmed distrust between the black community and law enforcement in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s the climate that birthed “F*ck the Police” and Boyz N The Hood. “All in the Same Gang” was created in the same spirit as “Self-Destruction,” but specifically addressing the violence between nearly 100,000 Los Angeles area gang members.

Michael Concepcion, a founding member of the Crips, conceived the idea after a shootout left him paralyzed from the waist down. He reached out to key west coast artists – some former gang members themselves – to float the idea. Once they were on board, he pitched it Warner Brothers Records. His path was no doubt made easier by the success of “We’re All in the Same Gang.” Additionally, hip-hop’s commercial viability was being recognized as a real thing thanks to Yo! MTV Raps, among other factors. Warner got on board. The single was produced by Dr. Dre––his first track that wasn’t for Ruthless Records––and proceeds were designated for LA youth organization Project Build.

The track featured 14 of the west coast’s biggest rap and rap-affiliated stars, including Tone Loc, Young MC, Digital Underground, MC Hammer, JJ Fad, Michel'le, Def Jeff, Oaktown's 3-5-7, and N.W.A. The video was shot in Watts at the Nickerson Gardens projects––Blood territory, but the Bloods and Crips provided joint security during a temporary truce. Again, assisted with the foundation laid by “Self-Destruction” and illustrating how far rap had come in a short time, the single surpassed the success of its east coast predecessor. It not only hit No. 1, but crossed over to the Hot 100 chart and earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.

H.E.A.L. (Human Education Against Lies): “HEAL YOURSELF” – 1991

KRS-One is hip-hop’s Al Sharpton. If there’s some organizing poppin’ off, he or Chuck D––who may as well be hip-hop’s Jesse Jackson––is in the mix. It’s what they do; it’s their role in the culture. KRS and Chuck talked about this during a Rap City takeover in 1992, “The reason I came up with certain topics like H.E.A.L. and Self Destruction, etc., is because of the need for black people to be organized…So we get most of the rappers together, we organize, say something of some relevance…With rap music, when it’s time to get busy, I can get on the phone with Kane and go,‘Yo Kane, what’s up?’ I can get on the phone with Heavy and go ‘Yo Heavy, what’s up?’ and they’ll be right there.”

KRS always had a focus on self-education. Distrust of the education system and messages from mainstream media was a prevalent theme in his music. The collective H.E.A.L., named for an acronym Human Education Against Lies, expanded on that as a movement against propaganda and false information. “Heal Yourself” features Kid Capri, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J (perhaps redeeming himself for not participating in “Self Destruction”), MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Ms Melodie, Jam Master Jay, DMC, Freddie Foxx and KRS-One kicking knowledge about education, colorism, drugs, sex, AIDS, domestic violence and politics. The collaborative released a full album, Civilization vs. Technology, but as the lead track, “Heal Yourself,” is the best-known.

B.M.U. (Black Men United): “U WILL KNOW” – 1994

All the black male singers in the known universe came together to create this uplifting theme song for the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack. “U Will Know” is one of those moments unlikely to happen again, simply because there aren’t enough artists to pull off an event outing of this magnitude. The death of R&B groups alone probably halved the potential roster.

Aaron Hall, After 7, Al B. Sure!, Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight, Christopher Williams, Guy, El DeBarge, Gerald LeVert, H-Town, INTRO, Joe, Keith Sweat, The Rude Boys, Portrait, R. Kelly, Silk, Stokley Williams, Tevin Campbell, Raphael Saadiq (on bass) and the Tony’s, Usher, Lenny Kravitz (also on bass). Yes, all of ‘em. Together. Same song. Your church’s Men’s Day Mass Choir could never.

But “U Will Know” is more than a soundtrack song; it’s now part of soul music lore. The gospel-infused track was written by a young D’Angelo, and his brother. It was the second song he’d ever written, on his first demo, and his publisher placed it for the film. He’s often credited the song with landing him his deal.

Looking back on the video now, he belongs amongst those artists and their voices and talents, but in actuality he was the new kid. “It was surreal,” he shared in a 2014 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “Here I am in a room with all my heroes.”

