My night on ‘The Block’

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Let me tell y’all: In 1988, it was hard out there for a black boy who liked New Kids on the Block.

It may have been pure bubble gum, but the music the New Kids put out was a lot of fun and had its fair share of soul to it. Early cuts like their cover of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “Please Don’t Go Girl” were enjoyable soul-shaded teen pop that reminded me of the kind of music that always filled our household, which is why I enjoyed them. At the end of the day, however, these were five white boys who had their faces plastered on everything from tote bags to Saturday morning television – and to be black, male and a fan was an open invitation to a verbal beat down from your peers. The criticism was harsh and often hurtful, as I remember an especially severe tongue lashing from one of my older sister’s ignorant-ass classmates. It didn’t matter to me though – I was a scrawny bookworm with no athletic ability, so I was used to it. I played my tapes and sported my buttons (which I still have, by the way) proudly and let the haters keep right on hating. “Just another day at the races,“ I thought.

Fast-forward 20 years to D.C.’s Verizon Center on October 2. There I was, amidst a sea of people in their late twenties and early thirties, about to live a childhood dream of mine. Like a lot of the folks there I was too young to go see them live at their peak and found the news of their reunion tour to be a thrilling prospect – but initially I wasn’t quite sure if I would be in attendance. I’d be lying if I said part of my reluctance didn’t have to do with those old memories and the idea of folks snickering at me for wanting to go. After the prodding of several friends of mine (“Boy you used to love them – you better go!” was the common refrain) I realized how silly I was being, grabbed a ticket and happily carried my ass to the show. With my shiny new tour book in hand, I took my seat and waited for the spectacle to begin. As I looked around, what amazed me most was the diversity of the crowd. Pretty much every group you could think of was represented: Whites, blacks, girls, gays and married couples with children all came out to hang tough for a night, and it gave the venue a care-free, electric energy. I was all ready to go.

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Once the New Kids took to the stage, the place fell into frenzy. Donnie, Jordan, Jon, Joey (Is it Joe now that he’s grown?) and Danny powered through all of the ditties they are known for. Favorites like “(You Got It) The Right Stuff,” “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “Tonight,” “Cover Girl,” “I’ll Be Loving Your (Forever)” and “Valentine Girl” were all there, and the group had the vocal support of thousands to help them through them. I was particularly thrilled to hear the “Step By Step” b-side “Valentine Girl” because that remains my favorite New Kids song. On it and several other selections, Jordan proved his falsetto is as sharp now as it was two decades ago – I think Stylistic Russell Thompkins Jr. and Delfonic William Hart would be proud. In fact, the group’s vocals were strong all the way around, as were the fancy footwork and flashy set and costume changes. Danny got his break dance on like he was straight out of “Beat Street,” and Joey and Jordan even offered up “Stay the Same” and “Give it to You,” their respective solo hits. By the time they closed with “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough,” the crowd was hoarse, worn out, and downright ecstatic.

Though the show was heavy on nostalgia, the group managed to work several songs from their latest effort “The Block” into the set. I have to admit I was surprised by how strong the record is, as these reunion albums that have been popping up in recent years have been beyond shaky. While it’s not “Innervisions” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” it’s a solid, well-crafted pop album that can appeal to both old fans and new ones. Many of the album’s strongest tracks were included in the show: “Single,” “Summertime,” and “Grown Man” (which featured an appearance by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger via video screen) all translated well on stage and didn’t clash with the old stuff. The group’s live take on “Click Click Click” (my personal favorite from the album) sealed the deal, proving that these Kids-turned-men have a lot of music left in them to make.

It’s been damn near a week since I saw the show, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I had a blast, and it was worth every penny. Regardless of what the haters say, I’ll always love those New Kids. Their music is part of the soundtrack to a happy, simple time in my life, and I’ll never forget that. More importantly, liking their music taught me to like what I like and be unapologetic about it. Good music is good music, good times are good times, and all that really matters is what it all means to you. Nobody should ever rob you of that.

So you’re damn straight – if they come to my town when I am 39 in 10 years, I’m still gonna party with them on the block.

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Get well soon, Natalie!

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This wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to see about one of my favorite vocalists.

It was announced today that one of my cornerstone divas, Natalie Cole, has Hepatitis C. Doctors think the drug use of her youth is the culprit, as the disease is contracted through contact with infected blood. While they say Natalie is responding well to treatment, side effects such as fatigue and muscle pain are giving her problems. Nonetheless, her prognosis is good.

So, I just wanted to send Sister Natalie some love and a big, shameless GET WELL SOON! Here’s to your health and speedy recovery.

Below you’ll find “La Costa,” my favorite song from 1977’s “Thankful,” the Natalie LP I love best.

Again, get well soon Natalie!

