Martin Luther knows the business of music

Music Notes

Music: In Concert/CDs

September 30, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON

I've known voices like his. Soul-rich, nuanced voices that can elevate pool hall jive to Shakespeare.

And when Martin Luther sings, the deep, smoky sound is sexy and seductive or booming and authoritative. Throughout Rebel Soul Music, the singer-musician's kaleidoscopic new album, his voice caresses the ear most of the time, even as the music morphs from soothing, Roy Ayers-inspired balladry to noisy, Sex Pistols-like workouts.

But listen closely to this 34-year-old San Francisco native. He's speaking out on real issues: the pain and degradation in urban hellholes ("Rise"), the joys and frustrations of being American today ("Ms. America"). But he also gets personal, delving into the oh-so-familiar ache of wanting someone who's attached to somebody else ("Lust").

"Rebel Soul Music is a continuous evolution of what I'm offering," says Martin, who's calling from New York. "I feel like I was called to put something in your ear space that is good for your soul, for your spirit. I'm not interested in fast-food music. If I have an option, I want to be aligned with the classic dudes like Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone. I continue to hear these guys."

Give him some time and room. Martin could definitely get there. Besides Jill Scott's latest joint, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, Rebel Soul Music is the other instant vintage soul album to come out this year. And the title fits. Martin's influences are apparent throughout the record, but it never feels as if he's simply rehashing what Sly and Prince did back in the day. And it never feels as if he's jumping on the so-called neo-soul bandwagon.

The music radiates sincerity, a realness and relief from the artificial flavors and preservatives in today's R&B, punk and pop. Rebel Soul Music blends elements from all of those styles. So, of course, the music won't neatly fit into any category. The fuzz tones, the thumpin' bass lines, that knowing voice, the wild, free and crashing guitars -- you're supposed to just feel all this. Let it wash over you.

"I'm a purveyor of all kinds of music," says the man born Martin Luther McCoy. "I'm a segue, hopefully, to Prince and Sly Stone and George Clinton. What I create is a reflection of what I listen to. I don't wear the same clothes every day. I don't go to the same place to get coffee. So I'm not going to always do one style. It's natural for me to do a multiformatted album."

Something a major label probably wouldn't want nowadays, especially from a black male artist. (It seems a brotha has to fit into the 50 Cent or R. Kelly mode to get any real attention.) A graduate of Morehouse College with a degree in mass media arts with a concentration in entertainment law and marketing, Martin is proudly independent. And knows what he's doing.

"It's about owning your masters, man," the artist says. "We're talking about merchandising and licensing. It's about the entrepreneurial spirit."

Martin knows by example. His father, a former postman, owns a successful security guard company in California.

"I wanted to know the music business instead of entrusting my career to somebody else," he says. "We put out an independent record in 1999 [Martin's overlooked debut, The Calling] and learned what to avoid and how to get the record out there."

This time around, Martin is touring more across the country and internationally. He's currently on the road with the Roots. The afternoon we talked, he had just come back from Japan. Dividing his time between San Francisco and New York, the singer-songwriter regularly plays small to medium venues when he's not opening for and playing guitar with the Roots.

"I don't wanna be in no box," Martin says, "so being independent is a continual learning process. Half of it is conforming, the other half is being bold and saying, 'Hell, no.' I would be mad if I'm counting pennies, and the dollars are flying out the window. I have to make certain compromises to make the music accessible. Look, man, I'm trying to get to Wembley Stadium one day. I'm trying to take over the world."

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