Packy Axton's back pages; Don Trip's music overload.
This handsome compilation — released by Seattle indie Light in the Attic but cultivated by Memphians Scott Bomar (who co-produced) and Andria Lisle (who penned the liner notes) — shines a spotlight on one of those interesting footnotes so common to Memphis music.
Arriving some 37 years after his death, Late Late Party compiles a series of mostly obscure recordings connected to Packy Axton, the son and nephew, respectively, of Stax co-founders Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, and a generational compatriot of label musical stalwarts Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.
A saxophone player and all-around musical hustler, the younger Axton figured in both the — very different — studio and touring incarnations of the Mar-Keys, the pre-Booker T. & the MGs group that notched Stax's first major national hit with the 1961 single "Last Night." (The label was called Satellite at the time.)
"Last Night" is not represented on Late Late Party, which instead rescues Axton's non-Stax musical portfolio from the cultural dustbin, with smaller indie singles and previously unreleased recordings from instrumental outfits such as the Martinis, the Packers, and the Pac-Keys and vocal performers Stacy Lane and L.H. & the Memphis Sounds.
Axton's presence — and purely functional saxophone — are what unites these mostly obscure tracks, which collectively serve as a window into a mid-Sixties Memphis studio scene that went far deeper than Stax heavyweights like Booker T. & the MGs and Porter & Hayes.
The Stax crew is represented on one track, "Hole in the Wall," a Los Angeles-recorded one-off hit single credited to "The Packers" that features Cropper, Booker T. Jones, and MGs drummer Al Jackson Jr. But, mostly, the music on Late Late Party was recorded at studios like Royal and Ardent and showcases musicians such as future Moloch guitarist Lee Baker and Hi Rhythm regulars such as Teenie and Leroy Hodges and Archie Turner.
The Martinis' "Hung Over," with the Hodges brothers playing off Archie Turner's warm organ tone, points the way toward the tracks Hi Rhythm would lay down for Al Green a few years later.
Much of the material credited to the Martinis, the Pac-Keys, and L.H. & the Memphis Sounds — which makes up a bulk of the collection — represents Axton's musical partnership with transplanted African-American songwriter Johnny Keyes, which made them a subterranean and more daring example of interracial partnerships than was happening concurrently at Stax, as Lisle's liner essay suggests.
Musically, the hodgepodge of singles on Late Late Party certainly isn't as essential as Booker T. & the MGs or even the better obscurities you can cull from the Stax catalog at the same time, but it's also something more than just a sharply assembled historical document. For hardcore Memphis music fans, especially, this would be a worthy addition to your collection.
Since we first featured rapper Don Trip back in July, the East Memphis MC has released three new full-length mixtapes, including two on the same day, which brings Trip's total number of full-length mixes to 10 over the past year. The first of these, Step Brothers, a collaboration with like-minded Nashville rapper Starlito, is one of the more purposeful rap mixtapes you'll hear and works better as a start-to-finish listen than any Trip mix except the highlight-packed but less consistent Terminator 2.
Trip and Starlito both fit the profile of a typical Southern "gangsta" rapper, but they are, on closer inspection, smarter, more vocally skilled, and more idiosyncratic than the norm — though the raspier Trip displays more depth and danger in his verses. Together, Trip and Starlito display a rapport that suggests true friendship rather than a business arrangement. The duo bounces lines off each other like they stayed up all night in the studio joking around to come up with material. The result is akin to an underground, regional answer to Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne.
Highlights include a couple of well-chosen "singles" — the assured, smooth "Life," where Trip recounts some serious family problems, and the bumpier "4th Song," for which the pair filmed a terrific, playful body-switch video — but Step Brothers saves the best for last with the 15-minute "Outtakes," in which Trip and Starlito rip off sharp verses over an oscillating series of hand-me-down hit tracks.
If Step Brothers feels unusually well-crafted by mixtape standards, Human Torch III and iHEARTStrippers are more tossed off, though both feature multiple productions from Trip's label benefactors, Miami producers Cool & Dre, who are presiding over his forthcoming debut album, Help Is on the Way.
Trip expands his musical palette on Torch III 's "Heavy Metal" and offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of hood ills on "Don't Point" that includes drug buyers speaking from a pulpit on Sundays and strip-club patrons who don't mind underaged entertainment.
iHEARTStrippers is conceptual in the manner of Step Brothers — a collection of "love"/sex songs. Despite announcing at one point, "Old-school game/I'm on the job pitching woo," the primary tones on this depiction of a series of illicit encounters are horny and cynical. Fittingly for a guy who admitted on the standout "I'm On 1" that he's "afraid of being married/I'm terrified of sharing" and asserted on the same song that he "doesn't care about shit but my money and my son," the sex talk here is emotionally guarded. The title — which seems to equate "women" and "strippers" — is perhaps giveaway enough.
iHEARTStrippers is interesting in the context of Trip's other music for having a softer, more distinctive sound, built more on R&B tracks than rap ones. But the reliance on these tracks is far too heavy, as is the use of guest rappers on Human Torch III. These factors are in stark contrast to the focus of Step Brothers or Terminator 2.
In truth, there's nothing on Human Torch III or iHEARTStrippers I would insist on adding to the personal Trip playlist that's become one of my de facto albums of the year. There's been enough good to great music in Trip's torrent of internet releases to make it all worth sorting through, but these two most recent releases feel like diminishing returns. At this point, I hope that the next Trip music is the polished, "official" product — that Help Is on the Way is on the way.
Grades: Step Brothers — A-; Human Torch III — B; iHEARTStrippers — B-