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Tony Allen’s Crucial Albums

Five classic examples of African groove art

Expensive Shit (Soundworkshop, 1975)

The scatological backstory of Fela Kuti being busted by the Nigerian government for marijuana possession, him eating the evidence and the authorities’ attempt to force him to defecate the weed is reason enough to have this LP in your collection. But the true goods are in the Allen-powered grooves of the LP’s two songs, the laidback “Water No Get Enemy” and the high-octane title track.

Zombie (Celluloid, 1977)

If you had to single out one essential Fela Kuti LP featuring Allen, this would be it. It contains the astonishing Afro-agit-pop anthem “Zombie,” which got the bandleader in heaps of trouble with the Nigerian government and eventually led to the military’s horrific attack on Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic compound.

Black Voices (Comet, 1999)

Allen explores blacktronica at the turn of the 21st century, when New York City’s deep house was flirting heavily with Afrobeat and West London’s broken-beat scene was rising up. Even through dubbed-out filters, Allen’s patented beats pulsate with rugged energy.

Secret Agent (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2009)

Allen employs the propulsive, hypnotic influence of electronica on this more acoustic collection of horn-heavy jams, some of which showcase Cameroonian guitarist Claude Dibongue (check the title track and “Alutere”). The disc also boasts fine female lead vocals from Orobiyi Adunni on “Ijo” and Bola Dumoye on “Switch.”

Rocket Juice & the Moon (Honest Jon’s, 2012)

Oftentimes, all-star dates like this one are iffy because they focus more attention on the personnel than on the actual music. Certainly, there was cause to pause when word got out about Allen supplying funky pockets for Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Throw in R&B singer Erykah Badu, keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck (a former Kuti collaborator) and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, among others, and it becomes either a hot party or a hot mess. In the end, the music hits both extremes.

Originally Published