Jacknife Lee is one of the most revered producers in the game, someone who has worked on countless classic albums.
His own work is sought after, too, a mesh of expert songwriting filtered through with fresh, riveting influences.
New album 'The Jacknife Lee' is out now, and it's one of his strongest yet, a nuanced return that grapples with some surprising sounds.
A key influence is the impact of afrobeat, a sound and style that Jacknife Lee soaks up on a daily basis.
"I came late to afrobeat as a whole," he tells Clash, "but when I did it woke something in me. It lit me up and got me working on making music for myself again."
"I had started to behave 'professionally' and forgot what it was like to play for joy and for the hell of it. Listening to Fela Kuti made me giddy and dizzy and I’ve been trying to keep that with me."
It's not limited to afrobeat, however; his obsession piqued, Jacknife Lee burrowed his way through various West African styles, probing the internet to find more.
"I had always felt intimidated to go into a record store to delve into the Brazilian, Japanese or African sections. Each one is a vast musical universe and I just didn’t know how or where to begin - Spotify has made it easier though. With a continent the size and diversity of Africa I just started with Fela Kuti and that opened up a path for me."
Constructing a playlist, Jacknife Lee has shared some pivotal influences with Clash.
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William Onyebar - 'Good Name' (1983)
William Onyebar’s story is wild and one of the weirdest in all of music. It’s not wild or weird in some Beach Boys / Manson-esque way. It’s just full of mystery. The sound is groovy, electronic, post high- life, hooky, inventive and compelling, like Kraftwerk mixed with Fela Kuti.
Over the last few years his catalogue has been getting its well-deserved attention. Beautiful life-affirming music that has curiosity embedded in its DNA.
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Fela Kuti - 'Expensive Shit' (1975)
I was producing an album for Neil Diamond and we were working on song that everyone felt was too long. We all had suggestions about which bits to trim but Neil said “well, if it’s too long then let’s make it longer”. Maybe he was being contrary but we did it and it worked, everything got a chance to develop and linger rather than have the listener feel like they’re being ushered through an attraction.
Radio playlisting and pop music in general has forced us to try and get to choruses within the first minute. Two choruses in two minutes. So we trim and streamline and think we’re being skilful by Max-Martining up a track but here’s Fela… waiting over six minutes before he gives us “ehhhhaay”. This isn’t unusual for a Fela track. He’s waiting until he feels we’re ready for him. Like Iggy in 'Lust For Life'.
The story of the writing of 'Expensive Shit' is well known about so I won’t go over it again but here (like all of Fela’s songs) he shows us something that many of us seems to have forgotten: music can make us dance, angry, happy, elevated all at the same time. It’s music for the head, feet, soul and heart. A protest song can lighten your spirit. There’s life and spontaneity in abundance here.
I don’t think there is a wrong way into the Fela catalogue but this was mine.
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Francis Bebey - 'New Track' (1982)
I have never heard anything quite like these eight minutes. Just when you think you understand it he will go off in another direction. The lyrics are fantastic. The words he uses are normal everyday words but they stop time and make me giddy. They’re just so fresh and inspiring. His bass playing is wonderful and kind of reminds me of Young Marble Giants.
'Psychedelic Sanza and African Electronic Music' (1982-1984) are essential.
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Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye - 'Salamatu' (1979)
Speaking of Young Marble Giants, Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye’s 'Salamatu' from 'La Musique'. Electronic du Niger unpicks the knots I tie myself up in when I’m overthinking music. It’s pure, simple, brilliant and beautiful.
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Tony Allen - 'Progress' (1977)
Tony Allen is the blood that runs through the groove of Afrobeat. Jaki Liebezeit, James Gadson and Tony Allen are the holy trinity of groove.
Tony Allen’s beat is sometimes not the thing you notice in songs he plays on but he’s the anchor that allows everyone else to meander and roam. He’s subtle and seductive. It’s a sensual beat.
The dominance of two and four of bar of modern pop music seems so primary colour and almost silly when played next to a Tony Allen beat.
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Charlotte Dada - 'Don’t Let Me Down' (1971)
I can’t find the vinyl of this anywhere but play it first thing every day and see what happens.
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Zinja Hlungwani - 'Nwa Gezani My Love'
No matter what I’m feeling this song makes be beam ear to ear. What a song! The beat makes me tingle with joy.
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Livy Ekemezie - 'Delectation' (1983)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it’s just perfect. What a voice! What a groove. I listen to this most days. It’s like food and air for me.
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'The Jacklife Lee' is out now, grab it HERE.
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