Label: We Are Busy Bodies
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, Machelle McNeal, recorded "Ja Ja." Niles, a history major, titled it after King Jaja, who rose from slavery to become a wildly successful broker of palm oil in the 19th century. The humid tranquil track would lead off the pair's first and only album together, 1979's 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.”
All in all, its place in the hip-hop and DJ worlds remains to be fully understood. But due to its charm and scarcity, Thrust remains undoubtedly popular among crate-diggers — hence the hefty price of an original copy. The album’s ramshackle quality places it less in Kool and the Gang territory than something ripe for reappraisal by the Williamsburg set — fitting nicely between one’s Arthur Russell, Ata Kak, and Little Beaver LPs. And this carries through the rest of Thrust — "Hypertension," "Untitled," "Quiet Isle," and "One Slave, One Gun." - by Morgan Enos