The track hit No. 4 on the Billboard R&B chart and cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100. But the biggest takeaway, if we’re keeping it a buck, is that Gerald Levert lowkey called everybody else his background singers.

“FREEDOM (The Theme from Panther)” – 1995

In 1995, it was the ladies’ turn, with a once-in-a-career mass assembly for the Panther soundtrack. “Freedom” originated on Atlanta R&B singer and Dungeon Family affiliate Joi’s super slept-on debut album, The Pendulum Vibe. Director Mario Van Peebles then had the idea to flip the Dallas Austin track for the Panther soundtrack and gathered, apparently, every black female artist signed to a label. Many reports say over 60 artists were involved, but VIBE cited 93 artists in its August 1995 issue – all for a monumental song and video.

“Freedom” was promoted as a tribute to the women who’ve fought in the trenches for liberation and justice like Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman (note: here’s a moment where it’s acceptable to evoke Tubman, rappers), Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. The collaboration encompassed female artists across multiple genres. The main edit featured Vanessa Williams, Mary J. Blige, Zhane, TLC, Aaliyah, Caron Wheeler, Pebbles, Xscape, Brownstone, Karyn White, Amel Larrieux, Monica, En Vogue, Joi, Queen Latifah, Patra, N’Dea Davenport and Miss Jones (seriously, everybody with a deal) on vocals. (In a cute parallel to “You Will Know,” vocal arrangement was in the hands of a not-yet-known Angie Stone).

There was also an all-rap version with Patra, Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, Left Eye, Yo-Yo, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello (Spoken word. Rap. Same.). The lyrics addressed standing up to racism and oppression, but also fighting against misogyny and sexism, all through sisterhood.

“I represent not only in the kitchen and the bedroom / But also in the boardroom so give me more room / Deny my opportunity, you in jeopardy / Yo, yo, set me free, don't hinder me, let me be”

There's only one thing infuriating about “Freedom:” there’s so little story around it. Nothing like this had ever happened before and will probably never happen again (there aren’t enough artists!), but there’s no easily-found behind-the-scenes footage, no EPK interviews, no making-of documentation. This was obviously conceived to be a moment, but wasn’t documented as such, which is a loss to music history. There’s not even a mass choir name!

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Over the years, these supergroup projects continue to pop up occasionally as world events call for them. There was even a “We are the World 25” for Haiti disaster relief. However, the art form of conscious posse cuts has fallen off. In 2015, The Game spearheaded collective of rappers and R&B singers for “Don’t Shoot,” a tribute to Michael Brown and in support of Ferguson, but it wasn’t a moment. There wasn’t the requisite in-studio-with-headphones video. In an age where artists can’t easily agree to outside projects without the label in a huff, when it’s not as easy to get on the phone with your peers the way KRS One did and summon them for action, and when verses can be sent via email with no direct connection with collaborators, the comradery and communion in these projects is lost, and that was the heart. Fortunately, time hasn’t dulled the relevance of these earlier moments.

PS: Somebody give MC Lyte the “Most Consistent” award for being in basically all of these joints.

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Ella Mai Puts The Ball In Your Court With "Shot Clock" Visuals

Kobe, KD, Kyrie, how about Ella Mai?

Marking her third official single from her self-titled debut album, the 24-year-old dropped a new video from her charting project, bringing "Shot Clock" to life in her B-ball themed clip.

The Colin Tilley directed visual captures the essence of the young singer, framing her unique style and iridescent vocal abilities. The clip captures the various parts of Mai's magnetic energy, as she stars in her own thematic love story.

The two-time Grammy nominee goes through the many downs that occur in relationships while the red beams of shot clock shine in the background slowly reaching zero, a neon indicator of her lessening patience, the singer finds herself alone.

This visual was released in the midst of the "Boo'd Up" songstress' first debut tour currently venturing through the United States and Parts of Europe. Check out the tour dates below to see if R&B's new golden child is coming to a city near you and watch her video for "Shot Clock" above.

