The Timeless Songwriting Secrets of Majid Jordan’s New Disco

Disco is cool again!
May 16, 2017, 1:53pm
Image by Norman Wong

"Disco" is an incredibly useless term. The moniker has been applied to any funky, four-on-the-floor music from deep house to synthwave, even though it used to refer to the late-70s cultural trend that was at first maligned then became cool again. In any case, synthwave is heavily associated with the version of the 1980s that

Blade Runner

and, later,

Drive

portrayed: rain-slicked, dangerous, and bathed in neon light.

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The pursuit of a sexier, darker kind of mystique has kept the city's rap and R&B artists in line with an established identity, even if it can possibly lead to artistic dead-ends as the darkness becomes a rote exercise rather than a statement. Majid Jordan has avoided those dead-ends, consistently breaking free of the post-Drake, post-Weeknd mold through their allegiance to the undying coolness of synth-driven dance-pop. And yes, you can call it "disco" if you want, because Majid Jordan employs many of the tropes and tricks that continue to characterize the form in their songwriting and production.

Most of us were introduced to the duo when they co-produced and co-writing Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home," a song the Boy himself described as "timeless." What gives that boast some weight is that "Hold On" is indeed constructed of older parts that never went out of style and are still sturdy today. First and foremost is the rhythm. As Drake pal Chilly Gonzales explains, "Hold On" is heavily syncopated, which means that its notes and chords land around the beat instead of squarely on top. While Gonzales argues that it's a more modern choice, syncopation is everywhere in disco and older funk. Listen to Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" or The Stylistics' "Hurry Up This Way Again" for examples of how syncopation is employed in these genres. Majid Jordan has kept this same looseness in their own music, with "Make It Work" and "Small Talk" skipping and strutting through their runtimes, the rhythmic hiccups of the drums and keys providing the necessary funk.

Another big part of the song's appeal is producer Jordan Ullman's choice of chords. "Hold On" has a circular chord progression that's similar to that of fellow 2013 disco revival hit "Get Lucky." Both start on a chord degree known as the "supertonic," which is historically one that's used as an unresolved resting point in disco/funk. That chord's use is present in more of Ullman's productions, including the non-disco-but-actually-very-disco "For Free" and early Majid cut "Forever." Other songs like Drake's "Feel No Ways" circle around different non-root chords like the fourth and the flatted seventh. This song, in particular, makes the disco/funk connection explicit by using the sparkle of the Yamaha DX7 piano, a.k.a. your parents' favourite smooth jazz instrument. Despite the easy-to-follow dance grooves, the underlying harmonic structure is sophisticated and the contrast between the two is what makes Majid Jordan's music achieve those ineffable qualities of good and chill. The group's single "Phases" is less disco, more straight synthpop, but Ullman's R&B chords still give it the required strobe-lit kick and groove that's expected of the duo.

Even though they haven't been around for long, Majid's dedication to capturing the vibe of the early 80s is echoed in other Toronto artists who just happen to share their influences. Obviously, there's the Weeknd's recent shift from TumblR&B to leather-and-sunglasses synthpop but look also to Brampton's HERO, who explicitly calls his Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie-inspired music "VHS pop" and adorns it with fake 80s film posters. These artists are all examples of a branching path in post-Drake Toronto, and one that is best exemplified by Ma jid Jordan's contemporary but timeless songcraft.

Majid Jordan play Manifesto 11 on June 10.

Phil Witmer is a staff writer at Noisey Canada. Follow him on Twitter.