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How Kendrick Lamar, Marvin Gaye and 'Black genius' inspired a jazz/hip-hop supergroup

August Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Of all the cries of Black fury released during the protests around the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, none arrived as quietly as Dinner Party's single "Freeze Tag."

The song, released in late June, is from a new supergroup of bicoastal jazz and hip-hop luminaries: L.A.'s Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin, New York's Robert Glasper and North Carolina producer 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit). It barely rises above a whispered falsetto and the daydreaming-on-a-fire-escape vibes of '70s soul. If you wanted, you could definitely put it on as you open a second bottle of wine while chopping vegetables tonight.

But the scene it sets in the lyrics is just seconds away from a murder by cop.

"They told me put my hands up behind my head / I think they got the wrong one," sings guest vocalist Phoelix. "I'm sick and tired of runnin' ... Then they told me if I move, they gon' shoot me dead."

The quartet wrote the tune well before these protests heaved in city streets for ongoing weeks. But sadly, there's never a month when it wouldn't have been salient in America.

"Everything happening has been going on since before we were born," Washington said. "The feeling that the society you're a part of, the people you think are your neighbors, feel that our lives are so disposable -- it's hard to really explain it. Breonna Taylor was in her own home, a first responder who risked her life every day at her job, and someone comes and kills her, and society says it's not a crime?"

 

In a year rent with despair over the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-overdue reckoning with America failing its Black citizens, Dinner Party's self-titled debut arrived July 10 with all the skill and care that four master musicians could marshal to make an album as a balm.

But in the spirit of their mutual hero Marvin Gaye -- whose "What's Going On" lamented brutality over immaculate arrangements -- it's also a quieter way of telling that cop in "Freeze Tag" to put his gun down.

"An artist's job is to reflect the times, but I feel for Black artists, there's a deeper responsibility," Martin said. "This is a conversation we're been born into, and we're born into f-- up times."

The four members of Dinner Party -- all in their late 30s to mid-40s -- go back decades as friends and collaborators. Martin and Washington met as high schoolers playing saxophone in elite L.A. arts schools; Glasper came into their orbit at a youth band camp. Each have titanic solo albums and productions to their catalogs: Washington's triple- and quadruple-albums for Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label; Glasper's three-time Grammy-winning "Black Radio" albums and Emmy-winning composition for Ava DuVernay's "13th"; Martin's productions for Stevie Wonder and YG and his Sounds of Crenshaw label; 9th Wonder's tracks for Jay-Z, Destiny's Child, Erykah Badu, Rapsody and Anderson .Paak.

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