February is African American History Month, but every month is a good month to celebrate African American history and culture, and what better place to do so than your local library! Your Los Angeles Public Library card gives you access to many resources, including two amazing collections of online music—Freegal features unlimited song streaming and five free downloads per month, and hoopla lets you check out full albums just like you would an e-book. These two databases have endless amounts of interesting music to explore, from famous hits to underground sounds. Enjoy these February recommendations of some of my own favorite lesser-known music you can listen to on hoopla and Freegal.
The late 80s and 90s were a golden era for many kinds of hip-hop, from West Coast gangsta rap and g-funk to the revolutionary political fury of Public Enemy to the East Coast boom-bap of Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang Clan, and The Notorious B.I.G.. With distinctively jazzy and unusual sampling, the Native Tongues collective, including De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, created a brilliant new sound emphasizing Afrocentric consciousness and blunted humor. Those groups originated in New York City but there were like-minded others around the country, such as the Pharcyde in L.A. and Digital Underground in the Bay Area.
Back in 1988 the Jungle Brothers got the Native Tongues party started with their debut Straight Out the Jungle, which you can stream in full on Freegal. This album blew my mind when I somehow got my hands on a cassette tape while I was in high school in El Paso, TX, and it still sounds as raw and funny and funky as ever. Mike Gee and Afrika Baby Bam goofed around with a sly, self-deprecatory boastfulness and offhand conversational flow quite unlike the stentorian style of much 80s rap. Prince Paul’s yacht-rock samples for De La Soul’s debut the following year were zanier, but the Jungle Brothers dug up some samples I definitely had to track down, like Mandrill on the title track and Gil Scott-Heron and The Jimmy Castor Bunch elsewhere. The surprise hit was “I’ll House You”, a wild hip-house fusion produced by Todd Terry, wonderfully juxtaposing their laidback drawl with a hi-NRG club track. This and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, another big cassette purchase for me in 1988, opened my mind to new hip-hop possibilities.
The Native Tongues sound lives on in a new generation of underground hip-hop artists. hoopla has J-Live’s All of the Above, a modern masterpiece that must be heard in full! With its Blue Train-referencing cover, it still rings true, a fresh, layered exploration of identity and artistry in post-9/11 New York City. The crisp beats are mostly by the peerless DJ Spinna. If you wish Tribe and De La were still making those classic records, give J-Live’s “Satisfied” a spin.
Ohmega Watts grew up in Brooklyn and wound up in Portland, home to a very creative underground hip-hop scene including the Lifesavas and many others. On hoopla, you can check out his Ubiquity debut The Find and the follow-up Watts Happening—either album will satisfy your Native Tongues craving, with generous helpings of jazzy beats, sharp lyrics, and old school positive vibes.
Betty Davis, the singer, not the actress, isn’t a household name, but she should be! This fierce funk-rock diva taught Jimi Hendrix how to dress, started her erstwhile husband Miles on the path to fusion, and recorded three fiery, outrageous albums that stomp hard and tell it like it is. Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina, she moved to New York, modeled for Ebony and Glamour, and made the scene with Sly Stone and Hugh Masekela in the mid-60s. She married Miles in 1968, and they divorced a year later, but not before she introduced him to Jimi and got the cool jazz maestro listening to all the latest rock and funk. Betty recorded her self-titled debut album in 1973 with a group that included Larry Graham, Merl Saunders, and Sly’s drummer Greg Errico. It sold poorly at the time but hearing it now, it’s a revelation of sexual flamboyance and hilariously bombastic funk feminism, with squalling workouts like “Anti-Love Song” and “Game Is My Middle Name”. As heavy as the band is, you can hardly tear your ears away from Betty’s swooping, lascivious, guttural vocals. Her wild stage show made her an underground legend, and she followed up with the equally great They Say I’m Different in 1974 and Nasty Gal in 1975. Her hard-driving, genre-bending sound was a little too uncommercial for the time, so she hung up her thigh-high silver platform boots and settled down to lead a quiet life in Pittsburgh for the next few decades until the excellent indie label Light in the Attic reissued her first two albums a couple years ago.
Betty passed away on February 9, 2022—so R.I.P. to one of the all-time queens of funk, truly a far-out inspiration and never to be duplicated.
Everyone knows the hits of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers—but hoopla and Freegal have the serious back catalogs! On hoopla, you can check out just about every album ever made by Stevie Wonder, former Motown child prodigy and current L.A. musical treasure, including the essential Songs In the Key of Life, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and many more. I have a special fondness for the mid-60s post-Little Stevie albums, just before he blossomed into his 70s genius era—the songs collected on 1971’s Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2, like “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “If You Really Love Me” and “For Once In My Life”, his hard-driving mod cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” and “My Cherie Amour”.
That is some seriously shakin’ stuff. I also love Hotter Than July, his 1980 album following his failed 1979 mystical eco-opus Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (which itself is intensely great). Hotter Than July was Stevie’s leap into 80s electro-disco, which he pulled off as magically as he does everything else. The reggae-fied “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” was the hit, but “Happy Birthday” successfully proselytized to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. And “All I Do” is a smooth 80s update of a song that Little Stevie wrote for Tammi Terrell back in the 60s, only recently unearthed in its original swingin’ version on the UK Cellarful of Motown compilation—which is another hoopla must-hear! Come to think of it, someone should really put together a compilation of every song Stevie wrote for other artists. Just for starters, he wrote “It’s a Shame” for the Spinners, “Tell Me Something Good” for Rufus, “I Can’t Help It” for Michael Jackson...it’s quite a list!