Aural ‘Sex’: Carrie and company’s ‘City’ paved with glittery grooves

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Outside of the context of the drop-dead-gorgeous “Sex and the City” film, the soundtrack would be little more than a collection of pink disco thumpers and understated ballads – another run-of-the-mill compilation album assembled to make a few quick bucks. When paired with the film, however, the songs emerge as a 55-minute party of joy and pain that’s as guilty a pleasure as the iconic franchise. Like the film – which, as a testament to the power of the girls and the gays, whooped Indiana Jones’ ass with a whopping $55.7 million at the box office this weekend – the tunes are as colorful as the designer dresses donned by the glamourzons who filled theater seats across the country to spend an evening with TV’s favorite urban socialites.

A big-city-cool jaunt of an album, the soundtrack is liveliest and most interesting as the dance material takes hold. I’m not the biggest fan of electronic music, but the best two cuts on the album fall into that mold: “I Like the Way” is a detached, ultra-hip jam from the creative mind of Chicago-born DJ and producer Kaskade, one of those club cuts that is atmospheric in its minimalist glory. In a similar mold is Nina Simone’s “The Look of Love,” which is served up here in the “Madison Park vs. Lenny B Remix.” The classy house groove props itself up nicely against the wall of sound that is Simone’s voice, making for an interesting spin on an oft-covered standard. The songs are sinewy blends of piano, vibes, synths and icy vocals that manage to evoke warmth absent from a great deal of the electronic music that propels dance floors into the stratosphere. Elsewhere, Morningwood and The Weepies rock a little on “New York Girls” and “All This Beauty” respectively, bringing an earthy foil to the urban slant of the up-temp material.

No well-oiled chick flick can function without some good love songs, and the ones here will surely please the amorous. Bliss’ lovely “Kissing” and The Bird and the Bee’s cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” are pure delights, while the always captivating India.Arie is at her best on “The Heart of the Matter.” The greatest one in the bunch, however, is a faithful interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne,” offered up by Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say it punctuates the lonely New Year’s Eve of two of the movie’s principal characters amazingly. The beautifully rendered song elevates the scene to a level of poignancy that would surprise those who think the movie possesses little to no redeeming value. For a moment, the song transforms from a cherished favorite to a slice of sonic narration.

For all its strong points, the crazy thing about the soundtrack is that the two most ballyhooed moments are the least memorable. I have to say upfront that Fergie annoys the shit out of me, so that may be part of the reason I’m not feeling “Labels or Love.” Imagined as a pop-song variation of the show’s classic theme song, it just doesn’t seem to work. If I want to hear something as irritating as “My Humps,” I’ll borrow somebody’s Black Eyed Peas CD. And the movie’s closing workout, the pleasant but ordinary “All Dressed in Love” finds Jennifer Hudson doing her damndest to bring life to what is a borderline lifeless song. A set of pipes as powerful as Hudson’s – and the ending of a film of this magnitude for that matter – deserves a better last hurrah. Still, J-Hud gives it all she’s got and the girl deserves her props.

All in all, the soundtrack for “Sex and the City” is just good, fashion-forward fun. It’s not the music from “Shaft,” “Superfly” or “The Graduate,” but it has a charm all its own. There’s enough energy here to fuel any night out on the town, cosmos and all. The spirit of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte definitely radiates from these ditties.

I so can’t wait for volume two.

Nineteen eighty-eight … the year that still grooves me

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Editor’s Note: This entry is part of a special radio and blog project saluting the year 1988. Along with Friday’s edition of Put the Needle on the Record on radio station WFMU, writers Michael A. Gonzales and Donnell Alexander and bloggers Invisible Woman and yours truly all offered our musings on that unforgettable year. Check out the entries and take a look back.

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When I was approached about reflecting on the year 1988, it was hard for me to even wrap my mind around the fact that it was 20 long years ago. After all, my existence at the time was that of a smallish, bespectacled 9-year-old fourth grader whose life was filled with the simplest of delights, an endless summer of “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights, Super Mario Brothers, weekends at Granny’s house and plain old good times. It’s a time I remember fondly and often wish I could recapture, as it really was one of the sweetest, most memorable periods of my life. As is often the case when you look back at your childhood, it’s the little things that had the greatest impact. Not only was I allowed to pick out my first pair of “big kid” sneakers that year in the form of a funky fresh pair of British Knights (complete with the dope BK Button), I also got what I thought was the greatest birthday present in the history of the world: my very first stereo, Plexiglas covered turntable and all.

As far as I was concerned, I had arrived.

