It’s a great year for fans of Fela Kuti, one of the world’s most influential popular musicians. It would’ve been his 75th birthday last Tuesday; although the man died in 1997, a slew of Fela-related news is bubbling about, ranging from a possible biopic starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, to an upcoming Alex Gibney documentary, to the continuing reissue of several of Fela’s albums as well as the release of the wonderful greatest-hits comp The Best of the Black President 2.
Red Hot + Fela is one of the most vibrant tributes to the Nigerian titan and originator of Afrobeat. The covers album captures the man’s vitality, passion, and butt-kicking beats (though not his frequent profanity). 13 tracks, each averaging 6 minutes in length, bring together artists as diverse as My Morning Jacket, Chance the Rapper, ?uestlove, and Angélique Kidjo to create rich rainforest grooves and red hot funk. The rhythms are tight yet elastic, while a foggy, murky atmosphere brings back memories of that old trip-hopper, Tricky.
Fela Kuti has been cited as an influence by Paul McCartney, Thom Yorke, and Vampire Weekend, but if Red Hot + Fela is dominated by a single genre, it’s hip-hop. Fela would’ve been a potent rapper: hip-hop is the ultimate medium for intense, politicised, rhythmically incisive tirades, a description that sums up much of Fela’s best work, such as Zombie (1977) and Shuffering and Shmiling (1978).
Red Hot + Fela’s greatest strength is the fact that although Fela’s spirit and influence are omnipresent, each artist makes his/her own personality strongly felt. My Morning Jacket’s 14-minute ‘Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am’ might be a wee bit too faithful a rendition, and although Fela was certainly a ‘world music’ figure, it’d be bizarre for white artists to attempt to essay his inimitable Pidgin English. But the successes are numerous. The now-shocking misogyny of ‘Lady’ is subverted by female artists tUnE-yArDs and Kidjo, while the brilliantly-delivered French rapping of Baloji et l’Orchestre de la Katuba on ‘Buy Africa’ gets things off to a steamy start. Elsewhere, the flow of the hip-hop is fluid enough to rival Rakim. Fascinatingly, some tracks betray the influence of artists who were originally influenced by Fela Kuti; the keyboards and atmospherics on Gender Infinity’s rendition of ‘Highlife Time’, for instance, are redolent of late-‘70s Eno.
This is a highly recommended starting point for anyone who likes Western urban music but is yet to dip their toes into bona fide Afrobeat rhythms.