THE DEBUT TOUR

Jan 18 – Berlin, DE- Festsaal Kreuzberg Jan 20 – Hamburg, DE- Grosse Freiheit Jan 21 – Copenhagen, DK – Vega Main Hall Jan 22 – Stockholm, SE - Berns Jan 24 – Oslo, NO – Rockefeller Music Hall Feb 12 - Vancouver, BC – Commodore Ballroom Feb 14 – Seattle, WA – Showbox SoDo Feb 15 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom Feb 17 – Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades Feb 19 – Oakland, CA – Fox Theater Feb 20 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst Feb 22 – Phoenix, AZ – The Marquee Feb 23 – Las Vegas, NV – House of Blues Feb 25 – Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre Feb 27 – Lawrence, KS – The Granada Feb 28 – Minneapolis, MN – Varsity Theater Mar 2 – Detroit, MI – St. Andrew’s Hall Mar 3 – Chicago, IL – Concord Music Hall Mar 5 – Cleveland, OH – House of Blues Mar 6 – Toronto, ON – The Danforth Mar 7 – Montreal, QC – Club Soda Mar 9 – Boston, MA - Royale Mar 11 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Steel Mar 13 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts Mar 15 – Silver Spring, M.D. – The Fillmore Silver Spring Mar 16 – Baltimore, MD – Baltimore Sound Stage Mar 19 – Atlanta, GA - Tabernacle Mar 20 – Orlando, FL – The Plaza Live Mar 21 – Fort Lauderdale, FL – Revolution Live Mar 24 – Houston, TX – House of Blues Mar 26 – Dallas, TX – House of Blues Mar 27 – Austin, TX – Emo’s Mar 28 – San Antonio, TX – The Aztec Theatre

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Smif N Wessun

9th Wonder Talks Collabo Album With Smif N Wessun And The Soul Council

A few weeks fresh off the 23rd anniversary of their classic debut album, Da Shinin', Brooklyn duo Smif N Wessun (Steele and Tek) have released the video for the soul smacking single, "Testify" produced by Khrysis, off their newest album, The All. The project, produced entirely by Grammy-nominated producer 9th Wonder and his Soul Council team, brings the hardcore feel of SNW's best work to the forefront.

“9th Wonder and the Soul Council provide the perfect backdrop for Tek and I to deliver heartfelt lyrical content,” Steele reveals directly. “It’s a true tale of ups and downs, wins and losses, growth and acceptance. It speaks to the hearts and minds of all people; particularly our followers and fans of all ages and ethnicities.”

When artists who rep a certain quality sector of hip-hop music resurface to offer newness to an audience, the longtime fans are looking to bring that old thing back while looking to reflect and push forward at the same time.

"'Testify' is a realistic reflective look back on our accomplishments and failures throughout our career and serves as a precursor to what you will experience on The All,” Steele continues. "This project is a reality check for SNW, one that reflects the struggles and obstacles that we’ve had to endure to survive at the level we occupy in the hip-hop arena."

9th Wonder took the project on as a lover of the group, "My goal is to make sure that we cement the legacy of the artist, but at the same time update the artist. We came up with the concept of  The All (based on a speech from Louis Farrakhan), you can never underestimate the essence of Islam in Hip-Hop. Given the fact that SNW are both Muslim and so many others are as well, we couldn't forget that part."

Going into new chambers of living is needed when you have been recording albums for over 20 years. 9th explains, "we wanted them to talk about stuff they wouldn't normally talk about on records, as they are in a different point in their lives, very grown man. It gives something to our generation to listen to, appreciate and celebrate without feeling old, without feeling outdated. We also wanted to let them know, the legends can still do it."

As the word legend gets thrown around a lot, it's not a far off title for the duo of Tek and Steele. "Some bestow the 'legend' tag upon us (we are very appreciative of that)," says Steele. "And we are chronicling that journey throughout the album.”

The full project will be dropping on February 22nd, 2019 on Duck Down Records. You can pre-order the album here and group merch here.

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