Space jam: from cosmic jazz to extraterrestrial hip hop
Five of the most iconic, other-worldly and plain freaky concept albums with space themes
The vast expanse of outer space has inspired art and music throughout human history, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras, for example, believed that all the planets and stars in the universe moved according to mathematical equations that could be translated into musical notes, producing a symphony that he called the “harmony of the spheres". But it was the Cold War era space race that really ignited humanity’s fascination with the cosmos, inspiring the composition of some truly celestial and otherworldly music in the past few decades. From cosmic jazz to extra-terrestrial hip hop, here are five of our favourite concept albums inspired by space.
Sun Ra—Space is The Place (1973)
Born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama in 1914, Sun Ra abandoned his birth name in 1952, eventually claiming that he was an alien from Saturn who came to earth on a mission to spread peace. An early pioneer of afrofuturism, Sun Ra’s mythos combined space-age motifs with ideas from Egyptian mysticism, black nationalism, freemasonry and other esoteric sources. Much of his music dealt with outer space themes, but the best known is 1973’s Space Is The Place LP, which combines different eras and styles of jazz with free improvisation and extra-terrestrial synths in an ecstatic, transcendental and surreal cacophony. The album was followed by a science fiction movie of the same name in 1974, which featured Sun Ra colonizing a new planet and creating an African-American utopia in a strong critique of contemporary American race relations.
Dr Octagon—Dr Octagonecologyst (1996)
After the demise of seminal New York rap crew Ultramagnetic MCs, rapper Kool Keith moved to the West Coast and reinvented himself, coming up with the character of Dr Octagon—an extra-terrestrial, time-travelling gynecologist and surgeon with yellow skin, green eyes and a pink-and-white afro. The not-so-good doctor’s first album Dr Octagonecologyst features production work by Dan The Automator and DJ Qbert, and is an absurdist and psychedelic romp through a hospital populated by interstellar characters like Chewbacca Uncircumcised and Mr Gerbik, the Halfsharkalligatorhalfman, and where patients often die on the table in ways both hilarious and deeply unsettling. Keith’s arrhythmic, porno-horror lyrics combined with Dan The Automator’s musique-concrète inspired reworking of the classic hip hop sound made for an album that pushed the envelope. This was at a time when public imagination was obsessed with gangsta rap. Apart from highlights like Blue Flowers and 3000, the record also features one of the most hilarious skits in hip hop history, with the shouted exclamation of “Oh shit, there’s a horse in the hospital!"
Vangelis—Albedo 0.39 (1976)
Greek composer and electronic pioneer Vangelis has made a lot of music inspired by space, including the Blade Runner soundtrack and the theme to Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos. But his most fascinating cosmic compositions are on Albedo 0.39, a nine-track concept album based on space physics. The term albedo refers to the proportion of light received that a planet reflects back into space, with 0.39 being the albedo value for earth in 1976. Driven by arpeggiated and pulsed synths, the record also features gamelan, xylophones, church organs, drums and space/technology themed vocal samples, all used to create sparse, retro-futurist anthems that blurred the boundary between neo-classical music, progressive rock and ambient music. Highlights include the upbeat Pulstar and the atmospheric title track which features a voice narrating facts about the earth’s physical properties over waxing and waning synths that conjure up the vastness and emptiness of space.
Parliament—Mothership Connection (1975)
Yet another afrofuturist pioneer, George Clinton’s p-funk mythology posited funk as a path to the truth and a response to the American police state. Always flirting with the extra-terrestrial, p-funk’s interstellar ambitions are best exemplified on Parliament’s Star Trek inspired Mothership Connection, an era-defining party album about an alien spaceship taking over earth’s radio waves to “claim the Pyramids" and invite listeners up to the mothership. The album features a star cast of musicians, including keyboard wiz Bernie Worrell, multi-instrumentalist Bootsy Collins, and Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker on horns. The seven genre-blending tracks on Mothership Connection are some of the most iconic to emerge from the decade, including the evergreen Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) and Mothership Connection (Star Child)—both songs that have been sampled by multiple hip hop producers in later years.
David Bowie—The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (1972)
This list would have been incomplete without a mention of original space cadet David Bowie, even if it’s cheating a little to call this an “outer space" record. A loose concept album about a bisexual, androgynous alien rockstar, the titular Ziggy Stardust, this proto-punk/glam record is one of the most influential music releases of the 20th century. There isn’t a single false note over its 38 minutes as the record takes the listener on the journey of Stardust’s Christ-like rise and fall in the backdrop of a planet doomed to end in five years. Teetering between nihilism and spiritual enlightenment, Bowie’s apocalyptic messiah persona became so popular that he had to kill Stardust off a couple of years later in order to stop him from overshadowing everything else Bowie did