Heroes Are Gang Leaders: Artificial Happiness Button

Mark Corroto By

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We can be pretty sure that in heaven the champion poet is heard saying, "I'm Gil Scott-Heron and I approve of this message." The same can be said of the late Amiri Baraka whom the art, poetry and music troupe Heroes Are Gang Leaders was created to honor with their first release in 2014. What saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and poet Thomas Sayers Ellis began has expanded in size and scope for their fifth release. The troupe, which has surpassed two dozen performers, presents the news. Actually more than the news, HAGL takes our civilization's temperature not unlike the means and modes of Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet (Def Jam Recordings, 1990) or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 4 Way Street (Atlantic, 1971). A self-described literary free-jazz ensemble, HAGL merges text with music by way of theatre performance. Think Sun Ra on Broadway.

The title track contrasts bumper-sticker happy sayings with the warning "don't believe everything you sing." Soon enough, the preaching dives into non sequiturs to reveal the message's attempt to massage the medium. HAGL calls listeners to wake up and pick up what they are putting down. They make that task easy with slow funky jam like the wordless "Hurt Cult." "London Butterfield" reminds us of a Laurie Anderson spoken word piece flowing through the electric piano, saxophone, bass and drums burn of a Digable Planets song. "Mister Sippy" is an alcohol-fueled oral history of racism in America filtered through a monster blues. The signature piece here is "It's the End of the Babysitting of Traumatized Grown Ass Men," packed with multiple voices and a trademark Gil Scott Heron scolding. Bassist William Parker makes a guest appearance on two tracks, as does trumpeter Jaime Branch. Both can be heard on the final track "Internet Kill Switch," a prophetic description of your current pandemic-laced world. Yikes.

Track Listing

Artificial Happiness Button; Mista Sippy; Hurt Cult; London Butterfield; The Day We Gave The Globes Back; It’s the End of the Babysitting of Traumatized Grown Ass Men; Internet Kill Switch.


James Brandon Lewis: tenor saxophone, piano, compostions, arrangements, vocals; Thomas Sayers Ellis: vocals, poem, arrangements; Luke Stewart: electric bass, vocals, wood blocks; Janice Lowe; keyboards, flute, vocals, arrangements; Brandon Moses: guitar; Heru Shabaka-ra: trumpet; Warren “Trae” Crudup: drums, cocoapods; Melanie Dyer: Viola; Devin Brahja Waldman: synthesizer, background voice; Margaret Morris, vocals; Nettie Chickering: vocals; No Land: poem, voice; William Parker: double bass; Devin Brahja Waldman: alto saxophone; Sean Berry: drums; Jamie “Breezy” Branch: trumpet; Randall Horton: poem, background vocals; Crystal Good: vocals; Jenna Camille: vocals; Samantha Riott: vocals; Thomas Sayers Ellis: vocals, whistle, poem; Ambrose Bye: background vocals; Anne Waldman: background vocals; Savannah Grace Harris: drums, vocals; Cecilia Vicuna: voice; Em Rose: background voice; Christian Black: background vocals; Bonita Penn: background vocals; London Butterfield: background vocals.

Album information

Title: Artificial Happiness Button | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Ropeadope

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