Fresh Air Interviews, 'Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: A Little Funk and Soul' The old-school Brooklyn funk and soul band just released its fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way. Sharon Jones and bassist Gabriel Roth join Fresh Air to discuss the band's style and songwriting techniques.
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Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings: A Little Funk And Soul

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Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings: A Little Funk And Soul

Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings: A Little Funk And Soul

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Some people have called Sharon Jones a female James Brown. She grew up in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, and imitated him as a child. Now, she sings with the band the Dap-Kings. She was described in the New York Times as a timeless soul singer, and the Dap-Kings were described as obsessive and skillful soul revivalists. The band backed Amy Winehouse on several tracks of her hit album "Back to Black" and also backed her on her first U.S. tour.

Our guests today are Sharon Jones and the founder of the Dap-Kings, Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann. They met when he co-owned the now-defunct label Desco Records and asked her to record for it. Now, Roth runs Daptone Records, which recently released the fourth album by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. It's called "I Learned The Hard Way." Here's the title track.

(Soundbite of song, "I Learned The Hard Way")

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (Music Group): (Singing) Something's told me inside that your love is untrue. You said girl, it's all right. I would never hurt you. Just to be by your side, I would've walked through the fire. Now, it hurts me inside just to hear your name, just to hear your name. I learned the hard way that your love is cruel(ph). I learned the hard way about you.

When I opened my eyes, it was all around me. (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Terry Gross spoke with Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth in 2007.


How would you describe the sound you're going after?

Ms. SHARON JONES (Singer): More of a soul, Stax '68, '69 sound. Gabe?

Mr. GABRIEL ROTH (Owner, Daptone Records): Yeah, I mean, for me, I've always just tried to make records that sound like, you know, sound like the records I like. I never had too much of a very specific agenda that were going to try to, you know, try to ape something or try to pass something off. We just wanted to make records that felt good to us and sounded good to us.

GROSS: Gabe, would you describe the instrumentation of the band and what you patterned it on?

Mr. ROTH: The instrumentation of the band is drums, bass, two guitar players, baritone and tenor saxophones, a trumpet, percussion and Sharon, singing.

GROSS: Is it hard to find good baritone players who aren't full-time jazz musicians now?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I'll tell you, the thing about this band is that it's actually, it really is a band, and I think it's rare for a band to be this big and actually be a band. It's a bunch of guys that are really part of it. We're not using sidemen. We're not changing people out every gig.

You know, I mean, once in a while, people have to sub out for something, but as far as baritone players, man, we have Ian Hendrickson-Smith, who is actually a very talented and accomplished jazz musician in his own right, both on tenor and alto and baritone and has put out a lot of records in his own name. But he's a real barker in the band.

I think for the horn players, specifically - I mean, it's a good point you brought up. Horn players are used to coming from more of a kind of jazz mercenary background. That just tends to be the culture around horn players, as opposed to guitar players and stuff.

But these are guys that really, really can feel the power and the energy of playing in a section and being part of a whole, and I think it's that way for the whole band. You really have guys that are not coming into it with ego, but are coming into it with, you know, with the idea of everybody, you know, playing a part together and achieving something that nobody can achieve individually.

And I think that's something that's really refreshing, especially coming out of circumstances, sometimes in jazz, where people are more sidemen or just coming in to play solos and things like that.

GROSS: James Brown has obviously been a big influence on each of you. I'd like you to each talk about the influence of James Brown on you. Sharon, let's start with you.

Ms. JONES: Well, with me, just I guess being born in his hometown and my parents, I found out later my mother knew him. They used to play together. My father knew him.

GROSS: Wait, your mother used to play with James Brown?

Ms. JONES: Yeah, I guess that it's something like they used to some kind of way they crossed paths just going somewhere, doing something, you know, oh yeah, you know.

GROSS: Wait, wait, do you mean play music with him or just, like, play as a kid with him?

Ms. JONES: No, I mean, it was young. You know, when he was out there doing his thing, like in front of the record store before he owned anything, when he was still dancing and shining shoes and making money, that type of thing. You know, they knew each other from coming up.

And my Uncle Willy(ph) told me that he was like a my father used to, like, tap with James Brown, used to dance out on the streets. I was, like, wow, you know, so I don't you know, you never know these things. You know, when the older people get up, and they start talking sometimes, and I just found all this out like last year. So I was, like, why haven't I heard this before? So you know, I'll let that go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: I think Uncle Willy just wanted to be talking, you know, but still I know that they did grow up. And once, he was performing somewhere in Augusta, and I think I was maybe nine, 10 or maybe, you know, younger, and I went to see him, and something happened.

He was on the stage, and I looked at his foot, and all I remember saying to my father, turned around, somewhere like, he's floating. He's not even touching the floor. And I was, like, right at the stage, eye level to James Brown's foot feet - and I couldn't tell if that man it was like he was floating. And that's an experience that I just remembered that experience with James. And then the next when I saw him last year, April, in Italy, right before, you know.

And he was a little weak, and I got to take the picture, and I was trying to get word in to him. Oh, Mr. Brown, you know, my name is Sharon Jones with the Dap-Kings, and you know. And he was, like, looked me right in the eye and said, God bless you, daughter. And that was it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what influence has James Brown had on you as a singer and just as a stage performer?

Ms. JONES: Well, basically, with Daptone when I met them, it was like, it sounds so much like it reminded me of James Brown and the J.B.s, that music, and that I knew where it was coming from with me singing. And I guess just doing the music, hearing the music and always around these guys playing the J.B.s and the James Brown thing, and I fit right in. I guess I was that female James Brown, the sound.

