RED HOT + RIOT (Universal) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Even without looking at the dreadful history behind tribute albums, the folks behind the Red Hot organization had real concerns about launching a tribute to Nigerian Afro-funk don Fela Kuti. As his dozens of imitators have found out, duplicating Fela's stuttering Afrobeat thump is harder than it looks.That makes a record with not one, but 20 solid Kuti covers worth celebrating.
Two years in the making, with proceeds going to fight AIDS in Africa, Red Hot + Riot is a compelling tribute to the Nigerian legend who died of an AIDS-related illness more than five years ago. The track listing reads like a who's who of black music; D'Angelo, Blackalicious, Talib Kweli, MeShell Ndegeocello, the Roots, Cheikh Lo and Baaba Maal work through Fela classics like Zombie, Shakara and No Agreement.
It took motivation from a true Fela fan to complete the project.
"It's all fairly simple," Red Hot + Riot producer Paul Heck explains from New York. "We're all Fela fans, Fela died of AIDS, and addressing AIDS in Africa has been something we've been trying to do for years now. For a long time there was this one block in my mind -- "You can't do a Fela record!' The guy who turned it around was Ahmir Thompson, from the Roots.
"He was at a session for another Red Hot project when all the Fela reissues were coming out. Ahmir was standing in the studio opening one of the box sets and suddenly said, "You guys should do a Fela record and call it, uh, Red Hot + Riot.' Bing. Bang."
Easier said than done. Once the ball finally started rolling, the project very nearly spiralled into the abyss.
Early last year, bootlegs of a churning cover of Water No Get Enemy, featuring Femi Kuti, D'Angelo, the Roots, Macy Gray and Roy Hargrove, began leaking out, suggesting the complete album was just around the corner. Then silence.
"That was the first track that was recorded and finished, in part because D'Angelo and Ahmir had been playing it on D's tour," Heck explains. "That set the record in motion even though we didn't even have a record deal. It was done in three days, and then the rest took three years.
"A lot of the record was done here in the Red Hot studio, so we had some role in guiding the tracks, but we really left the people on their own. From our perspective, the only way you can really pay tribute to someone is to do it in your own style, and that's what happened."
The real success of Red Hot + Riot is how it recontextualizes Fela's instantly recognizable music. Most of the artists involved keep the integrity of the tracks but also blow them wide open. That ranges from D'Angelo and crew's faithful cover and Blackalicious's blinding use of a Fela sample in their beats, to Bugz in the Attic turning Zombie into a broken-beat smash, Common reworking lyrics from Sorrow, Tears And Blood into his new rhyme, and Toronto producer Doc essentially writing a "new" Fela tune with singer Kelis.
"One of the most misunderstood tracks is the Kelis cut," an exasperated Heck says. "I asked Doc to cover Coffin For Head Of State, but after a long time he was really unable to do a cover, so he ended up writing his own version of a Fela song. Basically, it's a song Fela could have written, but already people are saying that it doesn't belong.
"I want kids who listen to hiphop and dance music to get exposed to their first Fela through this. The great thing would be if people went and checked out the original records because of this. Shit, man, I still listen to Sorrow, Tears And Blood every day."email@example.com
RED HOT + RIOT RELEASE PARTY with RICH MEDINA, DAVE CAMPBELL, MIKE TULL, SON OF SOUL and iDRUM at Roxy Blu (12 Brant), Friday (October 11). $10. www.hotstepper.com