In many ways, 2016 was a punch to the gut. The breadth and depth of the societal loss we experienced in terms of talented artists cannot be understated. As we grow close to those whose art we can relate to, it was nearly impossible to escape this year without feeling as though a friend or loved one had fallen. Below, KXSC DJs and staff pay tribute to the late musicians who personally mattered most.
Prince (1958 - 2016)
Prince was limitless. Not only was he an incredible (and self-taught) guitarist, vocalist, drummer, pianist, performer, and writer, but also he pushed beyond boundaries of gender, sexuality, and race, while serving as a symbol for sexuality and confidence.
He was fearless. As a straight black man in the 80’s, he could go on stage wearing a purple suit with white lace trim one night, and then a bright pink boa, 8 inch stilettos, and his ass out the next, while still being everyone’s mom’s dream man. By embracing his eccentricities, Prince was both prolific and prophetic, refusing to see identity as black or white, but rather as a set of spectrums and intersections. He challenged heteronormative structures of masculinity, paving the way for generations to come, and showing us that it’s more than ok to be different. Through his courage, he taught us that we can be bold too.
Questlove says that, “Prince was singular in his music. He was his own genre,” and he’s right. When Prince didn’t comfortably fit into the scope of pop culture, he created his own lane, challenging the constraints of the norm more than any other artist in history of American popular music. Whether he was using his platform to challenge standards of masculinity, changing his name to a symbol, or writing the word, “slave” on his face, to push back against the constraints of the music industry, he was unlike any other artist of his time (and unlike any other artist we’ve seen since, for that matter).
The word “genius,” gets thrown around a lot when talking about artists that have passed, but I want to be clear when I say this: Prince was a genius. His work was transcendent, and his legacy extends far beyond the tracks he produced. For that, he is immortal.
Zoe Citterman, R&B Director
David Bowie (1947 - 2016)
“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, 'Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.’” - David Bowie
David Bowie's career and persona left such an powerful influence on music and society that it was hard to accept his death. It was as if life and death did not apply to him, because he was the Starman. As a spearhead of glam rock and androgyny, Bowie’s persona as Ziggy Stardust inspired many to embrace themselves as who they truly are. He promoted the idea of exploring one’s sexuality and deviating from society’s pressured ideas of gender binaries. He broke down walls for both transgender and gay communities. It’s difficult when someone who has had such a positive influence on society leaves us.
My memory of hearing about David Bowie’s death is still vivid in my mind. I remember receiving a link to an article from a friend right before going to bed and thinking it was a joke. As I started to cry, numerous people messaged me to inform me that he had passed away, because they knew how much he meant to me. I was shocked because, to me, Bowie was the type of artist that was so influential and groundbreaking that he seemed indestructible. The power his art and career has to transform people while also comfort them is impeccable. During trying times, his music puts me at ease. To see him succumb to cancer, which takes so many lives each year, was difficult; because, to me and many others, he wasn’t like everyone else.
However, his final album, Blackstar, is a token of his career and is very indicative of the type of artist he is. He channels his spirit and life into his art work and tells a story in order to make us feel connected to him. The same thing applies after his death. Although his body gave up, his spirit is still with us through his work, and it lives on forever and has a special meaning for each of his fans. Lyrics such as “We can be heroes, just for one day” mean an abundance to many. Artists may pass away, but their influence and art live on forever and continue to affect people of different times in different ways for years to come. When artists leave us they don't truly leave us, and we can always reconnect with them through their art.
Thank you, Bowie, for creating a safe space for people through your music. You made eccentric people feel welcome and important. Thank you for creating music that touched many hearts. For songs like “Rock & Roll Suicide” and “Life on Mars?” to get each of us through our own individual plight. For songs to enjoy during happier times, like “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” For caring enough about your fans to create a farewell album for us. The stars, indeed, looked very different the day David Bowie left us. But through the grief, it is important to remember that he is still present with us through his work, and the Starman is back where he belongs: in the sky.
Sabine Bajakian, DJ
George Michael (1963 - 2016)
This Christmas, the hearts of many were torn at the sudden news of George Michael’s passing. It seemed neither possible nor fathomable for another captivating artist and beautiful individual to pass away; yet, the former Wham! member leaving us so soon left fans devastated. Though gone on this Earth, it is his expressive soul and passion that will remain. They say legends never die, but what about spirit? George Michael’s spirit will forever be alive and well in the world through the honesty and expression in his music.
