Release Date: 1975
Record label: emd / luka bop
Genre(s): Rap, Hip-Hop, R&B, etc.
A Man Before His Time
by: matt halverson
It's cool to be cool, but it's so much cooler to be cool before anyone knows what cool is. Trouble is, there's not a lot of fame or money that goes with laying the groundwork for the future of coolness. "Seminal" is an adjective bandied about far too easily by modern music critics. Nowadays, an artist merely has to hold the reigns to the latest musical bandwagon to be labeled a pioneer. To truly qualify as seminal, a musician has to go unheralded in his or her own time and sacrifice fame for the satisfaction of furthering art. Witness Nick Drake. A tortured '70s folk singer who seemingly depressed himself so much with his heart-rendering pieces that he took his own life, he wouldn't be recognized by most until Volkswagon bastardized his "Pink Moon" in a recent commercial. Working in the same time period, the truly seminal Shuggie Otis slipped Inspiration Information, one of the most innovative and influential R&B recordings of the past 25 years, under the mainstream radar. And it's only now that he can really be appreciated.
A guitar virtuoso, master arranger and an original funk soul brother, Otis had a groove vision that defined the idea of "forward thinking," which is why his music seems so much more at home now than it ever could have in the '70s. The remastered and reissued Inspiration opens with a cascade of sultry "oohs" and "aahs" that would make Maxwell smile. In fact, it's difficult to listen to Inspiration without finding traces of the sexy confidence that would eventually weave its way into the sounds of Maxwell and fellow modern-day soul revivalist D'Angelo.
Because it was so far beyond what others were attempting at the time, it's difficult to describe Otis' sound outside of the context of modern music, but comparisons to other artists don't do his music justice. It's the innovators of today that should be compared to him. Though it would only be a short time before Prince wiggled his ass on to the pop scene, Inspiration's synth-laced melodies surely had a hand in shaping the burgeoning generation of New Power.
Though his music is undoubtedly revolutionary in a broader sense, it would be a mistake to overlook Otis's strength as an arranger and producer. His orchestral arrangements add a subtle poignancy to tracks like "Aht Uh Mi Hed" (say it out loud, it'll make sense) and "Island Letter," while his wah-wahing guitar work on "Strawberry Letter 23" offers a glimpse into the future of trance. The cosmic organ stutters and burps on "XL-30" and "Pling!" even show signs of early ambient exploration.
For all his mastery of the knobs and dials in the production booth, though, it was his work on the guitar that gave form to each of his songs. Though it's usually reduced to a rhythmic component, his guitar talent is strikingly evident when allowed to step forward. Otis gives Clapton a run for his money with his bluesy slide work on "Sweet Thang," and he evokes images of Electric Ladyland-era Hendrix on the airy "Freedom Flight." Yet, among the vast soundscape he creates on Inspiration, his guitar is only one instrument in an otherworldly experience.
The most exciting thing about Inspiration Information isn't the songs themselves, but picking out all of the musical gates they open. It's difficult to accept such a visionary artist might have gone largely unnoticed in his time, but one needn't look far to see how many artists of today Shuggie Otis helped create. 17-Dec-2001 11:00 PM