This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
Despite the perpetual debate over whether the internet is a good thing or a bad thing, there are some unabashedly positive things about the web: Wikipedia, cat videos, video tutorials for DIY repairs, WhoSampled… WhoSampled is a massive online database of samples. Hear a great song built around a sample and want to find the source? WhoSampled is pretty much guaranteed to help you find even the most obscure samples.
Producer J Dilla’s 2006 LP Donuts is a hip hop masterpiece. At 43 minutes and 31 tracks, it’s a whirlwind of sounds and samples — the press release compared it to scanning through radio stations in an unfamiliar city, but one track always stood out to me: the 36-second “Light My Fire.” I had to find the source material to this soulful cover of the Doors song of the same name. Thanks to WhoSampled, I learned it was the work of a band called Africa.
Africa’s sole release was the 1968 LP Music From ‘Lil Brown,’ but the group’s musicians had been playing together (in various forms) as doo-wop group The Valiants since 1955. In 1960 they teamed up with Lou Adler, the music industry bigwig later known for managing The Mamas & the Papas, producing Carole King’s Tapestry, and discovering Cheech & Chong. Adler produced Music from ‘Lil Brown,’ but sadly, despite his fame the album has stayed relatively unheard and hard to come by.
The title and artwork of the record are clear nods to the Band’s Music from Big Pink, whose raw country-soul style was big influence on Africa’s sound. Music From ‘Lil Brown’ is a succinct seven songs — nearly half of which are covers. But Africa makes them their own with their distinct acoustic arrangements. The aforementioned “Light My Fire” keeps the Doors’ psychedelic vibe, but trades the extended organ soloing for loose campfire jam. Album opener “Paint It Black” is stretched out with mostly wordless vocals and reverb-drenched conga percussion. And the oddest track on the album is a surprising medley of “Louie Louie” and Bobby Gentry’s 1967 number one hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” but it works.
My favorite songs on the record are the originals. “Here I Stand” and “Savin’ All My Love” are gorgeous ballads with rich harmonies and a “69 plug-in style,” as the above promo puts it. “Widow” brings the funk with a great bass line, and “You Take Advantage Of Me” closes the album with a fun kiss-off song anchored by an mbira riff.
Besides perhaps early Funkadelic, I can’t think of much that sounds like Africa (if you do, let me know!). If Music from Big Pink was the sound of a blues band huddled away in a rented house in upstate New York, Music from ‘Lil Brown’ is a doo-wop group holed up in a brown garage in LA, making their take on the late ‘60s sound. But don’t mistake it for a tribute to the Band — it’s a charming, quirky record that deserves its own place in the world.