McNeal & Niles - Thrust LP
Label: We Are Busy Bodies
A track about an African king recorded in the back of a car wash commands $1,600. At the makeshift Man-Ray Studios in Akron, Ohio, where barrels of soap were rolled away to make room for recording, guitarist Wilbur Niles and his then-girlfriend — keyboardist Machelle McNeal — recorded "Ja Ja." It was titled after King Jaja of Opobo in Nigeria, who lived during the 19th century, rising from slavery to become a wildly successful broker of palm oil.
Niles learned about Jaja as an undergrad majoring in history; humid and dreamy, it would lead off the pair's first and only album together, 1979's rawly-produced Thrust. It begins with an elliptical little electric-piano hook by McNeal, an accomplished musician without much jazz experience, accompanied by wind sounds. The effect is of sparkles of sunlight through an otherwise dense sheet of fog.
Thrust exists in that blurry, liminal space between jazz, funk, soul, and R&B; '70s-era CTI comes to mind, but the unpolished vibe sloughs off that comparison, too. Even when "Summer Fun" goes for a four-on-the-floor feeling, the mid-fidelity production renders it diaphanous. The more strident "Punk Funk" is a nod to Devo, whose road crew ran Man-Ray. ("They're punk; I'm the funk!" Niles explained with a laugh, on the Sounds Visual Radio podcast).
You'll swear you've heard Thrust sampled somewhere in the hip-hop sphere; pull up "Ja Ja" on YouTube, and you'll see a comment to that end: "Pete Rock sent me here." (Google comes up short on that one, but WhoSampled cites the following track, "Summer Fun," as appearing in Canadian house/electronica producer Daphni's "Hey Drum" and British techno/house DJ and producer Trus'me's "At the Disco."