Greetings pop pickers.
After writing a really very nice review of my new book It’s a London Thing in the last letter, Jed has kindly let me stage a takeover of this one. I’ve put some work into compiling a mixtape for you, working to his very strict instructions (make it like a Loft set by David Mancuso, he says, like that’s easy!) so here I’m going to go on like a pub bore about why I chose these particular 30 tracks, which, if nothing else, will give you some sort of insight into my taste.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…
We kick off with God Shall Wipe All Tears Away by Trio da Kali and the Kronos Quartet. I work at a university called SOAS, which stands for School of Oriental and African Studies (we don’t use the full name because everyone is a bit embarrassed about that ‘oriental’.) When I started at SOAS I knew quite a lot about funk and jazz but next to nothing about African music, except Fela. But SOAS is full of experts on the musical cultures of the Global South and through one of my colleagues, Professor Lucy Duran (not only an academic but also a brilliant World Music producer) I have learned a lot about African music and the incredible musical culture of Mali in particular. Lucy actually had a hand in forming Trio da Kali, three expert musicians (Lassana Diabaté on balafon, Mamadou Kouyaté on bass ngoni, and Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabate on vocals) all from one of the legendary griot families who have been making music in Mali for centuries. It was also Lucy’s idea to get Trio da Kali together with the San Francisco avant-classicists Kronos Quartet to record this amazing version of Mahalia Jackson’s blues spiritual. It’s from the album they made together Ladilikan, which is gorgeous and well worth looking out. Deep Black Atlantic spirit music, this.
I’ve been infatuated with music since my teens; as a record collector, journalist and DJ. And while I’m no musician, last year I joined a choir – South London Can Sing in Peckham – led by the great choir director Rubee Rose. It’s my first experience of actually making music, and though I’m hardly Luther Vandross, I love it, and getting a chance to sing with some really great singers (many trained in the black church) is a rare treat. Rather than hymns Rubee has us singing reggae and soul; like this one The Isley Brother’s Put A Little Love in Your Heart. I’m as godless as they come (I used to edit an atheist magazine) but singing this really does stir the spirit.
Carl Mackingtosh, the producer behind Loose Ends, is one of London’s greatest and most underrated producers, and Symptoms of Love is a soulful gem from the 1990 album Look How Long. There’s another track from the album coming up later in the playlist, it’s that good.
I like Michael Kiwanuka’s new album as much as the next guy – which is a lot judging by the end of year lists – but I’ve chosen Cold Little Heart from his previous album, Love & Hate. Me and the Mrs love a bit of crap box-setting and the theme tune was by far the best thing about the second series of Sky’s Big Little Lies, a series about dodgy dealings among the wealthy Carmel crowd (it’s got a great cast – Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman – but they should have stopped at series one).
Last year at SOAS we had a screening of the experimental indie-doc Film Festival Film and a talk with filmmakers Perivi Katjavivi, from Namibia and South African Mpumelelo Mcata. Turns out Mcata is also a musician and in a South African band called BLK JKS. Harare is the title track from their new album, which is very cool sort of Soweto funky rock.
There are dozens of great rappers in the UK right now, but there has always been something special about Roots Manuva in the way he can find profundity in simple phrases (like here, when he asks ‘why would you hide from yourself?’). This one is the latest collaboration with The Cinematic Orchestra – a perfect combination of Roots’ deep reasoning and building percussive orchestral funk. I recently found out Roots Manuva went to the same London school as me – Pimlico – which just makes me like him even more.
I did a panel discussion last year with Lex Amor. I didn’t know her work then, but she was so smart and interesting (she studied law before taking up music) that I looked her up after and found Mood, which I’ve listened to over and over again since. I love her layered vocals and the way she mixes up everyday problems (“O2 cut off my line”) with old-fashioned English idioms (“like it, lump it”, “been out here for donkeys”). False Ego’s beats are pretty tough. too. Don’t know what genre it is, but it’s very London.
I’ve been reading the proofs of a very interesting new academic book on black electronic music, which has a whole chapter on Darren Cunnigham (aka Actress), and it made me seek out his 2014 album Ghettoville, which is pretty next level. This little mutant r&b cut is probably the least far-out track on it but gives a sense of Actress’s experimental edge. Listen to the whole album while walking the streets of Crystal Palace, as he did when he composed it. It’s a mind-blower.