Though I’d had my own little suitcase record player that I played random 45s on for a while, this was the real deal. Since most record labels market recording artists to kids between the ages of 8 and 16, I was a prime target for the sounds that radiated from what was then Hot 103, the top black radio station in Hampton, Virginia, that’s now known as 103 Jamz. The beauty of this era was that you’d hear any number of cuts at black radio, a phenomenon lost in today’s conglomerate-driven culture. Loose Ends, Pretty Poison, Anita Baker and George Michael all could easily pop up in the same set, a sign of what was a diverse, wonderfully open time in music. Like most kids growing up in the ‘burbs of Virginia, I fancied my fair share of bubble gum: Aside from mainstays Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran and New Edition, upstart pin-ups like The Boys, Expose, New Kids on the Block and Rick Astley were favorites of mine, artists who tickled my fancy for delectable dance beats and catchy, sing-along hooks. (I’m still a sucker for a good hook, even today.) Soon, however, the vocal-driven, street savvy vibe of a burgeoning style of black music would take hold of me, shaping not only my musical youth but the adulthood that would follow.

It was a little thing called new jack swing, and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Critics deride the style as the death of black music because of its lack of organic instrumentation, but if they had looked past their own personal biases, they would have seen it was quite the opposite. It was old school and new school at the same time, a melding of the sensibilities of the sensual vocal-based soul of singers like Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills and the street-paved swagger of Run DMC and Kool Moe Dee. In truth, it was the first real identifiable movement in R&B music my generation experienced – and the last before hip-hop rose to prominence. While some of the songs that emerged during the period need to remain distant memories, others are unforgettable. Al B. Sure!’ s “Nite and Day,” The Mac Band’s “Roses are Red,” Vanessa Williams’ “The Right Stuff” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” were some of the year’s biggest hit singles, perfectly capturing the care-free, light-hearted spirit of the time. Still, if I had to pin down a flagship act for the new jack swing era it would be Teddy Riley and brothers Aaron and Damion Hall, collectively known as Guy. (Timmy Gatling, not Damion Hall, appears in early promotional photos, as he left the lineup before the group took off.) Their self-titled debut remains the definitive moment in new jack swing, an album that’s as fly now as it was two decades ago.

Though producer Riley – “The King of New Jack Swing” – had used the new jack swing style to great effect on Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever” LP in 1987, he perfected his formula with “Guy” (No. 1 R&B/No. 27 pop), one of the first albums released on Andre Harrell’s Uptown imprint. (Al B. Sure!, Jeff Redd, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci all called Uptown home at one time or another.) A blend of percolating, hip-hop flavored beats, subtle samples and soulful vocals, it’s one of those records that works in the contexts of both listening and dancing. This wasn’t cold, assembly line soul, as the synth-tinged melodies are crisp and airy and the beats varied – a perfect platform for Aaron Hall’s crooning and the group’s minimal but effective harmonies. Aaron Hall was the group’s secret weapon, the ingredient that gave them a slight edge over the competition. He was the antithesis of the pretty-boy singers that populated much of radio in the late ‘80s, The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson with a new jack, high-top faded twist. This was without question a producer-driven medium but these brothers didn’t play second string to the beat, which ultimately is what makes the record click. By the time the album took its final bow, five of the 10 tracks had become R&B hits.

The album’s strongest moments are the up-tempo numbers, sweaty concoctions that are as funky and flashy as the leather suits the trio sports on the album cover. “Groove Me” (No. 4 R&B), “Teddy’s Jam” (No. 5 R&B), “I Like” (No. 2 R&B), “Spend the Night” (No. 15 R&B) and “‘Round and ‘Round (Merry Go Round of Love)” (No. 24 R&B) are certified bangers that make you want to dust off your running man, classics that sum up the period like few others. “Teddy’s Jam” and “I Like” in particular have held up well, as they boast of some of the most clever arrangements Riley and co-producer Gene Griffin brought to the table for the project. “I Like” remains my personal favorite, because it conjures memories of my sister’s baby blue Hyundai Excel and the times I was privileged enough to cruise the streets of Hampton with her after she started driving. But I digress.

As one would expect, Aaron Hall did the damn thing on the ballads. “Piece of My Love” and “Goodbye Love,” though not charting singles, were Quiet Storm staples and helped put the new jack slow jam on the map. Atmospheric and engaging, the songs are the kind of period pieces that could easily be labeled dated but strike a chord in people that elevates them to a level of eternal perfection. It’s in these songs that Aaron Hall proved he was a standup singer worthy of accolades stretching beyond what he received both as a part of Guy and as a soloist. More importantly, they helped strengthen the group’s identity in what became a field filled with imitators waiting to cash in on the approach they played a key role in crystalizing.

Though Guy would continue having hits via the albums “The Future” and “Guy III,” their debut remains the quintessential new jack swing exercise and the high water mark of their career. A seminal signpost of the era, it’s a feel-good snapshot of ‘88 that is more than mere nostalgia, as evidenced by the fact it was issued last July as an expanded, two-disc special edition. In that album, you hear the street-laced soul that would become the hits of ‘90s labels Bad Boy Entertainment and Rowdy Records. But there’s nothing like the real thing, and it began with this listening experience.

