There are seven episodes in “Lost Notes: 1980,” the latest season of the KCRW podcast series looking at the stories behind songs and artists that range from household names to less familiar figures and moments in the music world. All seven of these latest chapters, hosted by writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, were released at the same time.
Aside from giving the chance for listeners of the show to experience these stories from four decades past in full, Abdurraqib explains that dropping the whole season at once came from a desire for the season to have a rhythm and shape akin to an album.
“We kind of agonized over the order,” Abdurraqib told IndieWire. “I assume people will listen to the whatever one interests them first. But there are some that create bridges between each other. The Minnie Riperton one flows kind of seamlessly with the Grace Jones one — Disco Demolition Night was on the same day that Minnie Riperton passed away. There’s a feeling that, at least for me, there’s a narrative arc being built.”
Abdurraqib is well-acquainted with bringing ideas into a cohesive whole, with two poetry collections, a book of essays, and a chronicle of the group A Tribe Called Quest to his name. “Lost Notes: 1980” is a group of focused biographical insights into the work of artists like Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Ian Curtis, and Darby Crash, all designed to get at a deeper understanding of the respective 1980 albums and performances that bore their names.
A single year proved to be a helpful unifying force, but there’s much in this season of “Lost Notes” that extends forward and backward through time. Such was the case for the December 1980 concert in Lesotho, led by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, that represented a musical rebuke of apartheid policies in South Africa from artists who could not return to that country but, as Abdurraqib’s piece describes, could see across the border as they performed.
“There’s just so much history that if I didn’t set boundaries, the first draft of that would have been two hours. And I mean, as I mention in the piece, not much of the actual concert itself was even documented. I had to do my best to do them justice in the timeframe I had,” Abdurraqib said. “The history of apartheid, the things that took them out of the country, created the conditions under which they were able to return. Sometimes the most interesting thing isn’t what happened in 1980. It’s what happened in the journey up to 1980.”
The concept of encapsulating the music of a single year is one that Abdurraqib has been exploring in another project, the website 68 to 05. He’s assembled playlists for various calendar entries and offered a space for other writers to pen personal tributes to the albums that capture the personal and cultural value of these records. In both projects, Abdurraqib is documenting the way that social and political threads are inextricable from the work that arrives into that ecosystem.
“A year is a series of conditions that leads to creation. There’ll be music from the second half of this year that I cannot detach from the circumstances of the year that held it,” Abdurraqib said. “The year is a container. The width of the container matters, the depth of the container matters, the fragility of the container matters. Nirvana might be on the cover of this Rolling Stone, but you also remember that there was a war going on. Yes, on the cover of this 1970s magazine, there might be Joni Mitchell. There also might be stories of soldiers coming home.”
Even when digging through those contemporaneous accounts, there was still a challenge to separate the perception of these artists at a specific point in time from the legacy that has endured to the present.
“Shout out to Rock’s Backpages. It’s an immensely good resource because so much of how music is perceived is not how it was perceived when it was released. So I tried to honor that as well,” Abdurraqib said. “As romantic as I want to get about [the Grace Jones album] ‘Warm Leatherette,’ I had to put in the piece that it didn’t sell that well upon its release. The singles didn’t splash as intensely as they could have or should have. It does feel important to put the proper lens on that as well.”
These seven stories are linked by the proximity of album releases, but there are also plenty of links in how this music finds purchase in a greater audience. Trends that emerge from a specific place and time that inspire both evolutions and imitators. Managerial interests that look to exploit bursts of creative genius for monetary gain.
But beyond the industry machinations, Abdurraqib found an emotional core in this season.
“There’s also an interest I had in loss and grief and rebuilding in the midst of something that feels insurmountable, be it Grace Jones rebuilding her sound or New Order crawling out of the ashes of immense tragedy,” Abdurraqib said. “I like thinking about this as a year-beginning thing where people make big resolutions. Sometimes they’ll stick to them. But through failing, they sometimes discover something worthwhile about themselves. Is ‘Hotter Than July’ the best Stevie Wonder album? It’s probably not even in his five best albums. But he stumbled through ‘Secret Life of Plants’ to find out who he was at the start of the decade.”
That last example is maybe the strongest idea that “Lost Notes: 1980” isn’t just an exploration of context of the day. Abdurraqib doesn’t address many of the parallels between 1980 and 2020 directly in the episodes themselves, but there’s enough for a listener to spot the mirroring that 40 years of perspective can offer.
“‘Hotter Than July’ in some ways is a protest album that came out in the middle of an at-the-time historical, insurmountable, deadly heat wave. Does that sound like familiar conditions?” Abdurraqib said. “That’s why ‘Hotter Than July’ was an important one for me, because it was the one that had the most distinct thread. That always feels like an important thing for me to remember and consider, that history operates in these loops. It feels important to honor the way that there’s sonic recall and musical recall, but there’s also actual hard historical recall as well.”
Abdurraqib has experience in the podcast world, including having previously worked on “To Chan Marshall: A Letter to Cat Power,” a story for a previous “Lost Notes” season. Some episodes in “Lost Notes: 1980” feature conversations with those who have devoted themselves to the story’s central topic. An installment on the rise of the Sugarhill Gang turns to the wisdom of hip-hop historian Dart Adams. “Memoir of a Minnie Riperton Fan” author Sheila Simmons shares her expertise. Even though this season has a broader scope and many of these chapters are rooted solely in Abdurraqib’s writing, his work has always been suited to an audio-based medium.
“When I write for print, I’m also writing for the possibility that these stories that I’m writing might be told out loud. And I don’t think these are any different,” Abdurraqib said. “It bears mentioning that for each of these, we were going to have interviews and people to talk to. But with the pandemic, we couldn’t record with people in studios. The journey then became about, ‘How can I write audio essays that feel as though people are sitting down around a table to hear a story they maybe know a little bit, but not a lot about?'”
Where he could, Abdurraqib tried to record as much of his written contributions in one take, to better take advantage of that comfort with the rhythms of spoken performance. There’s also a beauty to “Lost Notes: 1980” in the stretches of archival performances of these songs. Even if in-person concerts aren’t a part of our present, it’s a reminder of what those concerts meant to the past and where we hopefully may return before too long.
“It was important in writing this, to make these episodes and the delivery of information feel immersive,” Abdurraqib said. “I think that a lot of us, myself included, are missing the connection that we sometimes felt when being present in those spaces. It was a reminder that this is a space where music is happening, a place that people could feel good about.”