1996 was a watershed year for hip-hop. Considered by some to mark the end of the music’s Golden Age, ’96 saw the release of numerous albums that would go on to be considered landmarks in the genre: Nas’ It Was Written, The Fugees’ The Score, A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, OutKast’s ATLiens, and The Roots’ Illadelph Halflife. Jay Z made his now classic debut with Reasonable Doubt, while 2Pac took his final bow with All Eyez on Me prior to his death that September. That summer marked the culmination of hip-hop’s maturity, a period when groundbreaking artists deftly melded rap, jazz and classic soul into a singular sound that would remain influential for decades to come.
The summer of 1996 was also a turning point for singer/rapper/producer Lonnee Stevens and composer/producer Antman Wonder. Not only did the remarkable music of the time point them in the direction of their future careers, but it was the moment when both men took their first steps in the transition from avid fans to creators. Joining forces for the first time as Summer of ’96, Stevens and Antman draw inspiration from the individuality and innovation of that foundational year to discover new pathways into the juncture of hip-hop, jazz and R&B on their debut album, Splendid Things Gone Awry, out June 30 via Unsociable Music/RED.
“1996 was the coming of age for music for my generation,” says Stevens, citing particularly hip-hop’s unparalleled flowering but also an impressive year for inventive rock music: Sublime’s self-titled debut, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, Beck’s Odelay, and countless others. “Everything sounded so new, just as we were coming of age as creative people.”
Although the fusion of jazz and hip-hop reached a pinnacle in the mid-’90s, the two musics had been intertwined since hip-hop’s beginnings. The always forward-looking Herbie Hancock was one of the earliest pioneers, pointing the way to the future with his 1983 smash hit “Rockit.” As Antman puts it, “One begat the other. Jazz influenced hip-hop majorly, especially in the Golden Era. Hip-hop introduced me to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and [producer] David Axelrod through the music that was sampled when I was growing up by people like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Just Blaze.”
Hancock’s former boss, Miles Davis, was of course at the forefront as well, collaborating with producer Easy Mo Bee for his final album, Doo-Bop. Hip-hop producers sampled jazz grooves and melodies from the beginning, including Gang Starr’s “Words I Manifest,” which sampled Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and UK-based Us3’s ubiquitous 1993 hit “Cantaloop,” built on the infectious hook from Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” Central to the Summer of ’96 idea are the efforts of the Native Tongues collective, a loose-knit group of hip-hop pioneers that included A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul (who released their direction-changing fourth album, Stakes Is High, that year).
Flash forward to today, when those artists’ innovations paved the way for a new generation of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Artists like Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington are redefining the marriage of the two musics (among other influences) while leading rappers like Kendrick Lamar are finding new ways to draw upon jazz approaches.
Enter Summer of ’96, who don’t so much channel the music of their namesake year as they continue in its spirit of reinvention and individuality. Splendid Things Gone Awry is a rarity in the streaming age, a true album with a central mood and an experimental spirit. The duo built the album via a long-distance collaboration between California native Stevens’ Atlanta digs and Antman’s Philly base. The music is entirely original, using live instrumentation and no samples, with compositions created and played by Antman and restructured and added onto by Stevens.
“Today everything is synthesized,” Stevens says, “but back then everything was sampled, and it was sampled from soul and jazz records. When we got together we decided we wanted to make a record that sounds classic but using all original stuff.”
The album’s moodiness stems from a recent break-up that Stevens had gone through, leading him to a darker but richer sound. The album’s title captures the feeling — things have gone wrong, but those things were beautiful to begin with, and retain that sense even in their ruined state.
A harpsichord melody initiates the cinematic feel of opener “Stacey Dash,” which uses the Clueless star and Fox News commentator as an icon for a certain type of woman that Stevens defines as “almost perfect until you get to know them, and then they have such bad attitudes.” Typical of the duo’s instinct-trusting method, the track eschews drums for a more free-floating, amorphous atmosphere.
The blissful “Mahogany Blue” is a tribute to the azure-colored guitar of Detroit singer-songwriter Mayaeni and features vocal contributions from soul singer Teedra Moses. The swirling “All That Jazz” is the first of several instrumental interludes showcasing Antman’s frantic, eclectic jazz style. “When I first heard Antman, he was already heavy in his calling as a hip-hop producer, but really he was playing jazz, especially with the way he was improvising,” Stevens says. “I don’t know that he saw it as jazz at the time, but he could play his ass off.” Further examples arrive via the ’70s funk-soul vibe of “Phyllis Hyman” and the sweeping Stevie-cinema of the Songs in the Key of Life-reminiscent “Wondersong.”
“Good Man,” with its “you don’t know what you lost” message, was one of a few tracks begun by Stevens, who laid a more structured foundation as opposed to Antman’s more improvisational approach. The confessional “At All” is a pure Stevens production, while “You In My Mind” was composed and titled by Antman with the female R&B trio KING in mind. Featuring a guest verse by Detroit rapper Royce da 5’9″, “Not a Rich Man” is a classic debate between commerce and integrity, while the title track, featuring a sax solo by Bill Kahler, closes the album with a last-call jazz club feel.
The hallucinatory “Black Zombies” is a lament for the increasing prevalence of “lean,” the sweet but codeine-heavy cough syrup-based drink. “The last generation was more drug dealers,” Antman says, “and this generation is more drug addicts. We’re not so much throwing shots or judging; it’s just an observation. We all have our vices, but that’s becoming part of our culture now and that’s dangerous.” Case in point: the three Ws of “Whiskey, Weed, Women,” a particularly self-explanatory track.
Perhaps the simplest way to explain this record is this: If Phyllis Hyman and the great Thelonious Monk had a love child, and that child grew up with Kendrick Lamar as the babysitter, you’d probably get this album.
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About Antman Wonder
Philadelphia-based composer/producer Antman Wonder built a reputation on classic-sounding but sample-free productions, drawing on the influence of eclectic innovators like Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes. He’s worked with one of his major influences, Gang Starr co-founder DJ Premier, as well as well-known artists including Tyga, Pusha T, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$. Antman also recently contributed to Meek Mill’s new single “Slay,” featuring A$AP Ferg.
About Lonnee Stevens
Lonnee Stevens is a Grammy® Award-winner and six-time nominee who has worked with Alicia Keys, Trombone Shorty, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, India.Arie and his godfather, Motown legend Smokey Robinson (some of his credits come under another alias). Stevens (born Alonzo Stevenson) is the son of William “Mickey” Stevenson, songwriter/producer and original head of A&R for Motown, and singer Melanie Burke, and is the grandson of R&B legend Solomon Burke.