Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 31, 2009

I'll Tape When I'm Dead

How and why musicians keep producing albums long after their expiration dates.

Adam Conner-Simons

Their voices were singular, indelible, unforgettable; their personalities, magnetic and larger than life. Recognized by their first names alone, they were adored and revered among music fans until they met their tragic ends. And yet, like magic, they have somehow continued to come out with shiny new pop records—even five, 10, 40 years after taking their last breaths.

Earlier this month the soundtrack to the biopic Notorious hit the streets, with never-released demo cuts finally seeing the light of day. This week marks the release of Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes's Eye Legacy, the first album of "new" material from the TLC singer since the 2002 car accident that took her life. And rap forums are abuzz with rumors that another record is in the works from Tupac—a rapper who has had more material released since his death (six albums) than before it (four).

A still from the documentary <i>Biggie and Tupac</i>.
Both rappers have produced more albums after their deaths than before.

A still from the documentary Biggie and Tupac.

There's no denying that these artists have vociferous fan bases who are eager to consume every morsel of music that their idols produce. Having a built-in demographic makes rummaging through a musician's basement tapes a particularly attractive option for a record industry that has increasingly found itself in dire financial straits. Why take a gamble on a new, unproven artist when you can just recycle a dead one?

Nevertheless, such a money-first, art-second mentality has created a barrage of posthumous albums that have more padding than an Ivy League application, with the late musician often playing second fiddle to the guest appearances and slick production values. A tossed-off lyric might turn into a full-blown chorus, a lackluster freestyle might blossom into a published track, and entire verses might get pitch-corrected so that they match whatever key the producer retroactively made a song to be in (Exhibit A: Tupac's Eminem-produced 2004 release Loyal to the Game). And of course, let's not forget the requisite sultry R&B diva who gets thrown into the mix to deliver a radio-ready hook. In all of this commotion, you might find yourself peering through the mist of your favorite musician's latest posthumous creation, and wondering—as if you're looking for that infamously elusive red-and-white-striped cartoon character—where's Tupac?

Of course, contemporary hip-hop artists aren't the first to get remixed, rehashed, chopped, and screwed after their expiration date. Cashing in on dead musicians is as old as the art form itself. Let's go back and explore a brief history of artists still rockin' it from beyond the grave.

1959: Buddy Holly gets repackaged

Buddy Holly may have died in that infamous plane crash, but that didn't stop his record companies from repackaging singles, digging up rehearsal demos, and churning out album after album for nearly 10 years after "The Day The Music Died." (The first, The Buddy Holly Story, was out within weeks of his death).

1968: Otis whistles past the graveyard

A month after a plane crash took Otis Redding's life, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay was released. The title track, recorded two days before his death, became the first posthumous single in chart history, immediately topping the Billboard 100 and ultimately becoming the most famous tune in the singer's catalog. (Redding famously whistled the last verse of the song as a place-holder, planning to fill in the final lyrics upon his return to the recording studio).

1971: Jimi Hendrix's The Cry Of Love is released.

After Hendrix's death in 1970, his drummer Mitch Mitchell—along with producer Eddie Kramer—sought to construct a faithful rendering of the guitarist's vision for his follow-up album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. It was the first of seven posthumous albums from Hendrix, who, all told, had only three studio records to his name while he was living.

1991: Natalie Cole sings "with" her father

In an early example of mashing up past and present artists, Natalie Cole "duets" with her father by throwing his vocals into her poppy cover of "Unforgettable." The result? A Best Album Grammy and seven million records sold.

1995: Queen releases Made in Heaven

In 1991, Freddie Mercury, recognizing that his health was declining due to his (yet-to-be-disclosed) AIDS affliction, recorded several sets of vocals and gave his band permission to finish the tunes later. This album represents the culmination of the nearly four-year project. On "Mother Love," the last track Mercury ever recorded, guitarist Brian May took over vocal duties for the end of the song after the singer's famous octave-spanning voice gave out from his AIDS-related pneumonia.

1999: Bob Marley gets remixed

Chant Down Babylon features such classic reggae recordings as "Johnny Was" and "Concrete Jungle" reimagined with the help of contemporary artists like Erykah Badu and The Roots. For every fitting homage (Lauryn Hill's tender "Turn Your Lights Down Low" ), there's an awkward crossover attempt (the catchy but crass disco-rap cash-in "Jammin'"). If you're thinking, "What's next? Snoop Dogg rapping alongside Johnny Cash?" Well … they're two steps ahead of you.

2000: A "Deadly Combination"

A year after the murder of Big L came the underground rapper's second album The Big Picture. The most striking track on the record is the tastelessly titled "Deadly Combination," which features slicked-up freestyles from—you guessed it—two deceased MCs (L and Tupac Shakur). I guess they figured that if a single from one murdered musician moves 500,000 units, then two dead rappers could easily sell a million.

2002: Nirvana does, doesn't, then does release "You Know You're Right"

Recorded in January 1994 at the band's last studio session, the song's final resting place was undetermined for many months thanks to a testy legal dispute between Kurt Cobain's bandmates (Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic) and his widow (Courtney Love). The remaining members had wanted to include "You Know You're Right" in an upcoming box set, but Love said the tune would be "wasted" in that scenario and would be better suited for a single-disc collection. Ultimately, the courts sided with Love, and Geffen Records released the single with the greatest-hits album Nirvana.

2005: Notorious BIG releases Duets: The Final Chapter

On his second posthumous album (after 1999's Born Again ), Mr. Smalls shares disc space with Marley and frenemy Tupac. As the album's title might suggest, Duets' 17 songs feature a staggering 37 musicians, including everyone from Eminem to Korn. At times, Biggie is practically demoted to the Lil' Jon role, punctuating songs with a stream of monotonous "yeahs" and "whats." Has it gone too far? To use Notorious BIG's own words from the album: "Uh-huh, yeah."

Related on the web

The Los Angeles Times article "Albums Keep Arriving From Artists Who Died"

Blender's 50 Most Awesomely Dead Rock Stars

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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- Arts
- posted on Feb 06, 09

Nice article!
And you might also mention the Beatles' infamous "Free as a bird" (where the three surviving Beatles sang along with an old soundtrack from deceased John). A pathetic dirge-like song, and a sordid effort to create a "new" Beatles song.

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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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