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Funky Old Patina

Raphael Saadiq and Big Moe Crib Soul and R&B and Hip-Hop and Rap and Jazz and . . .

By Tony Green | Posted 9/25/2002

In my younger days, back when a fifth of vodka and a meat lover's pizza didn't require convalescent planning, I fought for every little bit of musical/philosophical turf I could. Sacking prefab aesthetic fiefdoms was a good part of my reason for living ("Rick Wakeman is the best prog-rock keyboardist? Shit, what do you call Jan Hammer, and don't say jazz"). Now, I generally don't have the energy.

So when an anti-rap caller to my radio show asked why I was playing the title track to Big Moe's Purple World on a show that was supposedly devoted to soul, funk, and funky jazz, I pulled out Raphael Saadiq's Instant Vintage, determined to prove that anyone who liked funk and soul and didn't like rap was either an idiot, a racist (yes, I consider it racist to celebrate black artists after they enter their nonthreatening dotage while offering a backhanded slap to contemporary black artists), or had parents who had the same last name before they were married. But somewhere between that and the end of the Moe tune, my "why bother" hormones kicked in and I tossed on something else.

Any halfway decent music head should have sent that situational softball into the cheap seats. Then again, that caller's brand of reasoning is so prevalent nowadays that softballs come at you from every angle, at all times and wholly unexpected -- the average listener's perception has been clouded by decades of institutionalized crossover conditioning. With this in mind, you might excuse someone for not seeing that a codeine-jonesing Texan and a sweet-singing, boho soul auteur have more in common than not.

Saadiq's Instant Vintage is more explicit in its references to mainstream-familiar sources, making it a more readily identifiable "soul" album. Part of that is because Saadiq's influence is one of the most pervasive in the entire modern soul genre. Besides breaking analog-flavored ground with the group Tony! Toni! Toné! in the early '90s, he penned D'Angelo's "Lady" (D returns the favor by singing on Vintage's "Be Here") and brain-trusted Lucy Pearl. Other influences are those that even fans of "Jammin' Oldies"-style radio would recognize. Prince, for one--when he was still in his teens Saadiq played bass on tour with Prince during his Purple heyday. The spare navel-gazing "Bobby Ray" could be an undiscovered missive from Mr. Nelson's '80s prime or, if you prefer, a nugget from Sly's Riot era. "Blind Man," meanwhile, takes a page from the Al Green handbook, enough to make you take the disc-opening interlude tracing Saadiq's bloodline to the Deep South more seriously.

But familiarity and accessibility don't translate into pandering and formula, at least not where Saadiq is concerned. "Doing What I Can"'s violin-laced blaxploitation-era textures are more Dolemite than Goldmember. And despite his neo-soul tag, Saadiq is clearly a product of the hip-hop era. Forget his name-checking of Tupac and Too Short. His ear for texture (see if you can catch the snippets of cello and tuba) and beatology is closer to what you'd hear in the Neptunes than your average soul revisionist.

Moe's Purple World, one of the flat-out funkiest albums of the year, occupies, like Saadiq's disc, several places at once. Hip-hop? Sure, especially with a roster of Sun Belt hip-hop guest stars like Lil' Keke, Big Pokey, Pimp C. of UGK, and Project Pat of Three Six Mafia. But musically, it follows the mold of its Southern and West Coast funk-rap predecessors who made their cheese by breaking off huge chunks of classic soul and funk. Or, to be more specific the stuff that never made it out of the "urban music" pigeonhole during the plantation-styled '70s and '80s radio scene. The Chronic's rap, not funk, status is largely due to '90s alternative-rock-sotted scribes who couldn't tell a Leon Haywood track if it bit them in the ass (which it did, in Dre's case).

This kind of nuance is lost on many casual funk and soul fans, who are good for declaring the stuff that made it to their part of town "authentic." But folks who were into soul and funk from the beginning usually didn't distinguish between the crossover and noncrossover stuff. Purple World, equal parts underleg funk, glossy R&B, and pimpadelic Southern rap, is a perfect example. Moe's drugged-out drawl rivals George Clinton's for sheer sloppy joy, making him sound like a man emoting from the postop recovery room.

And Moe's voice adapts to pretty much anything Purple World throws at him. The goofily funky "Purple Stuff" (a reference to the cough-syrup-and-soda concoction favored by many in the Southwest hip-hop family) revisits the synth-bass-laced sound of the late '70s and '80s. "Still Da Barre Baby," with its kid-vocals hook, borrows from some of Bootsy Collins' more kindergarten-friendly tracks. Other tunes step outside of the funk canon. The skirt-chasing "Dime Piece" glances at Tom Brown's "Funkin for Jamaica." while "Confidential Playa" and "Parlay" work in sly references to Maze and the Isley Brothers. And "S.U.C." (An ode to his crew, the Screwed up Click) revamps Grover Washington's smooth-jazz/pop nugget "Just the Two of Us"--the kind of tune that the parents of your average suburban rap fan likely dismissed as schmaltz.

That's nothing new, when you think about it; by rap standards, it's cliché (think of Notorious B.I.G.'s riff on Herb Alpert's "Rise"). But while context is pretty damn important, it's even more important to see where contexts intersect and overlap, so that askance-looking devotees of spuriously segregated styles might be encouraged to see what the other fella has going on in his yard.

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Bootylicious (4/24/2002)
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