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” >>>