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May 16, 2006

God save the King: King Britt and the remix that reincarnated Sister Gertrude

When it began to gain both popularity and credibility about three years ago, the mashup represented a specific kind of cultural revolution: it was, by definition, a mixing of two things never supposed to be fused, a sub-mainstream (and sometimes illegal) appropriation and reformation of popular music. Perhaps the most illustrative example is DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Such mixing gained legs through a subculture that paid little attention to copyright infringement, a group of necessarily underground artists — DJs and producers, mostly — who, it seemed, were just having a little fun with their craft. But given potential legal constraints and the costs of making mashups legit, they’ll inevitably remain underground art, much in the same way remixes have evolved. The remix is similar — basically, an artist adds his or her musical flavor to an existing work. The legal problems persist for some; when done well and with a label’s blessing, however, they can be flat-out spectacular. Such is the case with King Britt. The Philadelphia native — King Britt is his real name — is in Louisville this weekend on the wing of his latest album, the magnificent King Britt Presents Sister Gertrude Morgan. The remix is a change of pace for Britt, whose resumé includes work with De La Soul and The Roots, as well as Digable Planets (he was the group’s first DJ). He’s not done a record like this before.  The project is based on the single recording that Sister Gertrude Morgan, a New Orleans folk artist and general eccentric, made in 1970. The original is stark and haunting; it’s only Morgan, a tambourine and 14 utterly powerful, affected spirituals belted out in her deep, distinctively mannish voice.  The original, fittingly called Let’s Make a Record, is on Preservation Hall Recordings, an offshoot of the legendary French Quarter jazz performance hall. As for Morgan, legend holds she was a weird New Orleans mystic, a deeply spiritual woman with some kind of voodoo magic about her.  From the Web site of Preservation Hall Recordings: “For more than twenty years she roamed the French Quarter, dressed in a nurse's uniform — her mission was to heal the sinners; the Word of God was her medicine. Planted at some street corner, she shouted or sang the Gospel through her megaphone and kept time with a tambourine — or, more accurately, battered Time itself with rhythms that intensified as the spirit took her.”  The label approached Ropeadope, asking about possibilities of a remix. Ropeadope ultimately helped connect Britt to Morgan’s album and legend, and subsequently put the album out.  Perhaps the most significant point to make about Britt’s remix is that it retains the original haunt and ominous quality deep in Morgan’s voice. It’s musical and heavily rhythmic, relying on electronic beats through everything from drum kits to bongos and tablas. But Britt was able to play on the darkness in Morgan’s foreboding and spirituality, the constant sense of doom and the corresponding tension of political songs like “Power” and “New World in my View.” Likewise, he adds poignant melody to Morgan’s gruff voice to such an extent that the two — she’s been dead since 1980 — seem to have actually written the music together. It’s a fascinating listen.  There’s a lot to learn from a guy like Britt, which is partly why he’ll be here. Along with a show, Britt will lecture in the early afternoon as part of the Red Bull Music Academy, a free sort of international training program for burgeoning musicians. Last year there were over 2,600 applicants for the program. Of the 50 chosen, 32 countries were represented, said Dwight Johnson, a Louisville DJ and promoter who puts on two informational sessions a year in Louisville for the academy.  “It’s all about collaborating and getting together with people from different countries and sharing ideas and techniques on whatever it is you do,” Johnson said.  The program is multifaceted, not just for DJs or producers, Johnson said. And despite the alternative wisdom that categorically abhors corporate involvement in such things, Johnson said Red Bull is unusually user-friendly. He’s a fan of Britt, too.  “I think this is a project that hasn’t quite gotten the recognition it deserves.”