John Morrison's Philly Top Five: Honoring Black history and creativity from The Heptones covering Harold Melvin to Kur's 'Thurl' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

February is Black History Month and while the Black freedom struggle and Black art and culture are somewhat superficially celebrated during this time, I don’t think we ever truly reckon with the gravity that Blackness holds in America’s societal makeup. In a country whose economic and cultural infrastructure was literally built by Black labor, racism and the systemic oppression of those who’ve performed that labor cannot be dismissed as a series of disconnected events from  the past or isolated events in the present. By understanding that racism — and the collective joy, innovation and self-determination that Black people create in spite of it — are all part of a long continuum we see that Black history is inextricably linked to the present health and well-being of Black people as well as our future. This is the core premise of my work. This is what motivates me to write and play music, beyond money, accolades and even my own curiosity.

In the interest of honoring Black history and creativity, I’ve been working on a few projects that speak to this historical continuum that connects so many people and so much music. On the 17th, Josh Leidy and I did a fun presentation on the history of sampling for the National Liberty Museum’s 50 Years of Hip Hop: Art Music Power event. We talked about the cultural and technological shifts that shaped sampling and played musical examples from A Tribe Called Quest, Minnie Riperton, James Brown and others. This month, Raina Douris and I have also been doing weekly segments on the World Cafe celebrating Black contributions to dance music. We started with disco and Philadelphia International Records in the 70s and have been taking listeners through a sonic journey touching on Chicago House, Detroit Techno and beyond. As always, I’ve been digging up new tunes and playing gigs around the city. It’s all interrelated and it’s all connected.

The Next Movement Hip-Hop Showcase at Attic Brewing Company

On Saturday, February 24th, Rob and E of the Next Movement podcast hosted their first showcase at Attic Brewing Company in Germantown. I had the pleasure of holding it down on the turntables for the night, spinning in between sets and backing up MCs Oliver Rothstein and lojii. Rob and E also led a great conversation about the legacy of Freeway’s debut album, Philadelphia Freeway. All in all it was a dope evening, the staff was great and helpful, the crowd had fun and my hope is that we can make it a regular event. Philly definitely needs more fun, well-curated hip-hop showcases that elevate the great talents the city has to offer.

The Heptones – “I Miss You”

Historically, Jamaican reggae and Black American R&B are inextricably linked. As the genre was at least partially formed by Jamaicans putting their own spin on soul music, reggae musicians have always been master interpreters of American rhythm and blues. One of my favorite reggae covers to play recently has been The Heptones’ gorgeous cover of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ “I Miss You.” With its peppier groove, deep bassline and haunting vocal harmonies, The Heptones completely reimagine the tune while retaining it’s emotional weight and power.

The Heptones I Miss You Part 1

Ayesha – “Lime Green Jello”

One of my favorite Philly hip-hop cuts that I’ve been playing a lot has been Ayesha’s “Lime Green Jello” from 1994. Her tune “Million Dollar Bill” might be more well known as it got some radio play back in the day, but “Lime Green Jello” is a delightful cut too. Using the sweet, childhood treat as a metaphor for jealousy, Ayesha glides over the breezy, guitar-sampling beat to create a lighthearted kiss off to haters tryna dim her shine.

Ayesha - Lime Green Jello (1994)

Anwar Highsign & Arckatron – “Understand” b/w “Kids Don’t Feel”

“Understand” b/w “Kids Don’t Feel” is a fly, collaborative single from MC Anwar Highsign and producer Arckatron. Over a dreamy, mid tempo beat, Anwar holds court, taking aim at industry fakes trying to derail his momentum and deny him a spot. The contrast between the acerbic lyrics and rich production create an uneasy tension as Highsign questions the intentions of those around him while the vocal sample in the beat softly croons “If you smile at me, I will understand.” With a feature from CASTLE, “Kids Don’t Feel” is based around a murky beat that sounds like a modern update of Tical-era Method Man. CASTLE and Anwar Highsign have crazy chemistry, trading vivid bars about the trials of coming up in a world hell bent on stunting your growth.

Kur – Thurl

For the last few years, Uptown lyricist Kur has been quietly putting together one of the best bodies of work in contemporary rap. 2022’s Loyal To A Fault was heavy on his patented, overlapping rhyme patterns and introspective stories. His latest, Thurl, improves upon that formula. Kur has always pulled in snapshots of his personal life in vivid detail, but Thurl does this with a little extra energy. Standout cuts like “123”, “Pain In My Heart,” and the lifting, optimistic “Up To Par” make Thurl one of the best rap albums out right now.

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