One of the skills I picked up in college that I’m really grateful for is the ability to listen to music with a critical ear. I was lucky enough to have teachers who were adamant about approaching music from many different angles – in terms of theory, history, performance, sociology, etc. I can’t help but notice these things when I listen to music; it has become an automatic element of my listening experience. Sometimes, I come across a song or artist that conveys something that reaches much farther than I’d expect. This is one of those times.
The Soul Rebels are a modern iteration of the traditional New Orleans brass band that blends funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and rock with that classic New Orleans sound in an attempt to “expand upon the pop music they loved on the radio.” This live video of the band covering Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” is the perfect example of that.
There are so many elements of this performance that deserve discussion that I am certain my short article will not do it anything near justice. But perhaps if I can point out some of the aspects that appealed most to me, you can take my words and come up with your own thoughts on the matter (maybe even leave a comment down below with what might cross your mind…).
There are so many traditions being drawn upon in this video – it is astounding, really. Obviously, we have a hip-hop thing going on; it is a Kanye West cover, after all. But, it’s being played by a live band. And it’s not just any live band: this a brass band lineup, sousaphone and all. So there we have the New Orleans element. Furthermore, after the first chorus we get a bonafide contemporary jazz saxophone solo, replete with Michael Brecker-esque ’80s fusion language. There’s your jazz element.
Perhaps my favorite thing to note about this video is how The Soul Rebels have brought the trajectory of this song back full circle. What do I mean by that? If you weren’t already aware of this, “Touch the Sky” samples the beat from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” a horn-driven funk/soul masterpiece from 1971. Funk and soul were two musical genres that heavily influenced the beginnings of hip-hop. And the beginnings of funk and soul were heavily influenced by earlier jazz musicians, who were heavily influenced by earlier New Orleans brass bands. Funny, ain’t it? These seemingly endless connections and inter-weavings are one of the reasons that I love music so much. Every song, every note has a story behind it, whether you notice right away or not.