Music » Music Lead

The Re-Entroducer

Writer Oliver Wang knows hip-hop, and he shares this knowledge via his Soul Sides.

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Professor, blogger, DJ, and music zealot reveals even more Soul Sides with a new compilation.
  • Professor, blogger, DJ, and music zealot reveals even more Soul Sides with a new compilation.

It's the last day of this year's EMP Pop Conference, the annual gathering of music critics and academic scholars helmed by the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. The event is a chance for music writers to leave behind cloistered offices and towers of unopened promo CDs for a weekend of panels and papers on every topic imaginable. These include musings on Rod Stewart, black metal, Bob Dylan's high school, and state-sponsored pop from North Korea.

Oliver Wang -- the California writer, academic, and DJ -- presents a paper on the history of boogaloo music, a short-lived amalgam of American R&B and Latino mambo that swept minority neighborhoods (especially in New York) in the '60s.

Here's Wang's argument: Despite boogaloo being despised by many of its practitioners -- everyone from the Palmieri Brothers to Tito Puente cut boogaloo, yet disowned such "pop" -- it was "this overlooked moment in both New York and larger American cultural history that is this meeting point between African American, Afro-Latino, and Latin American traditions," he explains, while we walk away from the EMP, passing an abandoned playground. "It really is this moment where there was this attempt to bring together black and brown."

Although the movement is 40 years old, boogaloo numbers still jam dance floors during Wang's DJ sets. "The rhythm's not so complex," he says. "People instantly fall into it."

When not teaching courses on race, media, and popular culture at California State University, Long Beach, Wang further helps people learn about music via Soul Sides (www.soul-sides.com), his pioneering music blog. Whereas most blogs generally race to plant flags milliseconds before their peers, lauding hip indie bands like Deerhunter and the Twilight Sad, Wang digs into the nooks of old record-store crates and into artists generally abandoned by time.

Seeking is a part of music appreciation, one exemplified on Soul Sides. Wang finds connections, much like DJ Shadow. In any given month, Soul Sides might cast its spotlight on hip-hop producer Diamond D, Dionne Warwick and her sister Dee Dee, Ghostface, some Peruvian rock, and even a cut from that neglected first family of funk, the Brady Bunch. He also casts the dusty and forgotten alongside such new practitioners as Sharon Jones or Amy Winehouse.

"When I stopped doing college radio after 10 years, I was burnt out on three hours a week, doing programming for that by myself," explains Wang. "Audio-blogging was much more laid-back, and the fact that you get instantaneous feedback is different than when you're doing a radio show and no one calls you for three hours. You sort of wonder if anyone is actually listening to you."

Wang says nearly 20,000 visitors a week stop at Soul Sides, with three quarters of a million making their way to the site in 2006 alone. One frequent reader was Kevin Drost, who ran Zealous Records in New York City. "I was personally a huge fan of blogs," he tells me via e-mail, despite having the general feeling "that labels and blogs were enemies, as the bloggers were posting unauthorized and illegal downloads." Struck by both Wang's range and depth of knowledge, Drost approached him about licensing tracks for a hard-copy Soul Sides compilation, gleaning some of the site's best MP3s, yet structuring and pacing them together like a well-curated mixtape.

Released in March of last year, Soul Sides Vol. 1 compiles rare blues, soul, and funk 45s that should've never fallen out of the public consciousness. Dig, for example, Linda Lyndell's original "What a Man" (as sampled by Salt-N-Pepa) or this writer's favorite, "Lovin' You" by the original gangster of love, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who languorously extols the nature of a love rarer than "feathers on a house cat." Whether you're a neophyte or an aficionado, Vol. 1 has plenty of surprises to offer. "I've always envisioned the comps as kind of a stepping-stone for casual soul fans," Drost explains. "Not exclusively for crate-diggers or record nerds."

Says Wang: "It was an interesting, novel experiment in bridging the word-of-mouth success [of Soul Sides] with a conventional album. And I'm privileged to have that opportunity, especially [because] I'm old-school. I still like physical media."

Soul Sides Vol. 2: The Covers is out this week: Check out the distorted, drum-centered take on Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" by El Michaels Affair, Hector LaVoe's "Che Che Cole" as recast by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, or how Al Green mishears the Beatles (much like Bob Dylan did) and belts out "I get hiiiigh" during his cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

As if grading papers, blogging about disco mixes, and doing liner notes for the recent What It Is! box set wasn't enough, Wang also penned the investigative notes for two reissued albums by forgotten singer Betty Davis. Once the wife of Miles Davis (and suspected paramour of Jimi Hendrix), Mrs. Davis cut a handful of raw punk-funk albums and promptly fell off the grid for nearly 30 years, despite influencing two generations of dirty-minded musicians, from Prince to Prince Paul, from Rick James to Lil' Kim. With the help of Wang and Seattle label Light in the Attic, Betty's music -- her self-titled debut from 1973 and the following year's They Say I'm Different -- is back in the spotlight for a new generation to dig.

Wang and I make our way back to the confines of EMP to discuss with our cohorts the seemingly doomed future of writing about music for a living. Retracing our route, we come upon a curious sight: That silent playground we passed less than an hour ago has suddenly sprung to life, with children screeching as they dart from ride to ride. For an instant, everything presumed old feels new again.

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