Hive Five: Remembering the Dead on Dia de los Muertos

Amy Winehouse in London, May 2007. Photo: Chris Christoforou/Redferns

We’ve only just gotten all the makeup from our Walking Dead zombie Halloween costume washed off, and it’s already time to celebrate the more sober side of the holiday. Dia de los Muertos, the Latin-American “Day of the Dead” celebration held annually on November 1 and 2, is a time to remember family and friends who have passed away. This year the music industry lost a lot of great talent — from French electro producer DJ Mehdi and former Weezer bassist Mikey Walsh to Broadcast’s Trish Keenan — many of whom were sadly very young. (Mehdi was 34; Walsh 40; and Keenan 42.) So in honor of the Day of the Dead, Hive offers a tribute to five of the much-missed musicians who died in 2011. Think of it as our own version of the Grammy’s “In Memoriam” segment without the questionable background music and the cut to commercial break.

1. Nate Dogg

The husky baritone croon of the man born Nathaniel Hale was a trademark of the ’90s G-funk sound. He formed his first group, rap trio 213, with his cousin Snoop Dogg and friend Warren G.; made his debut on The Chronic, the album that created the blueprint of the sound of Los Angeles rap; became the go-to hook-singer of his era; and produced the hit Grammy-nominated single “Regulate” all by the time he was 25. Unfortunately, by the time he was 41, he had suffered multiple strokes, both in 2007 and again in 2008, and Nate Dogg died of related complications back in March.

2. Poly Styrene

The braces-wearing British howler — born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said — was one of the pioneers of early feminist punk. Her sax-fueled, iconoclastic group X-Ray Spex may have had only a brief initial run (1976-1979), but their song “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” is an enduring anthem (partly due to Styrene’s shrill, raw voice, which presaged Riot Grrrl vocals like those of Corin Tucker and Kathleen Hanna). She released a handful of solo projects, including the new age-y Flower Aeroplane in 2004, but it was her work with the unabashedly unconventional Spex (with whom she reunited twice in the ’90s and again in 2008) for which Styrene, who died of breast cancer in April at age 53, will always be remembered.

3. Gil Scott-Heron

Not just anyone’s death would inspire bereft Twitter tributes from Chuck D. and Eminem, but Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t just anyone. The poet and musician was one of the earliest progenitors of hip-hop with his highly musical, funny-yet-political spoken-word compositions, like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” an acerbic anti-consumerist diatribe against mass media. From 1970-1982 the prolific Scott-Heron averaged an album a year, and though drug addiction took a toll on his productivity (he only released one record between 1982 and 2010), his work was sampled on plenty of recent releases. If hip-hop is the bread-and-butter of popular music today, Scott-Heron, who died at 62 in May, is its baker.

4. Bert Jansch

This Scottish acoustic guitar virtuoso may not have been a household name here in the States, but he was one of the most important figures in the history of British folk music, and his influence is still felt five decades after he began recording. Acts from Neil Young and Nick Drake to Stephen Malkmus and Johnny Marr have cited Jansch as a hero, and his own unique style of finger-picking is as recognizable (and often copied) as John Fahey’s. He died October 5 from lung cancer, but he released albums until the end; the last of his more than 20 records was his 2006 Drag City-release, The Black Swan.

5. Amy Winehouse

What is left to say about notorious beautiful-mess Amy Winehouse? Her July death was recently ruled “death by misadventure” (the polite, British way of saying “too much alcohol”), and her most famous song is a now sadly ironic tune about refusing to go to rehab, but it should be her voice and her talent that she’s remembered by and not her “misadventures.” With one album — 2003’s Back to Black–a Jewish girl from North London pretty much single-handedly made retro soul vibrant again (you’re welcome, Adele), and none of the similarly styled British singers who have come after her have had quite as authentically soulful a voice as she did. Let’s remember the music, not the tabloid headlines; the way she lived, not the way she died.

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