The gorgeous harmonies of “Our Prayer” open what should have been the follow-up to the 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds, but Capitol Records eventually shelved the SMiLE project as Brian Wilson’s mental health deteriorated and the music grew weirder.
Spencer Livingston-Gainey fronts the Norman-based rap trio Hi-PoP!
“I’d never heard of this monumental unfinished album,” Livingston-Gainey said. “I realized we could take those bootleg session of SMiLE that people had circulated for years and use them as samples.”
Fellow Hi-PoP! lyricist Marcus Dixon and producer Zach Miller collaborated with Livingston-Gainey on the project that mirrors the lost Beach Boys album. It’s called Illegal SMiLE for a few reasons. It’s the title of a John Prine song, but Hi-PoP! also did not obtain any permission to use the tracks they sampled. Miller says maybe they should have.
“But we’re not going to be making any money off this, except for shows,” Miller said.
“To me, the title Illegal SMiLE also alludes to the bootleggers,” Livingston-Gainey said. “Without them, SMiLE might have just been forgotten."
The band’s own “pet sounds” follow the same three-movement “Teenage Symphony to God” blueprint The Beach Boys conceived. Brian Wilson’s music and Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics traced American history and culture from East Coast to West Coast, pausing to explore Spanish and Native American themes, agriculture, the railroad, and industrialization. Songs like “Roll Plymouth Rock” ask what “ribbons of concrete” have done “to the church of the American Indian.”
“Oklahoma is a perfect example of those themes,” Livingston-Gainey said. “You have Indian Removal, and a lot of racial violence, especially with the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.”
Illegal SMiLE roughly follows Route 66 across the state in similar East-West fashion as Wilson and Parks’ lyrics, with songs like “What Have We Done?” and “OK to L.A.” framed by musical samples of Oklahoma musical pioneers Woody Guthrie and Charlie Christian.
“Oil Murders and Race Riots” lifts from SMiLE’s “Barnyard” and contrasts agrarian life with gritty, Prohibition-era Tulsa. Guthrie’s “Car Song” segues into “OK to L.A.” which borrows from for a song with the same kind of lyrical wordplay as "Roll Plymouth Rock."
Illegal SMiLE‘s next two suites explore self-discovery and environmental issues as it builds toward the climactic final track. “Life, Music, and Love” samples the Hammond organ from Wilson’s most ambitious recording – “Good Vibrations.”
The best-produced track on the album also contains three acts, and serves as a one-song microcosm of the whole project. Rhymes like “Gershwin, Freshmen, Chuck Berry too” indicate Livingston-Gainey’s contribution is his personal message to Wilson.
“It’s almost like my Johnny Depp-does-Hunter S. Thompson performance,” Livingston-Gainey said.
The trio’s other primary vocalist, Marcus Dixon, said he initially had trouble writing to some of the album’s beats, but drew on his own experience for the “Life” verse in “Life, Music, and Love.”
Even the album artwork evokes the spirit of the Beach Boys’ project. Tulsa artist Cristi Richardville drew inspiration from Frank Holmes’ original, aborted album cover. Oklahoma iconography dots the storefront, with the Blue Whale of Catoosa, the Tulsa Golden Driller, and the Blue Dome Diner all prominently displayed in the window.
“Just as every bootlegger puts their own print on their version of SMiLE, ours’ is the “Illegal, Okie SMiLE,” Livingston-Gainey said.
Hi-PoP!’s Illegal SMiLE almost seamlessly blends two genres that couldn’t be further apart on the pop spectrum…and it smartly expands on and localizes Brian Wilson’s original social commentary and word play for an Oklahoma audience.
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