A philanthropist, an artist, an activist, a musician, and a human being, the impact he had on people wasn’t central to any one aspect. He accomplished much in so little time, and his overall being made people feel warm, empowered, and beautiful. This, I feel, is what being human is all about. It’s not about how many records he sold or the stadiums he filled, it was about the impact he left. Though he only lived to be 53, Michael lived fully in the way he made people feel.
“You'll never find peace of mind until you listen to your heart,” and the hearts of many are listening and aching for George Michael.
Whitney Levine, DJ
Maurice “Moe” White (1941 - 2016)
I vividly remember the moment I first heard the truly magnetic and dazzling sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire. I, a young private-school girl, dressed in my plaid jumper and Mary Jane shoes, was half-asleep in the backseat of my mom’s Ford Expedition as she was pulling out of the driveway to usher me and my sister to school on time. I remember hearing the delicate opening of a keyboard, each chord being played with caution, building up suspense for what was about to happen next. BAM! In came what sounded like a hundred trumpets and horns, interlaced with a sneaky bass guitar and a drum section that could make you say “Glory be to God!” setting the tone for arguably the most mystical, not to mention spiritual, piece of music in this world. Of course, the cherry on top was the smooth vocals of Phillip Bailey, who could swoon men and women alike with every high note he hit. I was shaken to my core, fully awake not only for the full school day ahead of me, but also for life. “Fantasy” was the first EWF song I had ever heard, enabling me to ascend to a higher realm.
EWF fans owe this pure magic to none other than the genius who is Maurice White. Like the powerful elements that shaped his music, Maurice was a force of nature. Combining funk, jazz, R&B, pop, disco, and soul, he created the most iconic sounds of an era, connecting the spiritual and physical world. Like the wise and philosophical Sagittarius that he was, Maurice White combined the classical elements that ruled his astrological sign to create his revolutionary band. Sagittarius has seasonal qualities of earth in the autumn and air in the spring, with a primary element of fire giving way to only the most courageous and optimistic outlook on life. Maurice White certainly possessed this courage and optimism that carried through his music and personal life.
Maurice uprooted from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and play the drums in the local nightclub scene when he was a teenager. In 1969, the dawn of disco, he teamed up with Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead to form his trio, the Salty Peppers. However, the Salty Peppers proved to have too much salt and not enough spice, and the group was not very successful. After changing the name to what we now know as Earth, Wind, and Fire, Maurice wrote and produced almost all of the music for the group. He had a gift for forming fruitful melodies and tied it all together with powerful lyrics. His message was harmony, strength, and joy to get through the rollercoaster of life. It goes without saying that Maurice White has an endless amount of awards and accomplishments-- he alone has won seven Grammys out of a legendary twenty nominations, has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. As impressive as these achievements are, they barely even scratch the surface of what Maurice White has done for the world.
Many people did not know that Maurice suffered from Parkinson’s disease throughout his adulthood and only started publicly talking about his ailment when he was 59. He served to educate people about Parkinson’s, using his courage and optimism to get through his daily struggles, especially as he got older. Although he passed away this past February, I will always cherish his impact on me, not only musically, but also in every aspect of my life. What I value most about Maurice White and the rest of EWF is not just the sequined outfits and jazzy dance moves that make me want to shimmy into a velour track suit and roller blade to “Boogie Wonderland” blasting at maximum volume. They used their platform to spread the most positive messages of love and happiness. Numerous musicians can make us feel emotional, but it is rare when we find music that makes us truly happy. Pure, raw, happiness is ridiculously hard to find, and that is exactly what Earth, Wind, and Fire has brought to us. Rest in peace, Maurice White, and may you live on eternally in a land of fantasy.
Natasha Doshi, DJ
Sharon Jones (1956 - 2016)
“People don’t get what they deserve” - Sharon Jones
Miss Sharon Jones, the late (and late to fame) Soul Priestess got it right on the penultimate track of her 2014 album Give The People What They Want: “People don’t get what they deserve.” Jones, who released her first album at age 40, dispensed difficult truths like this throughout her whole discography. Whether it was the agonizing decision to leave a steady relationship for electric romance, or political visions of a movement to stop paying taxes, Sharon Jones kept us in the groove and on topic.