Ghetts has got a great voice, I think. Drill Work is from Swindle’s album from last year No More Normal. I love the way the track does a shout out of East London areas – Plaistow, Becton, Ilford, Manor Park, East Ham. To be honest it’s a close as I want to get to those areas, but that’s because I’m a South Londoner and don’t feel comfortable in the East. I had the grime DJ Elijah (who runs the Butterz label) come into my Music Business class last year to talk about how grime has built an independent music economy (own your masters, kids!) and he was a really smart bloke and no surprise that he oversaw such a great album, and also brokered the deal that got it released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. I love it when the club genres come together, reminiscent of when Talkin’ Loud were putting out Roni Size.
Another great person I met last year was the Jamaican academic Kim-Marie Spence. Kim used to write cultural policy for the Jamaican government, but now she’s an academic and writer. In the pub we had a great talk about dancehall, on which she is an expert, and she reminded me of this track, Clarks Pon Foot, which celebrates the Jamaican passion for a certain English footwear brand (there’s a good book about this by Al Fingers).
Told you I liked Roots Manuva; here he is again, guesting on a track by the NinjaTune artist Dels from 2011. Over a crazy beat from Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, Roots lays into “pinstripe thugs”. The chorus – “times they are so treacherous, we need to stick together” – hasn’t aged a bit.
Run, Run is one of my favourite tunes of 2019. Here London r&b star Ray Blk adds her voice to the many in black music addressing knife crime and its consequences. Like TLC’s Waterfalls for the drill generation. Heartbreaking.
One of my gigs of last year was techno god Jeff Milles playing with afrobeat pioneer and Fela drummer Tony Allen at the Barbican. With just a drum kit and Jeff’s array of keys and samplers they turned the concert hall into an Afro-future rave. This is from their EP Tomorrow Comes the Harvest.
Just like Trio da Kali, Oumou Sangare is a Malian griot, steeped in the musical tradition of the Mande people, but fiercely contemporary. This remix of her Minata Waraba by Sampha is another futuristic afro-funk classic in the making.
The start of the next track takes the tempo down, and will give you a chance to grab a drink and dust off, before it builds back into a dancefloor killer. This one’s a tribute to Norman Jay, who taught me most of what I know about dance music at his warehouse parties and club nights in London. He used to use this Ramsey Lewis track to transition from the deep-listening soul to dancefloor funk at his Musicquarium nights at the Bass Clef in Hoxton School (which became the Bluenote, before falling victim to the gentrification which killed Shoreditch). Lewis always had great drummers, Maurice White, Isaac ‘Red’ Holt; here it’s Morris Jennings on the breakbeat.
When I DJ the next one is rarely not in the box (yes I do have a box). War’s The World is a Ghetto is, to my mind, a perfect piece of music; a lovely slowly building mix of jazz, funk and latin rhythm, flutes, horns and clarinet, which just keeps getting better. It’s a dancefloor destroyer, thirteen minutes of bliss. Don’t you dare skip.
Jumping forward almost twenty years, here’s what happens when British kids steeped in rare groove met an American gospel singer from the first family of funk. In my book I write about the concert the JBs gave at the Town and Country in Chalk Farm, promoted by Family Funktion and Shake and Fingerpop, where Femi and Marco first met Carleen Anderson, and the Young Disciples was born. All I Have in Me is the perfect blend of club beats, soul singing and beautiful song-writing. Hard to believe it was made almost 30 years ago. I played this at a New Year’s Eve house party and the 18-year olds loved it as much as their parents. Class is permanent (shout out to Gilles and Norman, again, who were running Talkin’ Loud when this came out).
Some funk tracks can get too psychedelic for the dancefloor – most dancers can’t stay with Blackbyrd McKnight’s guitar solo in God Made me Funky, I’ve found – but Larry Young’s Turn Off The Lights stays just this side of too crazy, and takes dancers into a kind of psychedelic ecstasy. I played it at a house party in November and the arty-crusty-techno crowd went crazy. First heard this one at Soul II Soul’s legendary nights at the Africa Centre, where it sounded like the funk of the future, and still does.
Singer, producer, rapper Donae’o has been making funky, r&b and grime for more than a decade. I love this arrogant James Brown-esque track from his 2011 album Indigo Child.
