So for the past few years now my friend Swayze (long story behind that name) has been helping put together this annual Stevie Wonder tribute in New York. This year they’ll be bringing the night to Los Angeles with DJ Spinna and Bobbito Garcia (of Stretch and Bobbito fame for my old school heads). When he told me about the event I wanted to do a post to help promote, but as I was trying to decide what to tracks to post I suddenly realized how much of an integral part Stevie’s music played in my upbringing.
You see the thing is Stevie Wonder’s music was so prevalent in the places I grew up in that I never was able to distinguish between what were his “hits” and his album oriented tracks. It was all just Stevie Wonder… you’re supposed to get excited when it comes on. Considering how much I was bounced around in my youth it’s quite remarkable that this fact remained true with all of the different family I lived with over the years.
Easily one of my earliest memories is watching Big Bird on Sesame Street sing some educational rendition of “My Cherie Amour”. I can’t recall the details, but I distinctly remember associating “the yellow one” with “La-lala-La-lala” I also remember getting a kick out of the California Raisins videos for “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. In school while learning the seasons I could always reference July as the “hottest month of the year” to remember that was the middle of summer. When I lived with my mom and she’d hit a spring cleaning kick she’d play records all day and I remember the soundtrack for “The Woman in Red” getting heavy rotation when it came out… or maybe that’s just the album cover that I remember the most.
If I were to try and run down a complete retrospective on Stevie’s work in this space here, I most definitely would come up lacking in some shape form or fashion… so instead I’m gonna take it back like Bobbito would for Vibe magazine and just gab on about some associated tunes.
This is just beautiful songwriting here. For me this track negates any questions of whether Stevie still had it after his “classic period”. Of course tracks like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “That’s What Friends Are For” would be more popular and win Grammies and all that, but to me, this is what it was all about. It’s also one of the tracks that more prominently displays his vocal prowess which is staggering.
This was one of the tracks Stevie helped write for his fellow Motown artists back in the day. One of the mental images I associate most with this song is a strip from the Sunday comic “Curtis” where he’s scratching the chorus on his dad’s turntable. This was back before hip-hop could really be considered “mainstream” and it played not only off of the notion of physically damaging the vinyl but also “ruining one of the classics”. I remember finding it pretty funny at the time, I wish I could find the image to post.
I think Erick Sermon is one of the most underrated producers out there. Well… maybe not so much underrated, but taken for granted I should say. I remember the first time I heard this and quickly recognizing “Ribbon in the Sky” crossed with “Summer Madness” by Kool and the Gang. Thinking back Sermon really pioneered a lot of what would become the mash-up movement. I wonder how much Z-trip credits him as an influence. Listen to some of those old EPMD tracks like “You Gots to Chill” where he mixed “Jungle Boogie” with Roger and Zapp, or how he threw together Steve Miller Band and ZZ Top for “Only a Customer”.
This is the album that introduced Timbaland to the masses, although he had been ghost producing Devante Swing tracks for some time at that point. I actually wasn’t that big a fan of “Pony” to tell the truth, but it was this song that made me take notice. That guitar lick from “Visions” always got to me and he flipped it nice for this track. Timbo was definitely doing things that nobody else was considering back at that point in time. On a side note, in the lyrics to the original track Stevie states that he knows the leaves are green and I always wondered just exactly how he would know that. (and that’s as close as you’ll get to a blind joke out of me as far as Stevie is concerned).
Thanks to Coolio this is probably one of the most easily recalled uses of a Stevie sample even though I don’t think this track was ever released as a single. I remember playing John Madden football with Ricks while listening to “The Bushman” on WJLB out of Detroit when we first heard “Gangsta’s Paradise”. It had to be the first time anyone had played it on the air, but since it was in the middle of a weekend mixshow there was no announcement as to who it was. We couldn’t figure it out and even though the voice was off, we assumed it must’ve been something from the upcoming Tupac album since lyrically it was so reminiscent of some of the tracks off of Me Against the World and the Thug Life project.
We went to the mall the next morning and asked around about whether anyone could tell us the name of the track. It was funny because we’d walk up to the counter at the record stores and before we could get a word out the clerk would look at us and be like “The new B.O.N.E. album comes out in two weeks guys”. We’d look at each other and laugh, but it would be at least another three weeks before anybody else we knew was up on “Gangsta’s Paradise” Of course by the time it was all said and done with, if we heard it one more time it would have been that many times too many… but I still want to know why the hell LV was sitting in a sauna for the video.
Speaking of Me Against the World…
There’s a bit of keyboard in there, but it’s just those three quick notes on the harmonica that make this sample indistinguishably Stevie. I love this track, it’s ‘Pac at his most introspective. Probably my favorite Tupac song of all time. People constantly talk about him as the greatest MC and all that… I’m not gonna get into that debate here, but what I will say is the people who argue that point always want to grab All Eyes On Me to support their case. If you ask me their argument would be much better served if they pointed to Me Against the World. I think it was a much more deep and personal album lyrically and having my own demons as well I related to it much more than I probably should have at that age.
At any rate, the same song was sampled much more blatantly by MJG for “That Girl” a few years later and believe it or not I had actually forgotten Stacy Dash was in the video (how the hell did I do that?). What I did remember though was MJG dancing towards the end. Eightball had the much better solo single if you ask me.
Let’s recenter this journey just a little bit though.
I guess this is considered to be “early” Stevie at this point. Again this is one of those songs that was just always there while I was growing up. Guaranteed to get the party started at family functions and whatnot. I didn’t realize that the song was almost 20 years old even back then.
I guess this was called one of the greatest cover songs ever by some British rag a few years ago. I guess it does rank up there for me as well, but the original is groundbreaking itself. That song is pretty much the sole reason the term “funky clavi” exists. Where the cover excels is the translation of that driving clavinet into such a powerful bass line.
As if this album didn’t make it obvious, Madlib thinks of Stevie as a major influence. There was what could be considered another slightly more subtle shout-out on the cover of the Madvillain album where he’s shown with the E-mu SP1200. Stevie was the first person to own an E-mu Emulator when they first came out. Of course at one point in time all the major hip-hop producers were using the SP, but this day in age I have to think there’s a reason Madlib chooses the vintage E-mu over Akai’s MPC products.
It’s worth noting how pioneering Stevie was with a lot of different synthesizers over the years. One of the stalwarts of Stevie Wonder impressions nowadays is to mimic playing two different keyboards at the same time.
I had to end this with one of the classics. My dad was a huge fan of Songs in the Key of Life, but personally I was a little more partial to Innervisions. The intro of this track is hilarious to me… especially when you consider for some time I used to think he was actually saying “Como tambien Chevrolet?”…which makes absolutely no sense, but works in the skit. The actual phrase ‘Todo ‘sta bien, chévere’ makes a lot more sense in the context of the song, but I still like to think of it as a guy posturing to some girl about how cultured he is and she totally can see though his bullshit, but doesn’t call him on it. Maybe because that’s the same shit I try to pull on a regular basis.
Anyway, for more Stevie goodness, head on over to Get Downnn where Hippo recently posted his thoughts on seeing the man himself in concert not too long ago. And if you’re in the LA area then come on by on September 29th at the Crash Mansion downtown and celebrate the multi-talented wonder that is Stevland Morris. Ladies save a dance for me.