Where Were You in ’73? Ewonee Recreates the Wattstax Festival on His New LP

Madeleine Byrne takes a look at Ewonee's latest record, '73.'
By    June 21, 2018

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Madeleine Byrne ain’t watching Stop Making Sense.

There’s a track on Ewonee’s (pronounced E-1) latest instrumentals tape called “Recorded Memory.” It could’ve doubled as a fitting title for the New York producer’s latest project, ‘73 a celebration of Wattstax, a crucial moment in American music history. The more than five-hour concert took place in the summer of 1972 on the seventh anniversary of the Watts uprising. Ewonee describes his release as “a tribute to the beauty, perseverance and strength of people who look like me” (and also what happens when he takes out a “time machine”). 

Organized by Stax Records, the community fund-raiser showcased some of the greatest Soul/R&B artists of the era: Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram, Albert King, the Staples Singers, and Rufus Thomas. Dubbed the “Black Woodstock,” the event exhibited broader extra-musical significance. Ticket prices were kept low ($1) to ensure no one was excluded, and Richard Pryor features in the documentary alongside vox pops with local residents sharing their experiences about being Black in white America. Such voices form an essential part of the Ewonee release.

Ewonee is particularly gifted at positioning and manipulating vocal fragments. On “Here’s Why,” the sound of people speaking is kept low in the background, emerging briefly rather than being pushed forward to set the scene or create drama like in many hip-hop instrumentals. On “What You Say,” voices are indistinct, clipped, or so quiet—with one exception—as to be unrecognizable.

The ambiguous status of these voices is appropriate when recalling that while well known, Wattstax was never “mainstream.” The documentary received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Documentary Film in 1974, but never reached the same level of fame as other concert movies from the era.

Made up of short pieces of music (most are around one minute) ‘73 shows off Ewonee’s talent in composition and recording (he graduated in 2012 as an audio engineer from New York’s SAE Institute of Technology). While his music is subtle, it’s never bland mainly because of the way he upsets expectations about how/where samples are used.

In the past, especially during the Golden Era, hip-hop producers aimed to emulate a conventional “song” albeit one with unorthodox elements, such a scratching and exaggerated boom bap drums. In Ewonee’s music, voices/samples cleave, then rejoin each other like chilled tectonic plates.

‘73 reminds me a bit of Ohbliv’s Black Fire, but while both works occupy a similar conceptual and sonic territory, Ewonee’s music is more delicate, fragile, and introspective. Ohbliv’s work has an angular, defined quality and his music operates with sharper contrasts.

Ewonee cites Art Blakey, Curtis Mayfield and Madlib—alongside “everyday life experiences”—as influences. The three musicians first seem a surprising trio, but then again, each shares a profound interest in music as form, while displaying a deep knowledge and engagement with Black American musical traditions, art, and identity. Madlib has also repeatedly sampled and reworked Blakey in his music.

The influence of the L.A. MC/producer, Madlib, can be felt all over the Ewonee release—on the short tracks, the way samples are used, and melded together and in the overall atmosphere. Take “Almost There,” where Ewonee manipulates the various elements that recall Madlib’s work as Yesterday’s New Quintet in the early ’00s.

Born and raised in Mount Vernon, Ewonee often refers to growing up in the same neighborhood as Pete Rock being important to his identity as a hip-hop artist. After all, the local public park where he played as a kid had a mural of the late Heavy D, he told Gino Sorcinelli in a 2018 interviewWhat’s important is how Ewonee keeps the past alive in his music without allowing it to get too obvious or reducing it to a stack of clichés. It’s history as a deeply felt reality and continuum, something special and rare in itself.

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