Together, “Guy” and the other popular releases of 1988 tell a sonic story of a simpler time in our lives. Some of it was frothy, teen dream pop and some of it was pure soul – but it all captures something in each of us and serves as one of the few uniting forces in our common consciousness. It’s as much about the music as it is the feelings it stirs.

And when I’m old and gray, those jams from 1988 will still groove me.

Check out Guy and the video for “Groove Me” below.

Do you wanna ride? Hip-hop’s HERstory is front and center in ‘Mercedes Ladies’

After all these years, women in hip-hop still don’t get their props. Though the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have laced their walls with gold and platinum over the last two decades, they continue to be dismissed by many as mere footnotes in hip-hop’s legacy. The situation is even worse for their foremothers, as most of the girls poppin’ their lip gloss with Lil’ Mama have never even heard of pioneering female MCs and DJs like Lady B, Lisa Lee, Sha Rock, Sequence and Debbie Dee. Also blazing the B-girl trail were The Mercedes Ladies, the first all-female MC and DJ crew. Like their peers, Sheri Sher, Ever Def, Zena Z, Tracey T, DJ Baby D, RD Smiley, MC Smiley and DJ La Spank dealt with the shiftless, shady, jealous ways of the male-dominated game, never achieving critical or commercial success for their seminal role in the birth of hip-hop. In the captivating, highly enjoyable novel “Mercedes Ladies,” founding member Sheri Sher tells their story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent in this fictionalized account, but make no mistake – the book, Sheri Sher’s first, is based on a true story.

Think Mary Wilson’s “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” set to the beat of New York’s streets.

Over the course of 268 pages, Sheri Sher’s writing is lively and conversational, painting vivid, Technicolor images of a late ‘70s and early ‘80s New York that bubbled with the sounds of disco and its new life as the soundtrack for the burgeoning hip-hop generation. The story has all of the high drama you’d expect from the almost-Cinderella stories of young girls with big dreams – on top of the stresses of home life, group conflicts, slick-talking managers, shifty music-business types and shade-throwing haters all took their toll on the ladies and their quest for that elusive musical breakthrough. Sheri Sher – or “Shelly Shel” as she is named in the book – has to be commended for her intimate writing style, as on more than one occasion I gasped or wanted to cuss somebody out because of the blows these girls were being dealt. They got up every time they got knocked down, but that brass ring was always a rhyme away.

The most maddening moment: The girls go into the studio and cut a hot song with a music man on the rise, only to have it snatched out from under them and handed to an R&B chick. Those of us who own the Vibe book “Hip Hop Divas” and read the passage on The Mercedes Ladies can only assume that in real life the song was “Yes You Can-Can” (a reworking of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can”), the mogul was Russell Simmons and the singer was Alyson Williams. They were featured on backgrounds for Donald D and DJ Hollywood’s “Don’s Groove,” but the group never saw a proper single released under their name. Such trials give you a real sense of what these sisters were up against and why so many of them are frustrated with the current state of women in hip-hop. Since the book was just published this year, Sheri Sher’s take on the business is up to the minute, complete with musings on Remy Ma’s current legal woes and the endless cycle of women “letting” the men in charge use them, abuse them and dictate their self worth. Sheri Sher is calling her sisters to action through her story and her commentary, and every word she speaks is pure truth.

Coming from a true hip-hop pioneer, “Mercedes Ladies” is a work that anyone who’s a fan of hip-hop should experience. Even if your interest in the style is fleeting, this book will make you want to dig deeper and look into the world of beats and bra straps beyond “Push It” and “No Time.” More importantly, it dispels the myth that hip-hop is rooted in wanton violence and sexuality. It was quite the contrary, as Sheri Sher points out that the neighborhood jams that were her window into the game gave kids on the block an escape from the madness. You can tell from the passion behind her words that she can’t understand why the game ever changed.

There’s no better way to understand a story that’s still being written than to explore where it started, and this book does its part in filling that void. A noteworthy accomplishment on every level, “Mercedes Ladies” is essential reading.

Let’s get this thing moving …

Welcome to Aural Examination, a place for lovers of music great and small, serious and casual. I’m Steve Flemming Jr., and I’ll be your host.

The mission here? Exploration of music, from Top 40 ditties to long-forgotten dusties. The beauty of music is there’s something in the cosmos for everyone, and this site will tap into that. From the sophisticated soul of the Main Ingredient to the pop perfection of Madonna, modern music’s many enclaves will be mined for discussion and debate.

It is my hope that visitors – and myself for that matter – will leave with a new artist to explore or an overall broader perspective on recorded sound. Since opinions are like assholes – everybody’s got them and they can be downright funky – I hope visitors can exchange views free of the acerbic drama that weighs down other blogs. I like to keep things civil.

So with that said, welcome to Aural Examination … hopefully it will satisfy your aural fixation.