At the beginning of “Welcome To 76,” over the dark and ominous hum of thriller-score strings, a deep and sonorous voice rings out: “In the metro Detroit area, there are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands, and more about to join now.” That voice belongs to the Electrifying Mojo, one of the great unsung heroes of modern music. You could take Mojo’s words many, many different ways. Any way you look at it, he’s right.
The Electrifying Mojo is Charles Johnson, an Arkansas-born DJ who started playing music on Black Detroit radio stations in 1977. In those days of freeform radio, Mojo would famously play music that adhered to no boundaries beyond his personal tastes. Mojo would play Michael Jackson and Prince and local heroes Funkadelic, and he’d also play Kraftwerk and the B-52s and Gary Numan. He’d frame it all with a cosmic sci-fi Afro-futurist sensibility. The young producers who would go on to invent Detroit techno listened to Mojo constantly and treated him as a cult hero. When they started making their own records, Mojo played them, too.
Those “thousands and thousands” are members of Mojo’s Midnight Funk Association, his imagined community of likeminded utopian listeners. Eventually, that community was not imagined; Mojo made it real. A figure like Mojo can be wildly important to a local music scene. When that scene world goes global, that figure can become still more influential, even on listeners and artists who never heard his name. When Mojo’s voice shows up on “Welcome To 76,” that’s a clue. “Welcome To 76″ probably couldn’t exist without the Electrifying Mojo. Thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of other songs probably couldn’t, either.
It seems safe to say that Sterling Toles was a member of the Midnight Funk Association. Toles, a music producer and onetime Kresage Arts fellow who’s always kept his focus on his Detroit hometown, has been producing music since the late ’90s, and there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard any of it. Toles has never had much in the way of national recognition. Instead, he releases his own music on his own Sector 7-G Recordings, a record label named after a Simpsons reference. That music doesn’t necessarily belong to any genre. It’s jazz, it’s electronic, it’s rap, it’s psychedelic. It’s Midnight Funk Association music.
I’d never heard of Sterling Toles before last week. But last week, Toles and Boldy James released an album called Manger On McNichols, and it’s been rearranging my brain cells since about one minute after I first hit play. Boldy James is a known quantity, a Detroit rapper with a ravaged voice and a seen-it-all wandering-samurai sensibility. James has been at least halfway established for about a decade, since the first time he put a verse on a Cool Kids song. (Cool Kid Chuck Inglish is his cousin.) Earlier this year, James teamed up with the Alchemist to release an absolutely staggering album called The Price Of Tea In China. It’s one of the best examples of tingly, evocative boom-bap that I’ve heard in years, and it’s easily one of the best rap albums of 2020. Manger On McNichols is even better.
One amazing thing about Manger On McNichols: It’s not even new. Toles is the first producer ever to record James. The first time Boldy James ever recorded a rap verse, he’d accompanied a friend into Sterling Toles’ studio. The vocals on Manger On McNichols are old; James recorded almost all of them between 2007 and 2010, before he was even in the music business. Back then, James’ writing wasn’t quite as artful as it is now, but he was already a spare, precise realist with a great unflappable-monotone delivery. McNichols kept those vocals for years — never releasing them, just working on them slowly over the years. The end result sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
When James recorded those vocals, he was processing the events of his life — dead friends, imprisoned friends, prospective fatherhood, miscarriages. Toles pushed James to be personal and sensitive and raw, and James responded. Then Toles brought in different musicians over the years to work on those tracks. He took his spare boom-bap beats and layered elements on: Cellos, vibraphones, harmoniums, cornets, synths, samples. Toles used those old Boldy James vocals, and he turned them into symphonic reveries.
There are dozens of names in the album’s credits, some known and some not. The old John Coltrane associate Reggie Workman played on the record, and he didn’t live to see its release. George Clinton collaborator Bubz Fiddler is in there, too. The activist and writer adrienne maree brown sings on it; there’s a devastating moment at the end of “Welcome To 76″ where she coos, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars.” A teenage Dej Loaf is in there, sounding like an angry child.
