Artist: The Ink Spots
Sound: The initial harmony-driven black vocal group
The Ink Spots are the granddaddies of every black vocal group from The Temptations to Boys II Men — and for good reason. The famous voice of Bill Kenny flows smooth and sweet like molasses over a backdrop of breezy harmonies, which are held together by the simplest guitar strumming. Songs like “If I Didn’t Care” and “Java Jive” convey a delicately soulful aura of record-popping authenticity intrinsic to the golden age sound, on which this original fab four was laying the groundwork on.
Essential: The Ink Spots: The Millennium Collection
Artist: Lee “Scratch” Perry
Era: The oldest school
Sound: Smokey, smokey reggae
Lee “Scratch” Perry is a man of many nicknames, ranging from “Little” to “King” to “Pipecock Jackxon.” The many names of Perry are a testament to his historical role in reggae. Perry produced The Pioneers’ “Long Shot” in 1967, ushering in the first tune to use a new, Jamaican rhythm. A year later someone christened the beat “reggae.” Since then, he’s worked and feuded with Bob Marley and The Wailers and his own band The Upsetters, as well as cutting solo records. Perry’s work is like ’60s spaghetti westerns or ’70s kung fu movies accompanied with Kingston’s finest herbal medicine.
Essential: Heart of the Dragon
Artist: Nina Simone
Sound: From jazz to rock, soul, pop, and gospel, Simone did it all
The poetic mystique of Nina Simone can never be duplicated. Frustrated with discrimination, racism and manipulation of the world around her, Simone sang soulful songs. She avidly spoke out against the deceiving practices of recording companies, preferring to perform at charity events and festivals throughout her life.The flavorful blend of spicy jazz, soft rock and gospel lets this remain one of the most miraculous musical storytellers ever born.
Essential: The Best of Nina Simone
Artist: Howlin’ Wolf
Era: Well before the House of Blues chain restaurants
Sound: Classic Delta Blues
The name indicates the wailing style of this classic blues man. Born Chester Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf’s story lets listeners know that they’re never alone with the blues. Rubbing elbows with Muddy Waters at Saturday night “Breakdowns” in the Mississippi delta, Wolf then learned harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson in Chicago and later recorded under the auspices of Ike Turner in Los Angeles. A key feature in Wolf’s music is when his voice, which breaks in mid-howl, becoming a more guttural moan. A better singer than musician, anything emanating from Wolf’s voice was pure soul.
Essential: Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog
Artist: Afrika Bambaataa
Era: Hip-hop before the term was synonymous with rap
Sound: Real hip-hop with a positive message
A pro-black activist and former gang member, Afrika Bambaataa’s love of music saved him from the streets of New York City and was the inspiration for many of the artist’s lifelong projects. His most famous project, the Universal Zulu Nation, promotes freedom, justice, knowledge and understanding through music. Bambaataa’s vision of the Zulu Nation gave rise to De La Soul and Queen Latifah, among others. He is considered by many to be “The Godfather of Hip Hop” and his music remains as influential today as it was when he started the Zulu movement.
Essential: 1990 – 2000: The Decade of Darkness
Artist: The Incredible Moses Leroy
Era: Contemporary sensation
Sound: Sensitive bedroom gaze
Ron Fountenberry is a fairly modest guy. He was a substitute school teacher before 2001’s acclaimed Electric Pocket Radio. His band name, The Incredible Moses Leroy, is somewhat of an ironic joke because Fountenberry is the shy type. Moses Leroy was incredible. He was a civil rights leader who fought against segregation. He’s also the great grandfather of Fountenberry, who added “Incredible” as an ode to his days as a comic book collecting geek. Songs such as “Fuzzy” from his 2001 release epitomize his bedroom-styled craftiness.
Essential: Electric Pocket Radio
Artist: Digable Planets
Era: “Alternative” Music
Sound: Nouveaux-hipster, knit-capped, incense rap
Butterfly, Ladybug and Doodlebug were some funked-up insects that could downright bring it. The Planets took Eric B’s and DJ Premiere’s penchant for the innovative combo of rapping over jazz and funk samples to a new level, using those snippets as fuel for an entirely original set of beats. The Planets’ debut, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), is a portrait of three afro-urban hippies on a starry-eyed, peace, love and rhyme-a-thon. In contrast, the follow-up, Blowout Comb, is a militantly empowered intertwining of hip hop and black power. Although the group’s catalog consists of only two albums, they are both arguably the best hip hop albums of the ’90s.
Essential: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
Artist: Gil Scott- Heron
Era: Early ’70s angst
Sound: Spoken word Panther-power
With two novels published by the age of 12, Gil Scott-Heron turned to music. Angry and articulate, Scott-Heron’s blend of spiky political comment, Bootsy basslines and Fender Rhodes jazz chords still evokes Black-Panthers era America. Before Public Enemy, before Grandmaster Flash, 1971’s Pieces of a Man fused funk and spoken word, never to greater effect than in The Revolution Will Not be Televised. Heron could croon with the best of them. Winter in America carries the weight of three centuries of oppression and a long road ahead. If all that doesn’t earn him enough cool points, his father played soccer for Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club.
— Chris O’Donnell
Essential: Pieces of a Man