It's 2 a.m. on Christmas Day, and San Francisco's Club Milk is closing up shop. Outside, a jaded Santa drinks from a receptacle wrapped in a paper bag; inside, DJ Sake 1 unplugs his equalizers and sheaths his funk 78s. The hipster crowd is going home to do lines of cocaine and have really bad MySpace sex. But as the DJ himself escapes, an avuncular East Bay emcee mumbles something about wanting to thank Sake for playing "that one Roy Ayers song. He always plays that one Roy Ayers song."
That would be "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," the ubiquitous, groove-driven jazz hit sampled in so many hip-hop joints -- among them Brand Nubian's "Wake Up," Common's "Book of Life," Naughty by Nature's "Sunshine," Tupac and the Outlawz' "Lost Souls," and Mary J. Blige's "My Life" -- that its author, the vibraphone player sometimes dubbed "a prophet of acid jazz" by frothing critics, has become a rap titan by default. Of course, the real-life Roy doesn't exactly exemplify the Hip-Hop Generation: At 64, he's charmingly forgetful. Chatting over the phone, Ayers says he vaguely remembers working with some famous rap group in Philadelphia, but the name eludes him.
The Roots, Roy. Thankfully, he does remember enough relevant details to weave a compelling life story: He has collaborated with such musical royalty as jazz flautist Herbie Mann, Nigerian Afrobeat master Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and Gang Starr emcee Guru (a pairing that bore fruit with 1993's concept album, Jazzmatazz). Ayers first got into vibes at age five after his parents took him to see Lionel Hampton in concert. "In the middle of the show, he walked up the aisle singing, and that's when he saw me dancing and handed me a pair of mallets," he recalls. In fact, Ayers remembers the song Hampton was singing at that fateful moment, and he sings it now over the phone: Hey bop a ree bop/a wop doot doot.
But the East Los Angeles-raised jazz cat didn't get his first pair of real vibes until he was seventeen -- before that, he tinkered around on his mother's piano, and dug through his parents' jazz and blues records. "I started with boogie-woogie because it's easy," he remembers. "It's almost the same as the blues, which was easy for me to play since we had a lot of B.B. King playing in my house at the time." By age 21, Ayers was rubbing elbows with famous free-jazz artists like Chico Hamilton and Jack Wilson, and throughout the '60s he minted albums and performed in places like the Adams-West Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl.
The '70s marked the zenith of Ayers' career: He formed the funk-fusion band Ubiquity, signed to Polydor, and innovated his music with vocal vamps, disco-style strings, and Fela-inspired Afrobeat stylings. In '73, Ayers scored the blaxploitation sleeper hit Coffy; a few years later, he unleashed the international pop joints "Mystic Voyage" and "Everybody Loves the Sunshine."
Ayers came to hip-hop in the '90s, getting down with Common and Erykah Badu after his famous experiment with Guru. And even if he sustains an acid-jazz sound, he has clearly soaked up hip-hop's work ethic, which prioritizes business over artistic taste. His latest album, Virgin Ubiquity, Vol. 2: Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981 (Rapster), shows that he has learned how to capitalize on recycled material by reselling it in an ultrapackaged form -- arguably, your average hip-hop artist's primary MO. It's basically a hustle. When you've had a career as turbulent as Ayers' and suddenly find yourself back in the limelight, putting out recycled material is both a bitch move and a really smart gambit. In an honest (and appropriately slangy) review, Sake e-mails: "Roy is laffin all tha way 2 tha bank on these ones, sellin studio outtakes." Nonetheless, he adds: "God dayum its about time he got hiz."
Getting yourz is no guarantee when you primarily trade in acid jazz, a decidedly acquired taste: It may be strong enough for you, but it's pH balanced for someone on acid (though granted, if you're the one on acid, it's fucking great). Ideally you close your eyes and see all the fluorescent colors swirling around you, conjuring visions of cartoon beatniks with berets and congas. Ayers reaches this higher plane on tracks like "Liquid Love," which he describes in the Unreleased Recordings liner notes as "a freaky song, because when you talk about liquid love, you know, people are into oral sex and stuff like that." (Yikes.)
Though ultimately, this new record's quality varies -- there's definitely a reason cheeseball tracks like "Third Time," "Come to Me," and the Gil Scott-Heron-ish "I Am Your Mind Part 2" were rejected in the first place -- some songs are genuinely and clamorously funky. "Funk in the Hole" and "Tarzan" particularly excel, combining rubberband basslines, disco loops, vibe licks, and African drums to make instrumental fusions that actually work. Of course, the best song here (for better or worse) is the demo version of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine." Though Ayers would end up putting a chorus of female vocals on the hook, here he sings alone. His rasping, burbling voice makes each line sound more rough around the edges, but also more earnest and heartfelt than the version that became such an unstoppable hit.
Much of Ayers' work is improvised, from the music he makes to the ungainly way he describes it. Thus, some tracks are slick, breezy, sprawling things; others sound like they're careening in every direction. Still, there's a reason for Ayers' longevity: Throughout his haphazard career, he has produced enough genuinely, prodigiously beautiful ideas to remain a guru for over four decades. And most of it sounds fresh on vinyl, and is worth committing to print. He deserves hiz, and he's getting it.
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