20 Years Of Funk: The Evolution Of D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar"
It's a strange thing to ponder something like D'Angelo's Brown Sugar in terms of its influence--musical or cultural--over the 20 years since initial release on July 3rd, 1995. Perhaps especially for me, as a 27-year-old white dude from the outskirts of Baltimore. I was 7 years old and if one were to ask me at that age what an important record was or meant, I would have no basis or reference point to properly place it. Now, as a well-versed (okay, somewhat obsessed) D'sciple, it's still barely within my grasp and honestly, I have no interest in that task, as there are many far better suited to tackle it. But it does not escape me that the gravity of D's entrance was one felt not only on the tail end of the New Jack generation, but even by his own predecessors--by anybody, really, walking the path of classic funk and soul.
However, one thing has become glaringly clear in my ardent study of the great soul music revivalist's legacy in the last few years. Namely: that everything he's accomplished in a booth of any sort has been amplified beyond measure in his live show, in personnel, arrangement and composition, waving what is perhaps the greatest (??) flag to have ever flown for funk and its lineage. So instead of a track by track retrospective on Brown Sugar's big 2-o, I'd like to devote some time and ink to the mountains of musical excellence that comprise D'Angelo's stage game; some proper, well-earned shine, especially in the wake of his recent resurgence as a living, breathing superhero of r&b and the black music canon at large.
Anyone who's been paying attention over the last two decades (and even further back to the era of virtual anonymity during the "U Will Know" days) knows with daunting certainty that D's shows may be the single most brilliant funk revues on the planet, drawing a map of where it's been, is and will go with a patchwork of timeless grooves, interpolating nods to James Brown, Prince, Funkadelic, Al Green; practically every luminary, dead or alive, in the book, infusing, absorbing and incorporating some of their most crucial cuts into an expansive and electric set. But one song, amongst the myriad that have been played in each phase of his career, has stood as perhaps the greatest litmus test to where he's at in his artistry and where he's drawing influence from at moment.
That song is "Brown Sugar" and it's come miles in terms of its evolution in a live setting. Similar to "Feel Like Making Love," it's been twisted and molded over the years like mystical musical putty, first in its purest form--recreating with expert precision the studio magic that conceived it--again in its resurrection in the Soultronic age (co-piloted by Questlove, Pino Palladino, Chalmers "Spanky" Alford, James Poyser, Jeff Lee Johnson, Roy Hargrove, culminating as the baddest band in the biz) again in the first second coming back in 2012 and now in 2015 coming full circle with The Vanguard, celebrating an entire tradition of sweat-soaked, funked-out in-the-flesh glory. And so we've put together something of a timeline, charting the many transformations of the title-track for D's potent platinum debut, hoping to capture both the root and how brilliantly its grown over the years. So without further ado, here's D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" throughout the years and hopefully many more. Or as Russell "The Dragon" Elevado--trusted engineer of all three D'Angelo LPs--told us via email:
"D'Angelo loves to reinvent or "remix" some of his songs for the live shows. In the case of Brown Sugar, I think it's become sort of a tradition to deconstruct that one. I think partly for the fun and challenging aspect of finding another cool arrangement but also, so they don't get bored of playing it every show since he's slightly obligated to perform that one because it's such a favorite among his fans."
Click through to relive each era in the evolution of "Brown Sugar" >>>
1995 -96: A Remarkable Debut
"Brown Sugar" started as a slippery, deceptively intimate ode to sticky, intoxicating pleasures, be they of the romantic or smoky sort, blending the grit of hip-hop's back beat with the immutable tenderness of r&b's past. His live rendition of the track at the time was fairly simple, true-to-form and reserved, considering how it was embellished over the years. But painfully clear was the foundation; heavy break under silk rhodes, a now iconic bass routine and an endlessly smooth vocal arrangements that harked back to his roots in the church, all making for the scroll upon which "Brown Sugar's live legacy is written.
2000-01: The Game Changer
With a seismic, somehow even more revered sophomore record in Voodoo, D had some serious ground to cover in his live show. Thankfully, the union of The Soultronics, albeit short, made for what is perhaps the most memorable "Brown Sugar" incarnation, amped, scorched, stretched and JB-ified to the fullest extent. If phase 1 was an introduction to a classic, phase 2 is the celebration of its continued power five years down the line.
2012-13: The First Second Coming
After over a decade of waiting (and what would be another two years until the promise of a Voodoo follow-up would be fulfilled) D'Angelo resurfaced, seemingly out of the moody blue, to an anxious and rather bewildered fanbase. Over ten years of unsanctioned leaks, dope as they were, it was safe to say that few had hope of any sort of resurrection, but D reemerged and with a new band of funkateers at his back to ring in the next chapter of the saga. The "Brown Sugar" of this era is a frantic one, bumped up to 120+ BPM with a lightning-quick six-string strut right out of The Time's playbook (and with their guitarist, Mr. Shockadelica AKA Jesse Johnson no less) that reassured the world that D was back and with full vigor.
2014-15: Full Circle
Finally, we arrive at present day, where the promise of a new album is realized (and cherished by the masses as a piece era-defining profundity) capturing 80 years of black music in 55 minutes of run-time. But instead of ramping up the live take of the very first single from the very first album he ever put out, D has dials it back on The Second Coming tour's live renditions, adopting the drum break and groove from Fred Wesley's "Four Play" as the backbone--in effect, a sort of live "hip-hop remix"--and cools out a track that just two years back would have had your head spinning with all of its glitzy guitar and synth work. The current version of "Brown Sugar" is one that captivates newly devout followers and seasoned vets a like, building off of Wesley's groove in a big way, then slipping into a bridge that could be one of the many lost treasures of funk's past (D'fanatics, if you can identify that vamp, put us up in the comments section) but more than likely is just a a very funky creation of their own. Here and now, we find D & The Vanguard finally emerging as the legendary ensemble foreshadowed in 2012, now tighter and more ferocious then ever. The newest incarnation of "Brown Sugar" adds a powerful new take and a promising indication of what's to come in one fell swoop. And we're just glad to be there for the ride.