Miss Jones always made her point clear, and as the conductor of the lucid and powerful Dap-Kings, has helped to render funk and soul anew. I won’t wax too long about Miss Sharon Jones, but when I found out about her battle with cancer, and her refusal to wear a wig during treatment, I was touched. My mother has battled with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and I saw firsthand what the disease and treatment did to her. The strength required to get on stage and perform while sick is mammoth. The strength to perform with such candor is even greater. We did not know you long, but we knew you well. Thank you Miss Sharon Jones. Rest In Peace.
Austin Rogers, PSA Engineer
Leon Russell (1942 - 2016)
Southern rock legend Leon Russell died in his sleep on November 13 2016. Russell began his music career playing Oklahoma clubs as a teenager, moving to Los Angeles in 1958 to further pursue music. In LA, he played with and wrote for artists such as Elton John, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Bob Dylan, first realizing commercial success as a songwriter when Joe Cocker recorded the song "Delta Lady" for his 1969 album, Joe Cocker! Throughout his career Russell topped many charts with both his own music and music he wrote for others, and was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame on March and June 2011, respectively. Russell released his last studio album, Life Journey, in 2014. Les Blank’s 1974 documentary on Leon Russell, A Poem Is a Naked Person, released in 2015, was described by Slate Magazine’s Carson Lund as "a free-floating portrait of the eccentric neo-Gospel Oklahoman frying pan that is Russell's mini-universe.” Though there wasn’t much news surrounding his death, Leon Russell deeply influenced rock music, and he will be missed.
Paige Schwimer, Grad Student Advisor
Alan Vega (1938 - 2016)
One night in eighth grade, I fell asleep with my radio on. I woke up at two in the morning to the sound of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” on my local college station. I was paralyzed in my bed – too spooked to keep listening, but too mesmerized to turn off the radio. While Martin Rev’s drum machine kept a repetitive, tinny rhythm for ten straight minutes, Alan Vega’s singing was wild and unpredictable. In the middle of a verse, he’d become a manic hyena, yelping and laughing while the words, “Frankie’s got a gun... he’s gonna kill his kid,” slunk out of my speakers, down my walls, across the floor, and into my impressionable young brain. Years later, I can still listen to “Frankie Teardrop” and not be able to tell when Alan Vega’s going to throw out an ear-piercing “AAAH!” It’s like watching a slasher flick blindfolded.
It wasn’t until I worked up the nerve to buy the first two Suicide albums that I understood what Alan Vega was all about. On songs like “Dream Baby Dream” and “Sweetheart,” he delivers vocal performances that are nothing short of genuinely beautiful. Meanwhile, on “Mr. Ray,” you can almost picture him gargling razor blades while he belts out, “Doo wop-wop, wop, wop.” Even though most of his lyrics were just one or two key phrases repeated ad nauseam, Alan Vega had a grasp on the power and essence of attitude. When he sang a love song, he didn’t need to wax poetic – his voice alone held every emotion he wanted to convey. It was the dramatic potential of rock ‘n’ roll stripped down to its barest essentials. Even people who loathed Suicide could listen to Alan Vega sing and know that nothing else in the world sounded remotely like it.
Alan Vega was ten years older than the rest of his CBGB peers, and his Chicano heritage was unique to the punk scene. Paired with the confrontational nature of Suicide’s music, he was a genuine outsider whose influence far exceeded his success. However, his music has challenged innumerable artists to push their own limits and to be unfettered by the opinions of critics or fans. Elvis Costello, The Clash, Ric Ocasek, and Bruce Springsteen all championed Vega’s talents in their day. Forty years later, Suicide is still leaving its mark on every movement from hip-hop to punk. Alan Vega’s transparent ethos was the backbone of it all, and his death at 78 is a loss to anyone who believes in the visceral power of music.
