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FROM ALICIA KEYS TO GREGORY ISAACS

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, May 09-10, 2009.

 

In this century, being a knowledgeable music fan is as much about following production credits and searching out sample sources as it is about collecting records or recognizing particular voices or instruments. This search could lead you nowhere or it could lead you to something as sweet and sublime as this week’s feature cover cut. But let’s go back to the beginning.

 

It was a couple of years ago when I first heard a nice bootleg remix/mash-up of the 2003 Alicia Keys hit “You Don’t Know My Name.” I was really digging that rhythm – gentle but funky; hype yet mellow. It gave the song that extra little something. It was weird but quite enjoyable to hear a record I’d already heard so many times suddenly sound so different. Of course, the original hit version of “You Don’t Know My Name” isn’t bad either – that chorus in particular sticks to your mind like candy does to teeth.

 

Not long after that, I got hip to the reggae mash-up, I came across a tune by the Main Ingredient named “Let Me Prove My Love To You.” If you haven’t heard that one yet, just wait until the ‘ooh-oohs’ and the piano trills kick in. (Got it? Yeah, exactly.)

 

I really had no idea; all this time I’d been thinking Alicia’s record was a wholly original composition. Now that I know better, listening to Alicia’s record gives me a subtler version of the feeling I get when I look over the edge of something ten or twenty stories off the ground. It’s sample-induced incongruity and it doesn’t feel all that different from vertigo. Each time, the melody takes that certain turn, your heart can’t decide who to follow: Alicia in 2003 or the Persuasions in 1975.


Getting back to the mash-up, that one is really out there, because you get two musical incongruities for the price of one. There’s the whole Main Ingredient vs. Alicia thing, but now there’s also a frickin’ reggae track playing the whole time.

 

As I said earlier, that’s weird enough on its own, but even weirder is that the reggae track sounds, which come across like it was made for the song. The vocals and instruments break at key moments simultaneously. I figured some bored, talented individual must’ve stayed up really late one night screwing around with the two tracks until they matched up just right.

A couple of weeks ago though, I heard Gregory Isaacs’ “New Lover” for the first time and I knew right away I’d been over-thinking the whole situation. The rhythm track of Gregory’s song is identical to the one used for the Alicia record – identical down to the intro, the breaks and everything else. I think the BPMs might even be the same.

Even if “New Lover” hadn’t been any good, I still would’ve been happy just to have located the source of that rhythm track (because, believe it or not, these are the types of issues that keep me up late at night), but as it turns out, Gregory’s record is a work of minor genius in its own right. It takes the standard ‘wishing her well despite this  broken heart’ conceit and adds a nice twist by throwing in an odd geographical reference and even a well-placed quote from classic cinema.

Gregory begins the song with: “You and your new lover / I hope you’re getting on just fine.” That’s pretty much the way it’s done in this type of song. And when he starts the second verse with, “One day your new lover will take away your sunshine / And your life will be filled with raindrops, teardrops…,” you go, “OK, I get it. It’s gonna be that kind of song.” It’s a pleasant lyric with a nice riff – standard pop-song sentiments expressed via standard pop-song metaphor.

Gregory is a well-seasoned professional though. His voice, even after all these years, still has that undertone of trembling helplessness that made his classic “Night Nurse” such an indispensable recording. So if you like the Lover’s Rock genre at all, you can’t help but be moved at least a little by “New Lover,” even if you have heard it all before. But let’s not write this one off as average just yet. Here’s verse three:

"Now, I became much stronger
When you went to live
With him in California
    
But I didn’t make no fuss
‘Cause a man in my position
Can’t afford to look ridiculous"

 

Oh, shit! Right? Now, we’re talking! The first thing that grabbed me about this lyrical turn is how, instead of carrying on with the standard ‘you’re going to regret it’ theme, Gregory seems to be throwing in the towel. Like, “Alright cool, she’s gone. I’ll just live with it.” But then there’s the reason he gives for not protesting: because a man in his position can’t afford to be seen doing something like that. (The first rule of pimpdom is “be cold.” If she wants to leave, let her leave. Hell, show her the door and have your driver take her to the airport.) It’s like he’s saying he would’ve tried to make her stay but he was bound by his position to let her go. Of course that begs the question, what position? He never says.

Another thing I like about the lyric is the California thing. It’s needlessly specific. And it’s precisely that specificity that lifts the overall theme from its mundane origins to a higher, better place. Why California? Probably no reason at all, but I like that he said it. Besides that, it’s audacious and kinda funny that Gregory decides to rhyme “stronger” with “California,” those being words that don’t actually rhyme at all.

 

We’re just about done here except that I happened to see online that the rhythm track for Gregory’s tune was itself lifted from an older reggae classic – Burning Spear’s Columbus.” I’d heard Columbus before but I wasn’t making the connection; I didn’t recall any similarity between the two songs. So I quickly, um, ‘acquired’ a copy of Columbus and gave it a spin. This time I heard it right away. The tempo is a lot slower and the horns sound a little different (a trained musician would know why – I’ll just have to settle for ‘different’), but Gregory is definitely rocking a replayed version of the Spear rhythm.

 

And even if he wasn’t, you can’t go wrong listening to that dry and heavy moan of Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney hurling epithets (‘gangster,’ ‘damn-blasted liar’) at ol’ Christopher Columbus.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.



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