Back Seat Playlist

So, DJ Nina got her first car as the highlight of the 2022 Xmas season. In fact, 2022 meant first vehicles for my son’s daughters, who turned 18 and 17 last year. From LA, I’m wishing all three drivers safety on the roads of central and south Florida.

In the summer of 2022, Niece Nina was riding in the back seat of the rental car driven by her mother, my youngest sister. During their vacation in LA, Nina controlled the music that we listened to as we segued along SoCal’s freeways. We had fun listening to Michael Jackson songs I didn’t know, among so many other tunes.

Also, they generously treated me to playlists they’d created over the years. Special songs for different moods, for different seasons in their lives, sometimes very difficult seasons in their lives. They shared stories between a mother and daughter that I would never normally hear. It was a gift I’ll always cherish, especially as this year Nina completes her senior year in high school!

Over the years, DJs have contributed to my life’s soundtrack of joy ….

As a kid … I remember smiling at the sound of WOL’s Bob Terry, The Nighthawk, slurping Black Label beer up-close to the mic during commercials (at least it sounded like he was actually drinking!)

Actually, I’ll have to ask Dewey Hughes, legendary WOL producer and host – and one of my cultural Big Brothers – whether or not The Nighthawk, who mysteriously disappeared August 31, 1977, was simulating or actually downing brew!

Hughes teamed up with Petey Greene back in the day for an inspiring community affairs show. Before he opened the show for callers, Greene use to shout: “l’ll tell it to the hot; I’ll tell it to the cold; I’ll tell it to the young; I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’ – Talk to Me!”

Callers who mumbled or hemmed and hawed? Greene hung up on them! Callers who tried to listen to themselves through their own radios? Greene hollered: “Turn your radio down!” And hung up on them if they didn’t comply fast enough! Dewey Hughes wound up co-producing Talk to Me, a film starring Don Cheadle as Petey Greene.

Then in college I was a classmate of Melvin Lindsey, the founding DJ of the Quiet Storm format which began on Howard University’s WHUR. Once, during the early days, before I graduated in ’77, I even sat in-studio with Melvin, who died in 1992 of AIDS complications, after rocketing to radio/BET fame with his stunningly cool voice and marvelously sultry playlists.    

From 1999-2004, I could still hear Melvin’s voice in my head, as I produced and hosted my own radio show: Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio’s LA station. Before starting, I apprenticed under a man named Angalifu as he produced his own poetry/music program. When he left LA, I took over the show, renamed it, and applied lessons I learned from Angalifu (and more subtly from Melvin).

Like my HU classmate, my goal was to create a seamless audio experience for listeners. So, first thing I did: I prohibited guest poets from announcing titles to their poems or telling ‘set-up’ stories before reading their poems. I also told guest poets: ‘Don’t create an advance ‘set-list’ for your show. Bring to the studio a range of your poems, then listen to the music I play and select poems that dance with the music. Let the music move you around!’

When the poets worked sincerely within that format, we struck gold! We generated an inspirational exchange of poetry, music, and dynamic silence. When we got the sonic recipe right, me and my guests created bona fide VoiceMusic and that hour from 10 pm to 11 pm zipped past!

Now I’m really smiling, thinking about Kristi Lomax, who produced and hosted Restless Soul, the dancefloor show that led into Inspiration House. She still produces the show One Track Mind for KPFK. When I turned 50, she DJ’d my birthday GoGo at Rock Rose Gallery, and I danced until 4 in the morning!

Now I’m really smiling about that night in the early 2000s, when KCRW’s Garth Trinidad allowed me to join him in the studio and program the evening, intermixed with a brotherly discussion about poetry, history, Donny Hathaway’s voice as essential medicine, and the cultural work that goes into sensitively programming a satisfying playlist. What a gift I was given by a legendary LA mixologist and broadcaster!

Now I’m really smiling about Garth’s KCRW colleague Liza Richardson, who included me in an early 1990s poetry/music reading at Vidiots in Santa Monica. I remember I chose Pharoah’s Creator Has a Master Plan for the poem I read. You know who else was on that bill? Viggo Mortensen! So, I can say I once shared a mic, lol, with a member of Frodo’s Fellowship of the Ring!

Oh but let me make room here for the sweet-and-sour, too.

Now when I listen to my beloved Spinners and Stylistics and the orchestral magic of the music produced by Philadelphia International Records, I am reminded over and over that we lost the awesome Thom Bell in 2022. Man, love don’t love nobody!  

But surely my most bittersweet playlist honors the late Greg Tate, whose analytical and stylistic genius was on display back in the 1970s, when we were students at Howard. The great singer Nailah Porter sent me the link to the “Sonic Syllabus for a Patternmaster: A mixtape curated by DJ Lynnée Denise and Elissa B. Moorhead with a musical bookend by dream hampton, hosted by the Pan African Space Station (South Africa).”

And South Africa is where I’ll land this praise song ignited by the head-bobbing backseat playlist mixed by DJ Niece Nina.
At the end of 2022, my OG ears awakened to music called Amapiano, “born in South Africa and raised around the world” that’s been called the “burgeoning dance genre reaching global heights in 2022.”

Here’s to taking it to the stage in 2023 and sweating it out on many a dance floor!

I stay ready to shake my body down to the ground!

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… Me and Isisara driving home from a concert at the Hollywood Bowl that featured Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Ruben Blades. Turn on KGFJ-AM, the Black-owned Los Angeles radio station that plays mostly oldies-but-goodies, or “dusties,” according to the station’s announcers. I’ve known Isisara since we both lived in Baltimore in the late ‘70s, and she’s one of several girlfriends whose friendships-without-sex  ground and extend my manhood. After the concert, we can barely sit still in the car, wishing that the salsa and musical etcetera buzzing in our heads and bodies would play forever. The DJ answers our prayers through the magic of late-night radio. He starts a powerful medley with “(La La) Means I Love You,” by the Delfonics. Before we know it, DJ Genie is granting our wishes with even more house party classics: “Tracks of My Tears,” by the Miracles, “Baby I’m for Real,” by the Originals, and, summing up sensationally, LaBelle’s “Isn’t It a Shame.” Driving from one red light to the next, me and Isisara can’t help but sing along loudly to each song. Neither one of us, truth be told, are really hitting too many notes. She’s chasing the lead singers of the men’s groups right up the scale until her falsetto croaks with enthusiasm. I’m right beside her echoing with mournful exaggeration Patti LaBelle’s “unh unh unh unh unh unh” in the middle of “Isn’t It a Shame.” … I notice we getting too close to my street where she’s parked her car. Oh no! This session will not be ending with us parallel parking! I take a right turn down a street into what Richard Pryor would no doubt call a “residential district.” I drive around that block twice. The recorded band plays on. I brazenly take unscripted turns down other dark side streets. Under the spell of Wilbur Hart of the Delfonics, Smokey the Miracle, and Isisara’s passionate lead singing, I even start braking for yellow lights hundreds of feet before coming to an intersection, so we can extend our off-key concert and revel in our sing-song friendship.…”

1 thought on “Back Seat Playlist”

  1. Just back from South Africa and synchronicity bonds us again, saw the “Space art” exhibit at Investec. Amazing and yes, riding around listening to good music is a favorite activity for me and Amara in our many road warrior moments. Glad to see you still putting it out there and so much good history to know and feel. Keep spreading the light and the positive message of happiness, anyway.


Leave a Comment