Blake Wagner, DJ
Leonard Cohen (1934 - 2016)
For most musicians it’s in their blood. They love to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s for four people or for 4,000 people. They just need to play.This was not the case with Leonard Cohen. At thirty-two, he was a published poet and novelist, but a musical novice. He turned to songwriting primarily because he couldn’t earn a living as a writer. But Cohen’s literary background was a gift to the music. His lyrics are breathtaking.
I didn’t know much about Leonard Cohen until I was given an assignment for my Music History class to analyze different versions of his song “Hallelujah.” Most younger audiences are more familiar with Jeff Buckley’s cover, and know “Hallelujah” as “the song from Shrek.” However, it wasn’t until I analyzed the lyrics of “Hallelujah” when I discovered what an amazing songwriter Leonard Cohen was. The song is littered with biblical allusions and rich imagery. Cohen’s songs have shown themes of death since the earliest years of his career. He stated that he dealt with depression ever since his adolescence. As a songwriter, Cohen poured so much of himself into his lyrics. Many women were enchanted by his way with words. Bob Dylan recognized the beauty and spirituality within “Hallelujah” before hundreds of artists made their covers of Cohen’s song famous. Dylan also considers Cohen’s melodies, along with his lyrics, as his “greatest genius.”
Cohen’s fame emerged in the sixties and early seventies among extremely influential singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. Many of these singer-songwriters regarded him as the “song poet,” and the greatest songwriter of them all. Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega describes Cohen’s songs as “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.”
When he was young, Cohen went to exceptional universities such as McGill and Columbia. He came from a family of considerable means, yet he never took his family’s comforts for granted, and later in life never considered luxury important. Some of his poetic idols as a teenager were Federico Garcia Lorca (whom he named his daughter after) and W.B. Yeats. He also admired many blues artists like Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bessie Smith. Cohen was also exposed to folk music at an early age, and listened to Hank Williams and other country singers, later inspiring him to form the country-music duo the Buckskin Boys when he was sixteen.
In his twenties, Cohen took four informal guitar lessons. The lessons ceased when his guitar teacher killed himself. Cohen later cited the Flamenco pattern he learned as the basis of all his music.
Coming from a family of prominent Jews in Montreal, Cohen was a spiritual seeker, and practiced everything from Judaism to Buddhism to Zen. He became a Buddhist monk in 1996.
Since Cohen was notorious for his perfectionism, some of his classics such as “Famous Blue Raincoat” did not feel finished to him. In the title track from his latest record “You Want It Darker,” he sings, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” to express that he was ready to die.
Mica Nafshun-Bone, DJ
When I first heard news of Leonard Cohen’s death, just a week after listening to his spectacular 2016 album, my mind flashed to the first song from that album, both titled “You Want It Darker.” On this song, backed by a synagogue choir from his Montreal hometown, Cohen declares, in his rich and ridiculously deep voice, “I’m ready, my Lord.” These words, along with a letter he wrote to his muse and former lover Marianne Ihsen before her death, and signs of ill health in David Remnick’s excellent profile on him in The New Yorker, meant that the end, when it came, should not have been a tremendous shock. After all, Cohen had celebrated his 82nd birthday just two months before. But, with a late-career resurgence that featured three new albums and 360 shows in only five years, Leonard Cohen seemed as young as ever. His habit of skipping on and off stage at every one of these shows only reinforced this impression. Thus, for me and millions of others, his death was a tragic surprise.
As many, myself included, turned to his music for comfort, it became clear that the breadth and depth of Cohen’s songwriting extends well beyond the “Hallelujah” for which he is (understandably but also unfortunately) most known by younger generations. From early 60s and 70s classics like “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire” to later 80s and 90s hits like “I’m Your Man” and “Everybody Knows,” Cohen leaves behind an enormous musical legacy that includes some of the best lyrics ever written and melodies that Bob Dylan described as “genius.” And that’s just his songs. Over the course of his life, Cohen wore many other hats: critically-acclaimed poet and novelist, ladies’ man, father of two, and even Zen Buddhist monk. For a detailed and compelling look at all these facets of Leonard Cohen’s life, I would highly recommend Sylvie Simmon’s biography I’m Your Man. But if you want to get a quick sense of the kind of person Leonard Cohen was, this anecdote that I came across a few weeks after his death ought to do the trick. So long, Leonard Cohen. Rest in peace.
Elizabeth Kanovsky, DJ