12 January 2023
Turn On, Tune In
DJ and music aficionado, Shadi Megallaa, selects six timeless albums that he sees as inspiring, influential or groundbreaking for a challenging new century.
In the words of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, ‘You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.’ Music is a true reflection of our human experience. The albums I’ve chosen are ones that I constantly revisit. They are snapshots of our human experience at the time they were recorded.
Musicians use music to temporarily escape the troubles of everyday life; to transport them to another world where life is more tolerable. Others use it as a way to shine a light on issues that we need to tackle as a race. The common thread in these albums is the way in which they were recorded. If the albums are listened to chronologically, what becomes obvious is how far recording techniques have advanced.
In terms of composition, I would spotlight the Berlin duo Rhythm & Sound for their album With the Artists (2007). Made up of DJs Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, the artists made their name on the techno-dub scene of the 1990s. With this album, though, they established themselves with a more pensive dub and reggae sound that washes over minimal yet futuristic throbs and beats. There’s a trippy aspect to this work, where Ernestus and Von Oswald are masters of sonic hypnotism. For me, their music is therapy in the way it bubbles along and is in no rush.
Next up, I’ve chosen Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975) for its joyful and fun-loving energy. Helmed by super producer, afro-futurist and funkmaster general, George Clinton, Mothership Connection poked a finger in the eye of conventional funk albums at the time, and has since become a heavily-referenced album for hip-hop and rock artists through the decades.
Lightnin' Hopkins’s Hootin' The Blues (1964) would be the realest and rawest example of human emotion, helped by the fact that it is the most modestly recorded. There is nothing like the brutal honesty of a blues record especially on this live album recorded in Philadelphia in 1962. Hopkins is said to have had a huge impact on guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton. With this pared down collection of songs composed of raspy vocals and an acoustic guitar, the years and stories in Hopkins’ expression are unmistakable.
I chose Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On (1971) for its social commentary during the Vietnam War and its lush musical soundscapes. Massive Attack’s Blue Lines (1991) makes this list for its combination of influences, styles and recording techniques from all the other albums on this list.
Salah Ragab and The Cairo Jazz Band’s Western Jazz (2021) comes in as the best example of showing how the world is connected. The album was interpreted in a Middle Eastern form by one of Egypt’s greatest jazz men, Salah Ragab.
Technology in Sound
Many of these artists pursued several musical projects exploring different sides to their musical prowess. The oldest of them all would be Lightnin’ Hopkins’ album, which was recorded in 1964. The blues albums of the time were generally recorded with one or two microphones. This method isn’t great for recording individual instruments but is a great way to capture the essence of each performance. The recordings done in the 1970s showcase the improvements in recording equipment, especially the advancements of mixers that are able to capture four or eight or more channels of musical instruments. These advancements can be heard on Parliament, Marvin Gaye and Salah Ragab’s recordings even though Salah Ragab recorded closer to how Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded, with a few mics capturing the entire performance.
Marvin Gaye’s vocal performance on What’s Going On showcases his control over his vocal chords and emotions, which he injects into the entire album. Many artists have tried to emulate his style over the years.
When it comes to guitar wizardry, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ unique style makes his music instantly recognisable. His vocals have this incredible spoken word quality that makes listening to his music feel more like a conversation.
The genius of Massive Attack is that they use the studio as an instrument when creating incredible sound-scapes. Artists like Shara Nelson, Horace Andy and Neneh Cherry all give incredible performances on Blue Lines. The album is also noted for giving birth to the Bristol Trip-Hop sound, which exploded onto the scene in the early 1990s. Artists like Portishead and Tricky would go on to put Trip-Hop on the map. It has since spread globally.
Stand Out Lyrics
We’ll start with the most powerful, which is from the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. ‘Father, father. We don't need to escalate. You see, war is not the answer. For only love can conquer hate.’ This lyric emphasises Marvin’s dislike for the Vietnam War that was raging while the album was recorded. The narrative in the songs is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning home to witness hatred, suffering and injustice. The song’s inspiration came from Renaldo Benson of the Motown group, The Four Tops. Benson said, ‘My partners told me it was a protest song. I said no man, it's a love song about love and understanding. I'm not protesting, I want to know what's going on.’
The next lyrics are from Parliament’s Mothership Connection. ‘Well, all right, Starchild. Citizens of the universe, recording angels. We have returned to claim the pyramids. Partying on the mothership. I am the mothership connection.’ Like Sun-Ra before him, these lyrics typify so much of George Clinton’s work around Afro-futurism. Afro-futurism’s reimagination of the future of art and science through a Black lens in the absence of the colonialist system lent itself perfectly to the era’s predilection for disco and funk. Other notable Afro-futurist artists include Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Scientist, Afrika Bambaataa, Erykah Badu, Tricky, Ras G and later on Detroit Techno’s Jeff Mills and Drexciya.
Rock is a direct descendant of the blues and would not exist without it. All music genres are connected to each other. Dub and reggae is the reason hip-hop exists. House and techno would not exist if it wasn’t for disco and funk. Music genres are like one big family tree with lots of branches. The more you listen, the more you realise that they’re all connected.
Shadi Megallaa owns and runs The Flip Side, an independent vinyl and music store at Alserkal Avenue.