In this great Passion Of The Weiss interview, Toles talks a bit about how he built on those original Boldy James recordings: “Because Boldy’s rhymes have open space, it allowed me to add sounds that would grow and blossom in those spaces. Also, because the subject matter was so dark, it gave me an opportunity to make something beautiful.” (Also: “I wanted to make a rap record that you could sonically pick apart, like Stereolab’s Dots & Loops or Radiohead’s OK Computer.” Mission accomplished.)
Manger On McNichols really is beautiful. Drums drop in and out, pealing off into sudden jittery runs or going silent altogether. Melancholy strings moan. Sci-fi keyboard tones blare. Choirs howl. Acoustic basses roll and stumble. Bluesy guitars mutter and twinkle. Toles talks about the vast continuum of Detroit music, the connective tissue that exists among cross-genre peers like J Dilla and Moodymann and Underground Resistance. It’s hugely meaningful to hear all these ideas put into practice — this vast living history of oppressed people from a dangerous place using music to imagine a better world.
But those same artists also use music to describe the world as it is, and few people are better at that than Boldy James. James is a rarity: A rapper who can talk about living a criminal life without glamorizing or romanticizing it. In both his words and his delivery, James describes selling drugs as a dangerous, stressful, squalid, depressing, violent way of life, on that you wouldn’t pick if you had any other viable choices. With James’ lyrics, you always know exactly what’s at stake if anyone fucks up: “Chancellor of the Ambassador Bridge to Canada/ In the back of that rig was some dust, cancerous enough to get us maximum biz.”
On Manger On McNichols, James talks a bit about trying to find a legitimate way out of the street and getting nowhere: “Got a baby on the way, damn it’s a mess/ ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ Yes.” And he makes it clear that he’ll prey on other people if he has to: “That’s just how we live when you live in Detroit/ And that’s just how it is, weaknesses we exploit.” But his empathy comes through in other ways, like in the heartbreaking stories he tells about his mother or about a doomed street kid. Other voices flit through, describing the disappearance of assembly-line jobs and all the other racist and exploitative forces that gutted the city.
Manger On McNichols is a heavy album and a beautiful one. It’ll wash over you, and it’ll rip through you. People have been fusing jazz and rap for decades, but I’ve never heard anyone combine them from an astral perspective, keeping grounded while staring out into the universe. It’s amazing to me that this album has existed, in some form, for more than a decade, that it’s just slowly reached the point where Toles felt ready to put it out into the universe. How many more albums like this are out there? I hope there are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands.
1. Ski Mask The Slump God – “Burn The Hoods”
Songs about anti-racist retribution aren’t supposed to be this itchy or propulsive or fun, and the definitely aren’t supposed to namecheck Augustus Gloop. But the kids from that South Florida SoundCloud generation just don’t care about the rules.
2. Eli Fross – “ISO” (Feat. Sheff G)
Brooklyn drill is unforgiving music. You need to have a voice if you’re going to make an impression over those irregular-ass beats. Eli Fross has a voice. His hook here sounds like a prayer and a command.
3. Sada Baby – “Horse Play 2″
Linkin Park fucked up when they made Collision Course with Jay-Z. They should’ve just waited another 16 years and made it with Sada Baby instead.
4. Wifisfuneral – “Lost In Time” (Feat. Coi Leray)
Wifisfuneral, another of the South Florida SoundCloud pack, has lately been talking about retiring from music. Instead of doing that, though, he’s made a truly strange and rapturous piece of underwater emo electro-blues. I never really gave this guy much of my attention before, but he has it now.
5. Icewear Vezzo – “Letter To The Rap Game”
You see a song title like “Letter To The Rap Game” and you expect some tortured J Cole-esque self-seriousness. That’s not what Icewear Vezzo does. He just shows up and says he’s back in the game, though I’d never noticed that he’d gone anywhere. And then he talks some brisk, confident shit over an absurdly funky digital bass. That’s the kind of letter I like to get.