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I knew nothing about Sun Ra until some time last year when I was played a hip hop album called ‘Cosmic Compositions Vol.3’ dedicated to him and his work. A hazy attic in Leeds provided the backdrop to the overdue introduction and it is one I remain thankful for to this day. It reminds me of hip hop’s status as a unique and unrivalled musical art form in the way it has the ability to pick up old threads and musical lineages and, through sampling work or a dedication, draw attention to and revive interest in an artist or genre possibly overlooked by the current generation. Be it the jazz and funk of Mr Brown in the earliest ‘80’s sampling or this album and the focus on Sun Ra, one can see time and again over the years contemporary hip hop artists picking up and featuring music from previous eras. The primary purpose of this is to make great sounds but often also serves as a form of musical education for listeners.
Born Herman Blount in Alabama 1914, Sun Ra was a prolific musician, composer, pianist, poet and philosopher. Grounded in jazz and growing up with the sounds of Ellington and Fats Waller, a mystical experience in the late 1930s in which he believed himself to have visited Saturn left him convinced of his duty to, as instructed, speak universally through his music. Remaining heavily under-represented during his lifetime, despite his near constant presence as band leader with his ‘Arkestra’ from 1950 to his death in 1993, he was an individual who seemed to insist on looking outwards for inspiration, treating his music as a timeless universal space outside of the confines of past, present or future and a space in which he could represent and turn others towards his cosmic philosophies and approach to life.
A key pioneer of Afro-Futurism and a consistent promoter of peace and harmony on a planet he claimed to be only a visitor on, his musical back catalogue is large. He also delivered many lectures, including a series at Berkeley in the early 1970s, which are a great insight into his worldview and beliefs. For those interested in Jazz, Sun Ra is a master of a whole range of styles and approaches from swing to bepob and freejazz and is a great proponent of the genre.
The album, dedicated to the intriguing figure, is the third volume in the ‘Cosmic Compositions’ series by the New Zealand-run project. Featuring a wide range of producers and dominated by a jazzy feel with laid back and often cut up beat cycles it also showcases wide ranging sampling from Nas’ Illmatic in Pianosea to sections from interviews with Sun Ra. It is a piece of work which in part acknowledges a continuous thread in African-American music running from plantation blues through to early jazz, swing, soul right on to hip hop and, consequently, the majority of electronic music consumed today which relies on techniques of sampling and a certain mind-set pioneered by early hip hop.
Sun Ra represents a proud figure within this narrative, standing up and taking ownership of this heritage but also looking to it futuristically as a means to raise people up out of temporality and oppression and communicate on a universal level. He is someone who seems to stand slightly removed and aloof from the 20th century’s musical discourse and a figure who, the more you look into, the more fascinated you become.
“In fact I would say musicians are supposed to be God’s harmony department, but most of the time they’re in discord and they’re in disharmony and they become commercial matter, but actually music is what’s supposed to keep people inspired and keep them seeing this invisible beauty of the mind and spirit. That’s what music is for.”
The full Cosmic Compositions album can be found here: