Monday, February 14, 2011

Blaze's "25 Years Later"

Perhaps it seems hard to believe in an era when commercial R&B has deteriorated to the status of disposable noise for dancing and romancing, but time was when R&B artists on big labels had hits with songs that weighed in lyrically on social issues o' the day -- specifically, the self-determination struggles of the '60s and the disillusionment of same in the '70s.

The litany signifies: Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come;" the masterwork of Curtis Mayfield, both with the Impressions and on solo albums like Curtis and Superfly; the string of funk-infused singles Norman Whitfield produced for the Dennis Edwards/Eddie Kendricks-fronted Temptations; Marvin Gaye's What's Going On; Stevie Wonder's albums from Music of My Mind through Songs In the Key of Life; some of Gamble & Huff's early '70s work with the O'Jays. After that, hip-hop picked up the gauntlet, starting with Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and Public Enemy's entahr body of work, before gangsta rap and conspicuous consumption overtook social commentary as that music's topic o' the day.

To these feedback-scorched ears, it seems as though Blaze's album 25 Years Later, released on Motown in 1990, a year after founder Berry Gordy had sold the label, was the last great moment of conscious R&B, and the last great Motown album to stand alongside Stevie 'n' Marvin's long-form masterworks. Blaze was a trio of New Jerseyites -- Josh Milan, Kevin Hedge, and Chris Herbert. Milan and Hedge enjoyed some success as DJs and producers in the '80s before adding Herbert to the lineup and signing to Motown in '89, and they continued working together as house music producers after Blaze was dropped from Motown in the wake of 25 Years Later's commercial failure.

The record was a concept piece, depicting the last day in the life of a fictitious black nationalist leader called Shaheed Muhammad (not to be confused with the DJ/producer from A Tribe Called Quest). The music's redolent of '70s soul on the cusp of the disco era: Curtis Mayfield's fingerprints are all over "Get Up" and "Lover Man;" the single "So Special" sounds like an O'Jays hit, and "All That I Should Know" could be a Talking Book outtake. Sure, Brit acts the Brand New Heavies and Soul II Soul were mining the same motherlode around the same time, but neither as effectively as Blaze. Don't take my word for it; listen.


Post a Comment

<< Home