And so begins On Queue 2019! As we start the new year, each post will focus on a specific record label and three releases from the label that I think standout. Let's jump in with Daptone Records.
Daptone Records is a prolific independent funk and soul label based in Brooklyn, New York. It was started in 2001 by Bosco Mann (Gabriel Roth) and Neal Sugarman. The distinctive analog sound that has come to be associated with this label began with its core band, The Dap-Kings. Roth acts as the bass player and bandleader of this group. In 2007 this group, in collaboration with Mark Ronson, provided the instrumental accompaniment for Amy Whinehouse’s undisputed classic, Back to Black. A converted home in the Bushwick neighborhood has been the scene for this distinguished sound to grow, and without any help from computers. The studio acoustics are not enhanced by digital reverbs and everything is recorded and mixed on analog tape by Roth. Having proven themselves time and time again, the Daptone recording studio and personnel have become sought after entities.
The Menahan Street Band was my introduction to Daptone Records. Back in 2013 during a deep YouTube tangent, I stumbled upon a video of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino at Amobea Records going through what was in his record bag on that day. He pulled the debut album from this Brooklyn-born band. Thank you, Mr. Glover, for opening up this whole new world for me.
There is a chance you have heard The Menahan Street Band without realizing it. The classic soul sound has drawn the attention of some the most active hip-hop artists on the scene right now. The likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, and Kid Cudi have all pulled samples from the band’s two full-length studio albums.
The band is comprised of members from the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, Antibalas, and The Budos Band–all members of the Daptone family. It is a classic set up of guitar, bass, drums, organ, trumpet, and saxophone playing loop-based grooves in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment on Menahan Street. The band is not trying to reinvent the wheel. This is a sound that is battle-tested and has survived all the way to the new vinyl age we are living in right now. The Menahan Street band is a collection of incredibly talented musicians that are playing a familiar sound, but they do it with incredible swagger and prowess.
Make The Road By Walking strikes a beautiful balance between powerful backbeats and bass lines, striking melodies, and quirky sense of humor. “Tired of Fighting” begins with drums and congas in a laid back pocket setting the gritty funk tone of this track along with woozy guitar slides that appear throughout much of the album. Dave Guy on trumpet (who you now see playing with The Roots on tour and every night on Jimmy Fallon) and Leon Michels on saxophone provide the buttery harmonized melodies on top of this punchy rhythm section.
“Home Again!” is a cheerful soul track with an infectious bounce. The warmth of the changes, instrumentation, and analog tape all combine for this highlight of the album. “Going The Distance” plays in my ear with a slight sense of comedy. It begins with the dark funky feel that is heard through the majority of the album. As the song develops, a triumphant bass line and horn crescendo lead into a sixteenth note based groove that gives off vibes of something like the Rocky movies to my ear.
Simplicity is the key with this band and this album. The power of good chord changes and simple patterns that are played with unbelievable feel is put on full display. There are no frills with instrumentation or recording tricks, just good songwriting. After their second LP, the band has gone on to back other vocalists on Daptone Records, but I’m crossing my fingers a new full-length MSB project is in the works. The world needs it.
One of the vocalist the Menahan Street Band went on to work with was Charles Bradley. The incredible story of this soul journeyman unfortunately came to an end in the fall of 2017 when the singer lost his battle with stomach and liver cancer. Daptone released Black Velvet in November of 2018 as a compilation of the stray tracks that accumulated over the decade the singer spent with the label and with the Menahan Street Band backing him.
It was an incredible case of right time, right place for Bradley who got his big break in his mid-50s. He grew up in a house stricken with poverty and neglect. He worked many odd jobs throughout his life across the entire country, but never left his love of singing. He sang in many small venues under the name “Black Velvet” as a James Brown impersonator. In 2002, Bradley had made his way to New York right as Daptone and their revivalist style were hitting their stride. Bradley introduced himself to co-founder Gabriel Roth and the rest is history.
Time and time again on his albums, Bradley effortlessly turns the pains and sadness in his life into powerful and heart-wrenching music. Yet, one of the more memorable moments on this latest release is the voiceless “Black Velvet.” Acting as what feels like a tribute, the tune spans three and a half minutes and searches for words the entire time. A guitar with a heavy level of tremolo meanders through the whole tune, almost like a weeping melodic replacement for the lost member of the group.
“(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” is a noticeable departure from the usual pained and weathered tone of the narrative and voice of Bradley. The singer pleads with a lost lover who he needs to let go of spending much of the song simply talking to this person.
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” makes an appearance on the album, but with a new coat of paint. The horn section takes control of this classic tune turning it into a driving soul track. It’s moments like this that are both the beauty and slight downfall of this album. The nature of the compilation album allows us to see the development of his style while signed to Daptone, but also creates a somewhat disjointed mix of tunes.
I wish I had the opportunity to see Bradley in concert. Even in interviews and videos you can immediately tell that his true energy and spirit of this music was only on full display in the live setting. This tribute album is a wonderful celebration of a man who never lost sight of the true happiness singing and being on stage brought him.
In Yorba, the word Akokán translates to “from the heart.” If there has been any thread between the Daptone records I’ve described thus far, I think “from the heart” may perfectly describe it. Then it is without surprise that one of the newest editions to Daptone Records has created a sizable buzz among their listeners, including a Grammy nomination for Orqesta Akokán’s debut LP.
The album’s driving force is its vocalist, Jose “Pepito” Gomez along with the producer, Jacob Plasse and arranger, Mike Eckroth. Unlike most of the other releases on the label, Daptone made a road trip to the band’s home turf in Havana, Cuba and to EGREM recording complex and the Areito Studio to record the album. The spirit of analog recording is certainly preserved at the national record label of Cuba. The studio was founded in 1964 and had a complete monopoly on music production in the country for roughly its first 20-years of operation. The result is the most extensive catalog of Cuban music in the world that is continuing to grow.
This is the first time the label has moved beyond the American roots of its traditional sound and homage to history. This new group is an amalgamation of Cuban musicians, many of who have lived through the period of Cuban music the album aims to emulate and preserve. The mambo tradition is alive and kicking with a lively percussive punch on this release.
A favorite of mine on the album is “La Cosa.” The rhythm section and horns each display their own aptitude while accompanying each other providing rhythmic stabs behind the melodies. When the trumpets step forward the saxophones join the congas and timbales and vice versa.
The arrangements by Eckroth are the glue of the entire album and are just plain stunning. Like I mentioned before, much of the band are veteran wind and rhythm players from some the legendary mambo bands of Cuba, but there are a few young players from New York as well. Certainly these players are incredibly well versed in mambo music, but there is always the risk of conflicting sounds and styles due to the geographical and generational differences. The listeners, and for that matter the musicians, have no time to contemplate this as the arrangements come at you with such energy and power that the 40-minutes the album lasts flies by with infectious joy.
I know very little about the history and tradition of Cuban music, but that takes nothing away from my experience with this album. I’m ready to dive into the roots of how we got to this album, the stories of the musicians in the orchestra, and the larger history of this music. Taking a risk and moving away from the American tradition for a moment was an extremely successful endeavor for Daptone. It is hard to think of a group and an album that better represents this unique label than Orquesta Akokán.