Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Activate!': A review of The African Children Riddim

Go forward! In the never-ending competition waged between quality and quantity, I think that most people would vote on the side of quality, particularly when it comes to music and I'd probably be one of them. Yes, you want an artist or a label or a whatever to remain as active as possible, but there is something very attractive about someone who you may not hear from often, but when you do their output is almost always top notch. That is the antithesis of someone else who jumps on every riddim they can and not only make it hard to keep up with what they've done but, even at the highest of levels, also run the risk of diluting the nature of their talents as well as the anticipation of their work. Where quantity and quality meet, however, is an even more special (I'm really about to start using the word 'specialer', there's no reason not to) place and instead of having to choose either, one can actually help to promote the other. Maybe, for some people, staying active helps them to stay sharp and stay confident and for others maybe making good music gives them reason to make more of it. And we see a little bit of that these days, especially amongst labels. The one that most immediately comes to mind is definitely I Grade Records whose prolificacy has virtually mirrored its quality to the point where we sit today in a year short of four months old (as long as I finish this in the next couple of days), they've already locked up two of the best albums of the year, without question. Other labels have shown it as well and, amongst them, is definitely one of our favourites who, apparently, have made the decision to have a great year in 2014. Of course we're talking about Oneness Records from out of Germany who have seemingly returned to their old ways (of CONSTANTLY blending, seamlessly, good music and high activity) for the new year. And, as I've said in the past, Oneness is one of the labels who I most look forward to hearing from. In the history of these pages, they've not only dropped some of the best albums that we've dealt with, but also some of the very best tracks as well so a year when they're active, at least in my opinion, is one which is inherently better for Reggae music entirely. And in 2014 they've gotten back to the work of… being themselves.  
"One Love, One Heart, Oneness" [2014]
Back in January the label got off to a good start with an excellent compilation, "One Love, One Heart, Oneness", which brought together some of Oneness' most well known and biggest tunes to date with some newer material as well. I thought that the set, even in theory, was a pretty good idea and is one which they, hopefully, decide to do in future volumes as well (especially when they include new songs and, at this rate, we won't have to wait too long for a second edition) - and it played out sublimely. Following that set (which you should pick up, if you haven't already), Oneness got back on track and back to making new tracks and released the Rise Up Riddim a shockingly short couple of months ago (that thing seems like it reached… maybe fifteen, twenty minutes ago???). And it just FEELS GOOD! After a 2013 during which Oneness seemed to focus completely on "Not The Same", a big EP release from Denham Smith (more on both in a second), they've come out blazing in 2014 and it's getting hotter with the release of their latest creation, the African Children Riddim.
Rise Up Riddim [two or three days ago]
Just in case you had any questions (and you didn't), the Rise Up certainly revived and put on full display just how strong Oneness' compositions are and not just from a musical point of view. There was also the very interesting and vibrant selection of vocalists, a trait which they've shown over years to have one of the greatest aptitudes for in the whole of Reggae music. They don't just link the biggest names they can find, Oneness actually seems to at least make an attempt at linking proper styles with the music - which is, unfortunately, not something we can say for everyone. They're very good at it and as good as actually making music in my opinion. Also, that track flowed neatly from its predecessors and was another solid entry from the vaults of Oneness Records. So because of that (and a lot of other stuff), I was not only looking forward to their next project, but I was looking forward to looking forward to it and though its very quick release kind of tempered the latter, as always the former has worked well for me in the case of the African Children Riddim. Just as it was for the Rise Up Riddim, we were familiar with the African Children when we figured out what it was and I have no problem with that. If they wanted to continue this trend throughout 2014 and beyond of expanding some of their previous work, given just how much attention I've paid to their work in recent years -- I could probably start making requests at some point -- there're several tracks that I've heard in their work that I'd like to hear in the hands of different vocalists so I hope that they do continue to spread out some of them. Here, you would know the African Children Riddim from the title track from the aforementioned "Not The Same" EP, last year. Given that it occupied that position, its appearance in this type of a presentation certainly is not surprising as Oneness has already worked hard in promoting to the masses once and people like you and I already know it and enjoy it. And, as I said, they don't just throw it out there and see what happens - Oneness does a good job in assembling talents and nothing has changed there for the African Children Riddim. 

The actual track here is an excellent one. Obviously when you feature them in this form the spotlight is shone brightly on the basic composition and for this particular offering that light only further heightens its beauty. Also doing a nice job in showing the African Children Riddim in a fine way is Exco Levi whose scintillating social commentary, 'Blood Tears', gets us started and is the riddim's single best tune to my opinion.

"These are the last days
Mankind is on a fast pace
Things they do to survive - oh sometime it make yuh heart race
World become a dark place
Rat race and dog race
And a man will kill you fast for the food inna di glass case
Some say it's just a cycle
Love is just a title -
Cause no one seems to show it
Don't even wanna try to
Yuh brother wanna fight you
Instigator wanna spite you

There're so many things to like about this tune, not the least of which are both the lyrical and vocal performances Levi put in place for this track. I may be wrong, but I do think that this marks the first link between the artist and Oneness Records and, based on these results, it'd be something FUCKED UP if they never made another track together. 'Blood Tears' is excellent. The aforementioned 'Not The Same' by the also aforementioned Denham Smith (biggup Denham Smith) is the second song on the riddim and it's remained a favourite of mine from the very first time that I heard it. This song, another commentary on the state of the world, is so interesting because of the kind of passionate disconnect Smith makes. He wholly accepts that there're bad people on the planet and they do bad acts intentionally, but he's not one of them. I think that a tune written in this way is so compelling because, in a sense, it makes the case of leading by example. He's not saying for everyone to directly follow what he does, instead he highlights what others do, wickedly, and presents it in the way to the listener as if to say 'why would you want to be like them'. A HEALTHY song and, again, one of the riddim's brightest moments. The biggest name on this project is Luciano who tells us all to 'Build A Better Land'. Aside from the chorus, which I loved almost immediately, it took me a bit of warming up to appreciate this one fully and although I still wouldn't call it a highlight here… I wouldn't be surprised if I changed my mind on that in the future.