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is the high point of a uniquely special life in music, but hoopla has a lot of other interesting Marvin albums too. His soundtrack for Trouble Man is an eerie masterpiece of moody funk, especially the gliding title track and his often-sampled funky drum workout on the instrumental “T Plays It Cool”. Here, My Dear is a bittersweet album he recorded when he was ordered by a judge to pay the royalties from his next record to Berry Gordy’s daughter Anna after their acrimonious 1977 divorce—but you might not know it from the intergalactic disco of “A Funky Space Reincarnation” or the wistful “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You”. The Master 1961-1984 has hours of great music, and it even includes a live recording of Marvin Gaye’s breathtaking rendition of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game, sung over a gently soulful drum machine track—one of the most inspiring performances of the anthem ever.
Visionary Chicago soul singer and guitarist Curtis Mayfield is probably best known for his hits with the Impressions like “People Get Ready,” and for the Super Fly soundtrack, not to mention Kanye West sampling his song "Move on Up" for "Touch the Sky," but in the 1970s he had a run of incredible albums that should be better known. One of his best is 1973’s Back to the World, a concept album decrying America’s involvement in Vietnam and war in general, with soaring tunes like “If I Were Only a Child Again” and the jittery groove of “Future Shock”. hoopla also has Curtis/Live!, a double-LP recorded at a small club in New York with low-key arrangements that foreground his gentle voice and guitar over bass and bongos, interspersed with his observational raps about the politics of the day.
It’s hard to think of a group with a longer and more successful career than the Isley Brothers, who have been together since their 1950s doo-wop days in Cincinnati and are still going strong. After an unhappy stint at Motown in the 1960s, they started releasing music on their own T-Neck label, kicking it off with the funk anthem “It’s Your Thing”. They stretched out in the 70s on a brilliant series of albums that increasingly blended in folk and gospel elements and social consciousness, like Harvest for the World and Showdown. One of my favorites is Brother, Brother, Brother from 1972, with Ronald Isley sounding equally impassioned on folk-rock covers like “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and funk jams like “Pop That Thang”. Hear them all on Freegal.
If you haven’t heard the critically hailed 2015 breakout by L.A.’s own Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, you owe it to yourself, and it’s available in full on hoopla. It’s a brainy, chaotic masterwork, with Kendrick inhabiting characters from god to the devil while agonizing over love, lust, and the state of black lives and minds in America. The uptempo beats churn like futurized Funkadelic, thanks to innovative production from Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus, Pharrell, and Knxwledge, and serious players like Robert Glasper and Thundercat. Lamar’s single “Alright” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, a powerful exploration of police violence and black resilience that’s both incendiary and wise.
Speaking of Glasper, hoopla also has the seminal 2012 album Black Radio by his telepathically tight band the Robert Glasper Experiment, a groove-jazz / neo-soul odyssey featuring an impressive set of guest vocalists. The Houston-born keyboard player’s career started with a couple of albums of straight-ahead Herbie Hancock-style piano jazz, but he quickly gravitated to soul and hip-hop, working with Bilal and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). Glasper fully achieved liftoff with Black Radio’s heady, hypermodern jazz-funk, powered by virtuoso drummer Chris Dave’s bustling rhythms and graced by a stellar lineup of singers and rappers: Erykah Badu opens with Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”, Lalah Hathaway reinvents Sade’s “Cherish the Day”, Bilal interprets a rare early Bowie tune, “Letter to Hermione”, and Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, and Meshell Ndegeocello all shine. Though it won the Grammy for Best R&B album, the title is idealistic: it’s still too angular and complex for commercial radio, but hopefully radio is catching up. Glasper followed it with Black Radio 2 and the long-awaited Black Radio 3 is expected later this month.
Some of the loveliest music I know comes from the hip harp of Dorothy Ashby, who took an instrument thought to be too ethereal or classical for jazz and proved she could make it swing. Dorothy grew up in a musical household in Detroit in the 1940s and attended an arts high school that also produced such other future luminaries as Donald Byrd and Kenny Burrell. She started out playing piano but switched to harp in the 1950s, having to work extra hard to overcome the scene’s bias against not only her gender but also her favored instrument by playing free shows and dances all over town. Starting in 1957 she recorded a series of top-notch albums for Savoy, Prestige, and Atlantic, making the 1962 Down Beat annual reader’s poll of best jazz performers. By the late 60s she had moved to California and branched out into world music and spiritual sounds, and hoopla has her two classic Cadet albums Afro-Harping and The Rubiyat of Dorothy Ashby. Inspired by Omar Khayyam’s poetry, Rubiyat blends jazz, and Eastern sounds, with Dorothy playing harp and Japanese koto and intoning lines of poetry between tracks. Producer Richard Evans, whose Cadet records with the Soulful Strings are prized by DJs and beatmakers, weaves spacious, ingeniously funky arrangements, adding touches of vibes, kalimba, flute, and oboe. A journey into quiet transcendence.
Happy African American History Month, and enjoy this Freegal playlist!