Last month saw the release Equals much-anticipated debut album, 1997. The East London based, ‘Electronic Soul’ duo are 21st century modernists with rhythm, blues and modular synthesis; transfixed by creating beatific yet deeply meaningful music.
Comprised of James Low and Ade Omotayo, Equals combine Low’s forward-thinking songwriting and arrangement with Omotayo’s emotive and powerful vocals. Omotayo earned his stripes as a backing singer for Amy Winehouse, with whom he sung throughout her entire career. He has since featured on records by Kindness, Matthew Herbert, Mark Ronson and Quincy Jones and recently toured the world with Gorillaz.
Low took the more conventional route, grafting with bands, including members of Submotion Orchestra, who remain friends and collaborators. Here, he shares his top 10 songs of defiance.
1. Tricky – ‘Aftermath’
“Tricky released this masterpiece at the height of Britpop, 1995. Britpop, as Mark Fisher insightfully described it, was music that was designed to “reassure anxious white males,” by “white washing out it’s black influences” and present “a monocultural version of Britishness” in the form of swaggering white rock ladz. In contrast, Tricky, who often performed in dresses and makeup, appears to speak in the voice of his dead mother, muttering, “your eyes resemble mine, you’ll see as no others can.” Meanwhile, a woman, Martina Topley-Bird, sings what seems to be the more masculine perspective on the track. ‘Aftermath’ is the perfect cultural antidote to the reassuring, three minute, Blair loving ladishness of Britpop – a seven-minute, gender indeterminate epic that ends with the line “how can I be sure, in a world that’s constantly changing.””
2. Autechre – ‘Flutter’
“In January 1994, the Conservative party brought the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill before Parliament. The bill increased the draconian powers of the police to stop and search people; evict squatters; arrest protesters for ‘aggravated trespass’ and close down raves. ‘Raves’ were what the Tories called the expanding unlicensed, free party scene in the UK – some of which attracted tens of the thousands of people. The legislation basically gave the police power to seize their sound system and order people to leave the party. The 1994 bill defined ‘a rave’ as an event with music that characterised by ‘a succession of repetitive beats’. So Autechre released a dance track ‘Flutter’, programmed so that no bars contain identical beats and therefore could still be played under the proposed new law.”
3. Nina Simone – ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’
“As Daphne Brooks wrote in the LA review of Books, in ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got life’, “Simone moves with pointed contemplation through one song’s tale of desolation, alienation, and disenfranchisement (“Ain’t got no home / ain’t got no shoes / ain’t got no money / ain’t got no class”) into a different song entirely, one that is a jubilant affirmation of embodied self-possession (“Then what have I got? / Why am I alive anyway? […] I got my arms, got my hands / I’ve got life / I’ve got my freedom”).” While also fighting violent patriarchy at home, Simone unapologetically wove black radical politics into her music – while not shying away from speaking of the struggle facing people of colour in America, seemed to maintain an optimism for the future.”
4. Radiohead – ‘The Daily Mail’
“In a BBC interview in 2006 Thom Yorke said, “I don’t have a problem writing music that may be seen as political, it’s not political music, it’s just part of what’s in front of me.” The Daily Mail has such a large reach in the UK to be ‘in front of you’ even when you do your best to avoid it. It’s vicious and unrelenting attacks on those who already face significant hardship in this country – migrants, people on benefits etc – is nothing short of a form of cultural violence. Thom sings the lines “You got away with it but we lie in wait, eh eh” recognises how these media attacks continue to narrate the public consciousness (on issues like Brexit) but an underbelly of dissent and dissatisfaction is growing against them.”
5. Kendrick Lamar – ‘For Free?’
“In this jazzy interlude on To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick draws parallels between the way African people were purchased under slavery and how African American artists are controlled by the capitalist entertainment industry in modern America. Kendrick declares that his “cap salary” has raised, that “this dick ain’t free” that “matter of fact it needs interest” and that he wants “forty acres and a mule, not a forty ounce and a pitbull” demanding the 40 acres of land promised but never given to black slaves after the abolition of slavery – and says enough is enough, finishing with the line “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked the cotton that made you rich – Now my dick ain’t free””
6. Rage Against The Machine – ‘Know Your Enemy’
“On the second verse of ‘Know Your Enemy’ Zak de la Rocha literally spells out defiance – “with the D, the E, the F, the I, the A, the N, C, the E, mind of a revolutionary, so clear the lane, the finger to the land of the chains.” Unlike many other rock stars who tend to jump on the bandwagon of supporting this cause or that, Rage seemed genuinely politically committed to the struggles they supported, flying the flag of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation at their shows, campaigning for the release of Black Panthers in America or shutting down the New York stock exchange with hundreds of fans that they’d invited to their video shoot for ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’.”
7. Fela Kuti – ‘Zombie’
Fela Kuti released this song criticising the Nigerian authorities while living under a brutal military regime. After the track became a smash hit, the Zombies (i.e. the military) retaliated by raiding his compound, beating him, breaking his legs, burning his instruments and throwing his mother out of the window – which later is thought to have led to her death.”
8. Solange – F.U.B.U
“In an interview on her website Solange explained, “when I think of “F.U.B.U.,” and the album as a whole I think of punk music and how white kids were allowed to be completely disruptive, allowed to be anti-establishment, and express rage and anger. They were allowed to have the space to do all of that, even if it meant being violent or destroying property and that wasn’t exactly inclusive to us even if we created the groundwork for rock and roll. If we weren’t inclusive and we were violent and destroying property and able to express that kind of rage, then it would not be allowed in the same way.”
“In this song, Solange seems to be defying and questioning the liberal narrative of inclusiveness. She’s defying it by saying – this song is not for a universal audience; it’s not for white people it’s for black people – and that’s ok, in fact it’s necessary. But she’s also questioning it by pointing out that society is not inclusive, it’s not a level playing field when black people experience oppression boarding a plane, driving a car, working, amongst friends, even at home.”
9. Miguel – ‘Now’
“In the video for ‘Now’ Miguel says, “To see innocent people ripped from their way of life, to essentially be incarcerated and used as cheap labor is really crazy.” Unfortunately this is all too common, where companies make massive profits off the backs of inmates detained in private prisons. In the face of this, Miguel sings a message of personal empowerment; “CEO of the free world, build your walls up high and wide, make it rain to keep them out, that won’t change what we are inside.””
10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Blaise Bailey Finngan III (BBF3)’
“This song is defiant in both the content of the words spoken and the form it takes musically. Clocking in at over 17 minutes, listening to it is like experiencing a short musical film – you can even here the cine-projector whirring away in the background. It opens with a man’s story about his struggle to assert his liberty and dignity in a courtroom – he’s prepared to pay his fine for a speeding ticket but refuses to be lectured by the judge who assumes their moral superiority over him.
“After a huge musical build the ‘second act’ begins with the man boasting about all the guns he has and your feelings suddenly change towards him. The band is anti-war/military, to the extent that they print the relationship between record labels and weapon manufactures in their album sleeves, so presumably they don’t share the man’s view – but nevertheless understand how people can arrive at this state or aggressive anarchism when their government let’s them down over and over again.”
Equals’ 1997 is out now via
You can listen to all Ask the DJ playlists on the FMS Magazine Spotify CHANNEL.
Find Equals’ playlist below and HERE.