28 years on from its release we look back on Miles Davis’ last ever studio album
Every month we hand-pick albums that have been forgotten over time or were criticised when first released, to see how they have aged and what they sound like today from a fresh perspective. It won’t always be easy listening, but we hope it will be more interesting than reappraising classics that receive plenty of love elsewhere.
Even though Miles Davis passed away before his final studio album saw the light of day it probably wouldn’t have surprised him that critics would give it a hammering. That had pretty much been the case for 20 years since releasing his genre-bending effort, Bitches Brew, in 1970. Not that he was ever one to care what critics thought of his work. When you’ve changed the course of music three or four times, why would you give a damn what anyone has to say? Davis seemed to take his foot off the pedal throughout the 70s and 80s, but Doo-bop is a last throw of the dice – a return to the sort of innovation that turned him into a giant of 20th century musicianship.
Let’s not get it twisted, Doo-Bop is no masterpiece, but 28 years on you can see a late-career artist still able to remain current. The Acid Jazz scene was thriving in the UK and making its over to the States (sewing the seeds for the neo-soul movement later in the decade), while jazz-rap was gaining prominence. The likes of Gangstarr (and later Guru’s Jazzamatazz series), Dream Warriors and the Native Tongues were bringing the sound to larger audiences after earlier releases from Stetsasonic and Luther Thomas (which could technically be the first – excluding the likes of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets). Davis’ trumpet playing no longer possessed the same magnetism (illness played a big part in that) but by recruiting up-and-coming producer Easy Mo Bee, he was still prepared to take risks.
First of all let’s get the silly title out of the way. Easy Mo Bee was part of a rap group called Rapping is Fundamental, one of many who brought the doo-wop style into their sound. They nicknamed it doo-hop (also the name of their first album – unsurprisingly the phrase never caught on) and when Easy Mo Bee began work with Davis he connected the dots between bebop jazz and hip-hop to create a new name: Doo-bop (you guessed it – this never caught on either). Davis’s death meant the duo were unable to finish their work together, so we never got to hear the full scope of this project, but in total they recorded six songs, with the rest pieced together by the producer before it was released posthumously.
Doo-Bop was also the title given to the lead single and remains one of the standout tracks (although this may be clouded by nostalgia). It sees Rapping is Fundamental throw together a few bars and an easy-going hook over the laidback mid-tempo beat (influenced by Kool & The Gang’s Summer Madness) and is one of the few songs where Davis’ playing doesn’t sound as if it’s in competition with the beats. It follows on from the energetic opener ‘Mystery’, a song layered with a simple groove drawing on Acid Jazz influences and injecting a touch of early-stage trip-hop.
‘Chocolate Chip’ picks up the pace with heavy drums and a sampled funk guitar riff by Pleasure, while ‘High Speed Chase’ closes out the first side. It’s one of three songs Easy Mo Bee had to reconstruct from older Davis recordings after he passed away and although a little cartoon-sounding it mostly works. The trumpet was pulled from an infamous session with Prince during the recording of 1985’s Rubberband and despite Davis’ request a few years previous, Prince refused permission for the full recordings to be released and they remain in ‘the Vault’ (although some have leaked).
On the flip side, ‘Blow’ uses James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Or Turn It Loose’ (Polydor version) and while the two never collaborated, Davis cited Brown as one of the inspirations for his ’70s funk workouts (in return Davis’ horn inspired some of Brown’s classics like ‘Cold Sweat‘). Easy Mo Bee rhymes on both this and ‘Fantasy’ – the second track he pieced together from the Prince recordings. So it makes sense you can hear inflictions of the Purple One’s sound from the same period, whose own albums increasingly drew on elements of rap despite his ongoing love/hate relationship with the music.
A busy Gene Ammons sample drives ‘Duke Booty’ (named after the legendary Duke Bootee who produced ‘The Message‘). Davis brings real energy to what is effectively the last song on his final album complemented by what sounds like electric guitar synth patches layered on top. A reprise of ‘Fantasy’ brings the album full circle, which is the third track made after Davis died. It’s a lacklustre ending especially as you would assume there to be at least one more unused trumpet solo resting inside Prince’s vault for Easy Mo Bee to produce something more substantial – the track is nothing more than filler and probably only included to take the album over the 40-minute mark.
Easy Mo Bee would go on to work with giants of the rap game throughout the ’90s, the likes of Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac sitting close to the top of his CV. Yet despite how badly this album was received at the time he sees it as his crowning moment – putting the seal on the career of a legend who started out with Charlie Parker and ended by putting his name to a culture set to take over the world. Context is everything, and while hardly Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain-levels of genius, time now allows us to view Davis’ final studio album with more a more generous perspective than it was first granted back in 1992.