It's the last day of this year's EMP Pop Conference, the annual gathering of music critics and academic scholars helmed by the Experience Music Project museum. The Seattle event is a chance for music writers to leave behind cloistered offices and their towers of unopened promo CDs for a weekend of panels, roundtables and papers on every esoteric topic imaginable. This April's event featured musings on Rod Stewart, black metal, Bob Dylan's high school and state-sponsored pop from North Korea, along with dozens of others. Oliver Wang the California writer, critic, academic, DJ and music blogger presented a paper on the history of boogaloo music, that short-lived amalgam of American R&B and Latino mambo that swept minority neighborhoods, especially the Bronx, in the early-to-mid-'60s.
As we walk away from the museum and through a derelict playground that neighbors it the Ferris wheel solemn, the merry-go-round stilled Wang elucidates his subject, switching his cumbersome record bag from shoulder to shoulder. Clean-cut and soft-spoken, the thirty-something associate professor mulls over each of his answers, yet his measured response belies a true zeal for his subject.
Wang's argument is that despite boogaloo being despised by many of its practitioners (everyone from the Palmieri Brothers to Tito Puente cut boogaloo yet disowned such "pop"), it nevertheless was "this overlooked moment in both New York and larger American cultural history that is this meeting point between African-American, Afro-Latino and Latin-American traditions," he explains. "It really is this moment where there was this attempt to bring together black and brown." Despite being 40 or so years old, boogaloo numbers still jam dance floors during his DJ sets today: For the crowd, "it's incredibly easy to pick up on," he says. "The rhythm's not so complex that if you don't really know what you're doing you can't catch it. People instantly fall into it."
When not teaching courses on race, media and popular culture at California State University, Long Beach, Wang further helps people fall into it via Soul Sides (www.soul-sides.com), his highly esteemed music blog and a pioneering presence on that computerized landscape.
"'Early practitioner' in this case means I was doing it around [February of] 2004," Wang laughs, slightly incredulous at his veteran blogger status he shouts out predecessors like Music for Robots, Fluxblog and Gabba Pod for the inspiration. Whereas such sites (and the innumerable ones that have sprung up in their wake) generally race to plant flags scant milliseconds before their peers, lauding the likes of "it" indie bands be they Deerhunter, the Twilight Sad or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Wang digs deeper, into the nooks of old record-store crates and into artists generally abandoned by time, in their own era or even during the 21st century's reprising of all things esoteric.
Wang finds connections there, much as folks like DJ Shadow and Dante Carfagna do. In any given month like, say, October 2005 Soul Sides might alight on hip-hop producer Diamond D, Dionne Warwick and her sister Dee Dee, Ghostface, some Peruvian rock and even a cut from that neglected first family of funk, the Brady Bunch.
Sure, it may not exactly seem paradigm-shifting to have technology catch up to those old Peter Pan records (where you could read along as you listened to the 45), but as audio-blogging where you can listen to something new and read about it simultaneously became a phenomenon, it bolstered the theory that, much like the music industry itself, music criticism would soon be in the graveyard, and The People could now decide for themselves whether a track was a smash or trash.
Seeking is a part of music appreciation, one exemplified on Soul Sides. As Wang's love for soul and funk sprung from the hip-hop records he grew up on, so too does he reveal such roots on a weekly basis, casting the dusty and forgotten alongside such new practitioners as Sharon Jones or Amy Winehouse. Such revival only spurs the need to continue unearthing and talking about music that he relishes.
"I started audio-blogging," Wang starts, deliberating over his words, "not consciously but I think the timing was too close to be purely coincidental when I stopped doing college radio. After ten years, I was burnt out on three hours a week, doing programming for that by myself. Audio-blogging was much more laid-back, and the fact that you get instantaneous feedback is different than when you're doing a radio show and no one calls you for three hours. You sort of wonder if anyone is actually listening to you."
Wang says nearly 20,000 unique visitors a week stop at Soul Sides, with three quarters of a million making their way to the site in 2006 alone. One frequent reader was Kevin Drost, who ran Zealous Records in New York City.
"I was personally a huge fan of blogs," he tells me via e-mail, despite having the general feeling "that labels and blogs were enemies, as the bloggers were posting unauthorized and illegal downloads." Struck both by Wang's range and depth of knowledge, Drost approached him about licensing tracks for a hard-copy Soul Sides compilation, gleaning some of the site's best MP3s, yet structuring and pacing them together like a well-curated mixtape.
Released in March of last year, Soul Sides Vol. 1 placed rare 45s alongside cuts from practitioners of blues, soul or funk that should've never fallen out of the public consciousness. Dig for example Linda Lyndell's original "What a Man" (as sampled by Salt-N-Pepa), or this writer's favorite, "Lovin' You" by the original gangster of love, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who languorously extols the nature of a love rarer than "feathers on a housecat." Whether you're a neophyte or an aficionado, Vol. 1 had plenty of surprises to offer. "I've always envisioned the comps as kind of a stepping stone for casual soul fans," Drost explains. "Not exclusively for crate-diggers or record nerds."
Says Wang: "It was an interesting, novel experiment in bridging the word-of-mouth success [of Soul Sides] with a conventional album. And I'm privileged to have that opportunity, especially [because] I'm old-school. I still like physical media." Soul Sides Vol. 2: The Covers is out this week: Check out the distorted, drum-centered take on Burt Bacharach's "Walk on By" by El Michaels Affair, Hector LaVoe's "Che Che Cole" as recast by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, or how Al Green mis-hears the Beatles (much like Bob Dylan did) and belts out "I get hiiiigh" during his cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
As if grading papers, blogging about disco mixes and doing liner notes for the recent What It Is! box set wasn't enough, Wang also penned the investigative notes for two reissued albums by forgotten singer Betty Davis. Once the wife of Miles Davis (and suspected paramour of Jimi Hendrix), Mrs. Davis cut a handful of raw punk-funk albums and promptly fell off the grid for nearly 30 years, despite influencing two generations of dirty-minded musicians, from Prince to Prince Paul, from Rick James to Lil' Kim. With the help of Wang and Seattle label Light in the Attic, Betty's music her self-titled debut from 1973 and the following year's They Say I'm Different is back in the spotlight for a new generation to dig.
Wang and I make our way back to the confines of EMP to discuss with our cohorts the seemingly doomed future of writing about music for a living. Retracing our route, we come upon a curious sight: A silent playground fair we passed less than an hour ago has suddenly sprung to life, with children screeching as they dart from ride to ride. For an instant, everything presumed old feels new again.