It’s the last day of this year’s EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, the annual convening of music critics and academic scholars helmed by the Experience Music Project museum. For those who get along quite well without music writing (hmph!), the EMP event is a chance to leave behind our cloistered offices and towers of unopened promo CDs for a weekend of panels, round-tables, and papers on every esoteric topic imaginable. This April’s event featured musings on Rod Stewart, black metal, Bob Dylan’s high school, and state-sponsored pop from North Korea, along with dozens of other topics. Oliver Wang, the California writer, critic, academic, DJ, and music blogger, presented a paper on the history of boogaloo music, that short-lived amalgam of American r&b and Latino mambo that swept minority neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx, in the early to mid ’60s.
As we walk away from the museum and through a derelict playground that neighbors it—the Ferris wheel solemn, the merry-go-round stilled—Wang elucidates on his subject, switching his cumbersome record bag from shoulder to shoulder. Clean-cut and soft-spoken, the thirtysomething associate professor mulls over each of his answers, yet his measured response belies a true zeal for his subject. Wang’s argument is that despite boogaloo being despised by many of its practitioners (everyone from the Palmieri Brothers to Tito Puente cut boogaloo yet disowned such “pop”), it nevertheless 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. “It really is this moment where there was this attempt to bring together black and brown.” Despite being 40 or so years old, boogaloo numbers still jam dancefloors during his DJ sets today: For the crowd, “it’s incredibly easy to pick up on,” he says. “The rhythm’s not so complex that if you don’t really know what you’re doing you can’t catch it. . . . 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 fall into it via Soul Sides, his highly esteemed music blog (at soul-sides.com), a pioneering presence on that landscape. ” ‘Early practitioner’ in this case means I was doing it around (February of) 2004,” Wang laughs, slightly incredulously at his veteran blogger status—he shouts out predecessors like Music for Robots, Fluxblog, and Gabba Pod for the inspiration. Whereas such sites, and the innumerable ones that have sprung up in their wake, generally race to plant flags scant milliseconds before their peers, hosanna–ing the likes of “it” indie bands—be they Deerhunter, the Twilight Sad, or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!—Wang digs deeper, into the nooks of old record-store crates, for artists generally abandoned by time, in their own era or even in light of the 21st century’s reprising of all things esoteric. Wang finds connections there, much as folks like DJ Shadow and Dante Carfagna do. On any given month—October of 2005, say—Soul Sides might alight 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.
Sure, it may not exactly seem paradigm-shifting to have technology catch up to those old Peter Pan records (where you could read along as you listened to the 45), but as audio-blogging—where you can listen to something new and read about it simultaneously—became a phenomenon, it bolstered the theory that, much like the music industry itself, music criticism would soon be in the graveyard, and The People could now decide for themselves whether a track was a smash or trash.
Seeking is a part of music appreciation, one exemplified in Soul Sides. As Wang’s love for soul and funk sprung from the hip-hop records he grew up on, so too does he reveal such roots on a weekly basis, casting the dusty and forgotten alongside such new practitioners as Sharon Jones or Amy Winehouse. Such revival only spurs on the need to continue unearthing and talking about music that he relishes. “I started audio-blogging,” Wang says, deliberating over his words, “not consciously—but I think the timing was too close to be purely coincidental—when I stopped doing college radio. After 10 years, I was burnt-out on three hours a week, doing programming for that by myself. 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 unique 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 there being a general feeling “that labels and blogs were enemies, as the bloggers were posting unauthorized and illegal downloads.” Struck both by 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 structured and paced like a well-curated mixtape. Released in March of last year, Soul Sides Vol. 1 culled rare 45s alongside cuts from practitioners of blues, soul, or funk that should’ve never fallen out of the public consciousness. Listen 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 housecat.” Whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado, Volume 1 had 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.”
“It was an interesting, novel experiment in bridging the word-of-mouth success (of Soul Sides) with a conventional album,” Wang says. “And I’m privileged to have that opportunity, especially (as) I’m old school—I still like physical media.” Soul Sides Vol. 2: The Covers is out this week: Dig the distorted, drum-centered take on Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” by El Michels Affair, Héctor 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 of ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks at Soul Sides, and doing liners 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, 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 hear.
Wang and I make our way back to the confines of EMP to discuss with our fellow cohorts the seemingly doomed future of writing about music for a living. Re-tracing our route, we come upon a curious sight: That silent playground fair 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.