Information Inspiration still sounds refreshingly smart and playful.
Shuggie Otis could have had it all, at least according to him himself. “I didn’t want to be a sideman,” he explained. “I could have been an instant millionaire, a few times, probably, but that wasn’t on my mind at all.” Being the son of legendary blues guitarist Johnny Otis, and a much sought after guitar player in his own right during his youthful heyday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Shuggie makes a valid point. By taking trad blues and concocting his own mix of funk, pop, psychedelia and soul, Otis created Inspiration Information, his third and final solo album.
Created over the span of three years, Inspiration Information was largely self-recorded by Otis—not only did he act as producer and mixer, he also sang and played guitar, bass, organ, piano, vibraphone and percussion. While he did bring in studio extras to record string and wind instruments, Otis was essentially a one-man band during the recording process. It all sounds simple yet meticulously cared for, like we’re getting a glimpse into Otis’s demoing process.
To aid him, Otis heavily relied on the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 drum machine. While his closest contemporary, Sly Stone, used the same drum machine to push foreboding beats two years earlier in There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Otis instead delights in airy rhythms that create a beatific mood. The drum machine’s light and gentle tapping, usually playing a primitive pattern and nothing more, is the key to Inspiration Information’s chilled and relaxed atmosphere.
Strewn across these easy rhythms are beautifully complex and intricate chord progressions and arrangements. The sound produced suggests a lack of difficulty to its production, but that’s thanks to Otis’s musical prowess. As, for example, “At Uh Mi Hed” steadily grooves along to the MRK-2’s blocky rhythm, Otis finding himself in a particularly playful mood as he brightens the track with splashes of plucked cello, chiming acoustic guitars and saxophone swells.
Throughout Inspiration Information’s short runtime, Otis sparingly uses all of his tools, dropping in rich instrumentation with a deft touch. “Island Letter” wafts along like a passing tropical breeze—a gently rotating organ, the aforementioned MRK-2 and melodic string flourishes abound—as Otis coos, “We talked about your beaches/ And we laughed about your trip to the States/ what a gas.” Unbeholden to traditional arrangements, the song morphs into a loose jam with Otis weaving away on glittering keyboards and scratchy guitars.
This freeform attitude is more prevalent in the album’s B-side, though it can sometimes sound like a lack of ideas. “Happy House,” while charming, feels like an incomplete number as it literally stutters to a halt after a few short choruses and one verse. The rest of the album—from the jittering yet aimless organ jam of “XL-30” to the tight guitar and horn funk of “Not Available”—are instrumentals. It’s a mixed affair after such tight songwriting in Side A, and it’s a shame that we don’t get more of Otis’s velvety vocals, though his guitar playing is just as fluid in the Chic-before-Chic glamour disco riffs of “Rainy Day.”
Unfortunately, Otis would succumb to his own hype. Unhappy with the three years it took to record the album, along with the middling sales it received, Epic would drop Shuggie soon after Information Inspiration’s release. He struggled to find a record deal and, eventually, began to approach music as more of a hobby than a profession. Otis would have the last laugh, however, as renewed interest in his work thanks to a 2001 reissue on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records would eventually prompt Epic to reissue an extended release in 2013. He’s been on a slow comeback ever since.
Information Inspiration and its lush take on psychedelia—slowed down, smoothed out and funked up with a heavy emphasis on twinkling melodies and relaxed rhythms—can be seen as the ultimate fulfillment of Otis’s childhood promise. By going out of his way to personalize the album to his own specifications, both musically and production-wise, he paved the path for both Prince and the millions of bedroom studio dreamers that inhabit Bandcamp. What must have been a captivating listen back in the ‘70s, Information Inspiration still sounds refreshingly smart and playful.