Electric Circus – The Little-Known Hip-Hop Landmark | Krazed Music
Electric Circus is one of those moments in a genre of music where the rules became meaningless. In Common, there was a rapper who started from a conscious standpoint in Resurrection, and gradually edged further and further from the mainstream through Like Water For Chocolate until producing what is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. Many cite a relationship with the enigmatic Erykah Badu as the catalyst for this musical direction, as they did when Andre 3000 came up with The Love Below. Whether or not there is any truth to this assertion of creative influence, the fact remains that Electric Circus stands out as Common’s biggest deviation from that which the Hip-Hop mainstream was demanding, and its creativity makes it one of the most influential musical moments in this writer’s development.
There is something almost mystical, and profoundly transcendent, about Electric Circus. The primary root of this is to be found in the production team that composed the songs: the Soulquarians. This team consisted of the late, great J Dilla, The Roots’ impresario ?uestlove, James Poyser, D’Angelo, and several talented instrumentalists, all combining to create a unique soulful sound that defined an era of conscious Hip-Hop in the late 90s and early 2000s. They would experiment with audio styles that drew primarily from eras of 20th century music, primarily jazz and funk. But for Electric Circus, the Psychedelia and Rock’N’Roll influences of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana really shine through. Guitars, phasing sound effects and heavier sounds are thrown into the mix with the bassy, soulful chord patterns and thumping kickdrums that define the Soulquarians’ ‘typical‘ sound. This is evident right from the intro track, as the music and sound effects guide us to some mystical desert island, with the waves gently lapping at the shore.
This sets up perfectly for the first track Soul Power, which lifts us into the album with its thumping kick drums and spaced-out vocal samples in the background. Swiftly following are the most heavily Psychedelic tracks in the early stages of the album: Aquarius and Electric Wire Hustler Flower. These tracks are driven by guitars, and juxtapose in their forcefulness. This progression of musical styles pretty much sums up the album as a musical achievement; when more of the Soulquarian team is involved, the sound is more experimental, when less are involved (or someone else entirely, like The Neptunes) the sound is somewhat more predictable, but no less impressive. Coming to the end of the album, we reach the two longer songs Jimi Was A Rockstar and Heaven Somewhere, which are incredible achievements and really point to the Erykah Badu factor.
This album has become more relevant now than it has been since its release in 2002, because of the mainstream success of artists like Kendrick Lamar. The albums To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered have opened the eyes of the mainstream Hip-Hop listener to the beautiful art that lies beyond, and there is a wealth of great, timeless rap music to be discovered. Common is one of the pioneers of this type of music, and a study of what he did in Electric Circus quickly points to his significance. He warns of impending social change in Aquarius and New Wave, and he tackles controversial issues like homosexuality, child abuse and bereavement in Between Me, You and Liberation. He also pays homage to music and his influences in I Am Music and Jimi Was A Rockstar, and fleshes out notions of love and intimacy in Come Close and Star 69.
Most rappers who like to spread a message in their music will point to Common as one of their biggest influences. He helped blaze a trail for the golden era of Hip-Hop to move in a conscious direction, and worked with some notable contemporaries in the process. Electric Circus is one of the single most influential albums that shaped my development as a musician and a fan of music. I had never heard such an eclectic blend of musical styles, so brilliantly transformed through Hip-Hop to carry in them a tone of originality and creativity. The comparative lack of commercial success this album enjoyed speaks volumes of its tendency to go over heads; it is an acquired taste that will only be fully appreciated by the open-minded.
If you enjoy music from artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Little Brother and the like, Electric Circus is one of the albums that you can trace the existence of your favorite music to! You might find yourself starved of genuine artistic work in this modern era, but there is a bounty of timeless, groundbreaking Hip-Hop for you to explore from its history. Electric Circus is one of my go-to albums when I am asked for recommendations, so I urge you to check it out today.