Shuggie Otis had the world at his feet when he brought out his second LP, Inspiration Information in 1974. He cut his teeth early on as a guitarist in his father’s (the legendary blues man Johnny Otis) band and had released his debut solo LP in 1971 aged just 18. As well as playing the guitar, Shuggie Otis also had a grasp of the keyboard, drums, bass – in fact almost any instrument that was put infront of him, he could play it. Inspiration Information is an album that showcases a musician at the top of his game – on it Shuggie lurches from new orleans ish rnb (on the mercurial Sweet Thing) to damaged psychedelic soul (Outta mi head) to stunning kaleidoscopic pop funk(the legendary Strawberry Letter 23).
Hidden amongst all of this bright, melodic musical mess is something all together more avant garde. The track XL-30 is a short instrumental, which utilizes the primitive precursor to the drum machine proper – the rhythm box, which came fitted to certain organs of the day or as a stand alone version called the Rhythm King. Otis programmed a syncopated beat on the box and layered up an organ over the top that staggers about in an odd, drunken time signature for just over two minutes, with flourishes of reverb effected organ on top, before the track comes to a sudden halt. There’s an odd key change in there halfway through, and the piece feels perilously close to falling into ‘blackpool tower’ territory, but, rather than being twee or schmaltzy, the track ultimately feels strangely gritty and most definitely unhinged.
What’s remarkable about the piece of music is that although it would probably get filed under jazz, it actually sounds like a pre historic pre cursor to Detroit techno, it has the rawness, the oddness of a theo parrish or Moodymann track – and it was so out of step with what was going on musically in the world of black american music in 1974 that, in that context, it must have sounded like it was from another planet. Shuggie Otis worked frequently with Frank Zappa, which goes some way to explaining his experimentalism, but really the oddness of XL-30 is very much in the keeping of the oddness of Shuggie Otis himself. When you consider that Otis was 21 years old when Inspiration Information was released nearly forty years ago, it’s quite staggering to consider that was actually his last proper release. He’s still alive but has been on a reclusive hiatus pretty much ever since this came out. Rumours abound that he will be putting out another album soon, but I think those rumours have been floating around for the best part of forty years, so probably not worth holding your breath for.
Shuggie is highly regarded across the musical spectrum – detroit heads, jazz nuts, funk fans, sample fiends and art pop aficionados all speak about him in hushed tones, and the rhythm box sound is referred to in some circles simply as the ‘Shuggie Otis drum machine’. He’s also referred to as ‘The Proto Prince’. The album’s been re released a couple of times and Luaka Bop put out a mini 3 inch cd called ‘Getting Shuggie With It’ back in 2001 which featured Strawberry Letter alongside XL 30.
XL 30 is one of those strange anomalies, a track that is more than a decade ahead of it’s time and seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s a baffling shame that Shuggie Otis didn’t follow up with more material, but at least he granted the universe with this.