Are we okay with evaluating music for its effectiveness in the gym? Because I’m thinking Black Coffee has a contender for best work-out album of 2016 with his latest album, Pieces of Me.
Nathi Maphumulo, the man from Durban, South Africa behind the Black Coffee alias, puts a fresh, jazzy spin on vocal house music. His supple four-on-the-floor beats avoid the steady alternating hi-hats that represent house music’s sonic trademark but too often shackle its rhythmic creativity. His vocal collaborators testify about liberation and ecstasy (neither of which are taken for granted by queer clubbers in Africa) with a subdued, cool cadence, departing from the “churchy” histrionics of diva house’s gospel origins. I find Black Coffee’s sound motivates me the same way a skilled, not-too-overeager trainer does: suggesting realistic expectations about the heights you’ll attain, while subtly coaxing you into deeper levels of performance than you knew you had in you.
By calling Pieces of Me a work-out soundtrack par excellence, I also want to recognize how Black Coffee has mastered that knottiest of dance-music recording formats: the house-music album. DJs live or die by their mix sets today, but when you can’t hit shuffle on a 2+ hour stream, I find their utility on your smartphone tends to decline after a couple of listens. As for the many excellent compilations of house music producers’ 12” recordings out there, the assorting of tracks originally intended as dancefloor experiences unto themselves can sometimes disturb the consistency of intensity that the treadmill session demands. By contrast, the dance music album — still suffering from its legacy as a sop for AOR listeners back when the music industry discovered “electronica” in the 1990s — works in the gym precisely because of the specific, narrowed origin of its recording inspiration, and of the relative anonymity of those tracks that don’t see 12” release. All but one of the recordings on Pieces of Me are between the 7-10 minute mark, set at roughly the same insistent but not frantic tempo; delete that spoken-word opener, and Black Coffee gives you an endlessly engaging set of tracks to draw from.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.