The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
For a long time, “Human Nature” was not my favorite song on Thriller. It took me many years to wise up to how awesome it is. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I played it for Anna last night and she swooned instantly over the delivery, arrangement, melody, the whole thing worked for her. I’m slowly opening up to it too. I was amused to learn that it was written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis of Toto. I don’t know if they or Quincy Jones thought up the synth intro and outtro, but both are gorgeous.
My favorite Michael Jackson song is “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” This post is part of what’s turning into a series on it. The previous post is about the song as fan art, and some of the fan art that it’s inspired, from bootleg Youtube videos to licensed remixes. This one is about who owns the song, specifically the famous chant at the end. Here’s a list of everybody who I think could reasonably make a claim.
Before digital recording media, recording artists faced a tradeoff between spontaneity and perfection. Recording take after take until the performances are spotless can quickly suck the joy and energy out of the music. But the kind of sloppiness that goes unnoticed in a live performance can get on your nerves after many repeated listens. It’s possible to splice different performances together with tape to make a seamlessly perfect one, but it’s a labor-intensive process. One way around the tradeoff is to have the best musicians in the world. The Beatles knocked out their early albums in a matter of hours. Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue took only two days of live recording. These kinds of heroic feats of musicianship are only possible if you’ve spent years playing together professionally, like the Beatles, or if you put in many hours of a day of disciplined practice, like the guys in Miles Davis’ band, or ideally, both.
Another method to get lively yet polished recordings is to use ferocious discipline to create the illusion of spontaneity. Michael Jackson was able to give his performances on Thriller so much polish by recording take after take after take, all at the same level of manic intensity, with his grunts and screams arrayed precisely and intentionally. I can admire the focus he was able to bring to bear over long hours of tedious studio labor, but the psyche that produced his work ethic isn’t something I’d wish on myself or anyone else.