From cos­mic jazz to ET hip hop

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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

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

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 pinkand-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 popa ulated 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

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, 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 neo­clas­si­cal 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

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 Conec­tion, 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

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.

Five of the most iconic, other-worldly and plain freaky con­cept al­bums with space themes

LP cov­ers of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Star­dust’; and Par­lia­ment’s ‘Moth­er­ship Con­nec­tion’ .

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