It was Sun Ra’s 99th birthday yesterday (if you’re in the UK), so here are ten songs and projects inspired by the great man.
Call him eccentric, call him crazy but never call him unoriginal. Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, was born on 22nd May in 1914 and during his stay on Earth, he altered the jazz landscape with every new album and performance. That kind of innovation wasn’t going to go unnoticed and since his death, his music and the afrofuturistic culture he helped to create have inspired many other musicians. We picked out ten songs and projects that were inspired by the work of Mister Ra in some way.
1. Machinedrum/Sun Ra – Views of Saturn #3
Machinedrum’s vinyl only release via All City Records was a take on Sun Ra’s classic Door of the Cosmos. The fast paced rhythm was in stark contrast to the original but still managed to retain the chaotic and outer space wonders of Ra’s composition.
2. La Piramide di Sangue – Tebe
Sun Ra may well have approved of La Piramide di Sangue (The Pyramid of Blood), a seven-piece ensemble from Italy. On Tebe, the ensemble’s brooding rock fusion-type compositions – “mosaics of meditative and restless sounds” as they themselves described them – aren’t as scattered and manic as Ra’s but they still evoke a pensieve feeling within and I think that’s the essense of Sun Ra they’ve managed to capture quite well.
3. Gubbish – Notations in Tonations
In his first album as a band leader, Aaron Novik gathered an eight-piece band together, under the name Gubbish, and released Notations in Tonations. The album, with shades of gypsy jazz and European folk music, really does sound like Sun Ra taking a trip through the Balkans and recording his findings.
4. Mister Bibal – Velvet
Another Sun Ra cover. Mister Bibal’s ode to the Saturn native was featured on his EP, appropriately entitled Râ. The EP was also influenced by Egyptian culture, hence the name, and saw the French producer weave afrofuturistic jazz music with offbeat hip hop.
5. Dexter – Hi-Hat Club Vol. 3 – The Jazz Files
Dexter is a German producer with a hankering for jazz. On his third volume of his Hi-Hat Club series, he flipped a large selection of jazz tracks, with a number of them coming from Sun Ra’s collection. From the names, you can probably guess which ones they are and he maintains the inherent craziness of the music, adding his own shuffling rhythms.
6. Madvillain – The Illest Villains
MADVILLAIN! By now, you should know of Madlib’s love for Sun Ra. His imagery and way of life has featured in some form or another in Madlib’s life and work starting prominently on Quasimoto’s debut (which will be discussed later). For the opening few seconds of Madvillainy, the Beat Konducta took some dissonant chords from Ra’s Contrast and blended them into some weird surf rock percussion and old movie clips. It was the perfect sample tapestry for the perfect sample tailor.
7. Quasimoto – Astro Black
As mentioned above, Quasimoto started the Ra experience in Madlib’s discography. Sampling the song of the same name, Lord Quas flipped up a hazed out jam and one of the many standout tracks on The Unseen.
8. Unkle – Intro (Optional)
The influence on Unkle’s Intro (Optional) wasn’t as heavy as the preceding seven tracks but it proved that he knew who Sun Ra was. On the track, Unkle pieced together a lot of famous samples from the 60s to the late 90s and Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place creeped in amongst Herbie Hancock, James Brown and The Incredible Bongo Band. Now, if that isn’t the best company, I don’t know what is.
9. The Avalanches – Electricity
After the copyright police started clamping down on unlawful sampling, particularly within hip hop, this forced some producers to change tactics (or pay for their samples). Two notable albums made completely from samples were DJ Shadow’s Entroducing….. (almost entirely from samples) and The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. Electricity used Sun Ra’s Say, taking a strange whirring sound, much like the type of sounds you might hear on The Clangers. With all the other samples overlapping, it worked rather well.
10. Suff Daddy – Konnopke
Something I didn’t know was that Sun Ra did a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile. I also didn’t know that Germany’s Suff Daddy gave it the sample treatment with some banging drums and a great Brazilian guitar sample. Not as wacky as the others but nevertheless a dope record.