'Not The Same' by Denham Smith

Though it features only nine vocal selections, as I alluded to, I was really happy with the artist selection for the African Children. Personally, it brought together some nice unexpected faces (such as Exco Levi and a couple more we're tell you about in a minute) with some of the more familiar staples of Oneness Records. Probably the one which made me happiest was blazing Indonesian, Ras Muhamad, who brings forth the clever 'Lion Roar'.

"Inna Ithiopia dem call HIM anbessa
In Swahili, they call HIM simba
Well if you ever inna Indonesia-
Know seh that The Lion, here, we call HIM singa
Know seh that The Lion, He is boss and ruler
I see The Lion, HIM a courage and power
Hail up The Lion of Judah!"

Well in the concrete jungle, you hear The Lion, HIM a roar
Well in the concrete jungle, you fear The Lion when HIM roar, when HIM roar!

Pay close attention - and know the power that lies within
Reveal the truth that's been hidden
Third eye vision: What your sight has been missing
Are you satisfied with the life that you're living?
Escape yourself from the system
Become independent
Like the mighty Lion, HIM ah self-determined
Self-reliant, with the ability to stand on your own two feet"

Muhamad could make a lot of people very happy (including me and probably You) if he released an album in 2014 and if/when he did, he filled it with songs like this one, I'd likely require some type of surgical procedure to STOP me from smiling. Similarly is the case of Mark Wonder, still working wonders alongside Oneness Records, for the African Children, the AMAZING vocalist takes things literally and gives us 'Nubians Glory'. This song strikes me as one meant to build pride in people of Afrikan descent and to underscore the importance of living upful and righteous lives in whatever path you take in the world. As usual, Wonder's vocals are crystal clear (one of these days, I'll make a list concerning the best VOCALS in Reggae music. And just as sure as Jah Cure's name will be at the head of that list, Mark Wonder's will also be somewhere on it and it's something I don't think that he gets enough credit for, even amongst more experienced of fans - his voice is GOLDEN). And speaking of big vocals, check 'Boasy Slave' from longtime Oneness favourite, Naptali. Naptali doesn't go in too different of a route than Mark Wonder does on this big songs and the songs come in succession on the album and compliment one another extremely well. And Naptali is someone else who we wouldn't mind hearing from in a big form in 2014 and I'm sure that Oneness, once again, could help him with that. A pair of label favourites, the mighty voiced Raymond Wright and the fiery Fyah T team up for 'Elohim'. The contrast here is so interesting because on one hand you have the ultra-polished vocals of Wright and on the other is Fyah T who… virtually always sounds as if he's at least a little pissed off but it isn't an issue here. Though Wright does most of the vocals here, as you would expect, Fyah, as he always does, makes a big impact and makes the most of another opportunity on a big project. 

And there is a solid pair of names voicing the African Children Riddim who you wouldn't necessarily expect but whose presences, respectively, definitely make it better. The first is the Vanguard Leader, who you surely know better as Fitta Warri who gives the riddim its obligatory ganja song, 'Just A Plant'. You have to tune in on the lyrics very intently here to fully take in this tune. After my first listen through I didn't have the same respect for it that I did after spin three or so because Warri says some deep things, especially in the songs earlier stages. And I don't know who she is, but definitely biggup the background singer on 'Just A Plant'. And lastly is 'Ready For The World' by Michelle Gordon. I would have complained if the African Children Riddim didn't include at least one female voice and although it doesn't include THE one I was expecting, biggup the Familiar Stranger, Michelle Gordon, as she typically does, does exceptionally well with her selection. There's a point on this tune, about a minute and a half into it, where vocals meet this space in the track and everything settles down SO nicely - it makes me smile every time I hear it in just appreciating the moment. What I took from 'Ready For The World' is the idea of preparation. I don't think that the song is just about the biggest moment (she even talks, extensively, about the journey), it is about that moment and all of the small ones which lead into it. And it is this great message because it shows that the journey is often just as important, if not more, than the destination. Thankfully, once again Oneness Records includes a clean version of this stellar track where you can completely take it in and hear all of the various sounds that make up what may be, as a composition, one of their better creations to date.  
Overall - welcome back, again! I didn't realize just how much I missed the regular or even semi-regular release schedule of Oneness Records until I lost it and then it came back. This is just SO convenient to have them making at least good music at such a consistent level and though I'm sure that they won't maintain the nonexistent time gaps (if they do then we can expect the next Oneness riddim in late June, which isn't very far away at all) (though if they did want to do that, I'm not complaining), having them so active in such a capacity is fantastic! The African Children Riddim also falls in line in terms of the class of their previous work. It well had a high standard to live up to and it meets it with no problem at all. Call it another winner from Oneness Records who continues to show themselves as one of the single best Reggae labels in the entire world. Well done. 

Rated: 4/5
Oneness Records

Review #504

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