Tom Misch is from a new generation of London musician-producers mixing jazz with disco and other kinds of Black Atlantic dance music. Disco Yes is very chic and very Chic, and features a rising star, jazz singer Poppy Ajudha who was one of my SOAS student a few years ago (I remember helping her out with her essay on dance music in South London where she interviewed her Dad, who ran the Paradise club in Deptford in the ‘70s). Disco? Yes please.
Like Carl Mackintosh, Curtis Mantronic doesn’t get enough props as a pioneer of producer-led electronic soul. Got To Have Your Love, from 1990, was a big tune at the club I used to run at the Beachcomber in Brighton back in the early ’90’s. Hold tight my partners Danny O and Sam.
And by way of comparison here’s another Loose Ends tune from Look How Long. Very classy UK soul.
It might seem a bit of a leap from UK soul to the Shoom anthem Promised Land, but I don’t think it’s as far as it seems. Doing research for my chapter on acid house I discovered that Joe Smooth wrote it after he’d been on tour to the UK with Farley Jackmaster Funk and Darryl Pandy, promoting Love Can’t Turn Around. Joe wanted to make a Motown-feel track which celebrated the multicultural clubbing he’d seen on tour, so different from the racial segregation of Chicago. It’s proof that house music is in many ways just slightly faster electronic soul. After all these years, and all those plays, it still gives me the chills.
Now it gets jazzy. There’s been a lot of hype about the new London jazz scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all a hipster fantasy, but you’d be wrong. I was converted in 2018 in a church – the Church of Sound in Clapton to be precise – when I saw Ezra Collective with the Kokoroko horns interpret the Fela Kuti songbook. It was fucking sublime. This is them back together on the very Fela-ish Shakara from the Ezra’s worldwide award-winning debut LP You Can’t Steal My Joy (it’s a good album, but not a patch on the live show so go see them if you can).
The free jazz jam Steam Down in Deptford has been the crucible of new jazz in London for a couple of years, and they’re now branching out into recording. Free My Skin was one of Gilles Peterson’s tracks of 2019 and you can see why; spoken word, jazz and funky swing in perfect harmony. I’m doing a book event at Rough Trade East (link above) in February, and I’ll be joined by journalist and Worldwide.fm DJ Emma Warren who wrote a great pamphletabout Steam Down and why DIY spaces like it are so important. If you haven’t, you should read it.
Another of my gigs of 2019 was the young trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, who I saw at the other home base of London jazz, the Jazz Re:freshed night at Mau Mau bar on Portobello Road. He’s quite an orthodox hard bop player, reminiscent of Lee Morgan at times. This is him sitting in with the outfit Triforce (worth noting that most of these players are still teenagers). You can see them play the tune here.
These guys have a big future, the next guy has a big past. I remember seeing Stanley Turrentine at the Bluenote in New York in the ‘80s. It was all a bit touristy and heritage by then, and while it was a lunchtime show, the man could still generate serious blow. This is him tearing though The Beatles Taste of Honey, a record I go back to again and again.
Upstart is another band from the innovative London jazz scene, who specialise in improvisation. What I love about London jazz is that though the players have serious jazz chops they’ve been raised on funk, house, hip hop and jungle, and it shows. I also love the name, ‘Ill Considered’ is a great pun.
It took me moving to San Francisco to discover the UK pianist John Cameron, making funky jazz in the late ‘60s. Troublemaker is one of my all-time favourites, featuring the brilliant Jamaican flute player Harold McNair who came out of the same Kingston School – Alpha Boys – which gave us the cream of the ska and reggae players like Don Drummond, Tommy McCook and Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace (Burning Spear’s drummer, you can see him starring in the brilliant reggae film Rockers). I first heard this at the legendary Nickie’s Bar-B-Q on upper Haight street in San Francisco, big up DJ Andrew Jervis, who is now the main music man at Bandcamp.
No better way to finish than with the musical genius that is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, aka Nina Simone. As you can hear in her rendition of Love Me or Leave Me she was in love with Bach, and could have become the world’s greatest black female concert pianist if the Curtis Music Academy in Philly hadn’t be too racist to offer her a place. Just before she died they offered her an honorary degree, but by then it was too late, she had already become the world’s greatest piano-playing soul singer instead. There’s a great documentaryabout her life on Netflix which you should check out.
That’s it, hope you enjoy my playlist, and if you want to read about how club culture has evolved in London since the seventies, you might enjoy my book, It’s a London Thing.