GROSS: Well, while we're talking about James Brown, you know, James Brown was often introduced on stage in this, like, hyperbolic way. And you, I know, have done that on record. I don't know if you do that for all the shows. But why don't we play the introduction from the first Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings album, and this'll give a taste of what I mean. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BINKY GRIPTITE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Daptones super-soul review. My name is Binky Griptite, and we are the Dap-Kings.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GRIPTITE: Thank you very much. Right now for your enjoyment and pleasure, we would like to introduce to you, the funky and dynamic sister whose exciting dance (unintelligible) across the nation with her dynamic new sound.

Soul brothers and sisters from coast to coast, get up and get down whenever her records are playing. They're doing all the funky new dances. They're doing the bump and touch. They're doing the dap-kick, everything. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about 110 pounds of soul excitement coming for you. This sister is so bad, she's badder than bad. I'm talking about the same sister that brought you (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GRIPTITE: And now, ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show, the super soul sister with the magnetic je ne sais quoi, Miss Sharon Jones.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's the introduction from the first Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings album. God, can you guys do that for me, like, when I host FRESH AIR?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, that would just be so great to have that kind of introduction.

Mr. ROTH: We can't do that, but I'll tell you, you've got to hire Binky Griptite.

Ms. JONES: You've got to get Binky.

Mr. ROTH: Binky Griptite has been a very integral part of our whole operation for the last, you know, dozen years, you know, and he's not just I mean, he's a great, great guitar player, but just as far as showmanship, he's kind of the guy that, as an emcee, brings the show to another level as far as our live show, you know. And he's definitely inspired - not just by James Brown, but by Danny Ray, who always used to introduce James Brown.

GROSS: Does this help you really get in the mood to be on stage, hearing that buildup?

Ms. JONES: Oh, yes it does. I mean, when I'm behind the stage, and Binky out there doing (unintelligible). I can't even say that, magnetic je ne sais quoi or whatever. Yeah, and I'm just back there, and they're just screaming, and Miss Sharon, this you know, I get so hyped. You know, the blood starts pumping. It feels like I'm getting ready to go on to a Rocky show, a ring, you know, get ready to go in the boxing ring.

Mr. ROTH: You know, the live show we do is real different from the records.

Ms. JONES: Oh yeah, definitely.

Mr. ROTH: And we don't try to do the same thing in the studio as we do on stage, and vice versa, because it works differently. But as far as the live show, it is really influenced, not just by James Brown, but by Stax and all the other kind of soul reviews that were going on in the late '60s.

There's a sense of showmanship in that and excitement that you don't see in a lot of shows nowadays, and you know, we kind of we do you know, it's not formulaic, but it's very similar. We usually start with some instrumentals, and maybe Binky will sing a few songs, and we kind of get the crowd going, and he'll talk to the crowd and get them, you know, kind of build up the suspense.

And then he gets into this huge intro, and that was I mean, the one that you just heard, that was from, what, five, six years ago or something. That was about seven years ago. So now it's a lot more hooked up.

You know, the band is settled in, and there's a lot of - there's a lot of fireworks in the show, you know, and Sharon's coming out, and the band's blasting, and we're cutting from one song to another. So in that way, it's exciting.

GROSS: My guests are singer Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth, the leader of the band The Dap-Kings. They'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are singer Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth of the band The Dap-Kings. Sharon, I've got a few questions for you, and then Gabe, I've got a few questions for you, and Gabe, feel free to jump in if there's something you want to add to what Sharon says here.

First of all, actually, I've got a question for both of you, which is, how did you find each other?

Ms. JONES: Well, Gabe was looking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: He was looking for three background singers to do some vocals for Lee Fields. And my ex used to play the saxophone with The Daktaris, with the guys when they was, you know, Soul Providers. And he was, like, well, my lady sings. And they were like, can your lady sing? I was, like, yeah, I can do all three parts.

So when I went in, Gabe heard me. Everything worked. Everyone was happy.

Mr. ROTH: And then we ended up cutting two more songs that day with you singing lead.

Ms. JONES: Yeah, that's right, "Switchblade" and...

Mr. ROTH: And "The Landlord," I believe.

Ms. JONES: "The Landlord," I believe, yeah.

GROSS: There's a great story I'd like you to tell, Gabe, about recording Sharon doing a track that was intended for a man. The track is called "Switchblade." Tell us the story.

Mr. ROTH: Well, originally, Sharon just, like she said, she'd come into the studio to sing backgrounds, and there were two tracks on this album that we wanted backgrounds for. One was the one for Lee Fields, which she nailed in a second, did all three parts, blew me away. All of a sudden it was the first thing I ever did that sounded like a record to me.

And then there was this other song called "Switchblade," and there was this guy, this kind of comedian friend we had, that wanted to do this whole long kind of you know, this whole long talking rap well, when I say rap, I mean, you know, he's just talking about oh, I just out of prison. I'm going to cut you with my switchblade. And then Sharon would come in with:

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Switchblade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, so she cut all those background vocals, you know, and she was having a gas. Anyway, while I was cutting the last track of backing vocals, she just started talking smack, and we were rolling on the floor.

It was much funnier than the guy who was going to do it. So I just rewound the tape real quick and just told her to go for it, and I ran the tape at a little bit higher speed so she could because she was trying to do kind of a low voice anyway. So I just ran the tape a little bit fast for her, and she just went through the whole thing: I'm going to slit you where the good lord split you and all that, the whole thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: And she went off for about three, four minutes straight.

Ms. JONES: Talking.

Mr. ROTH: And just in one take, and that was man, we had a gas. That was actually it was strange because that was really the first lead vocal that we cut together, and it wasn't really a vocal. She was just talking smack.

But, you know, it was something. It was kind of my first glimpse into the kind of personality and the kind of wit and the charisma that she had that, you know, enabled her to kind of create an entire show sometimes out of you know, people are just staring at her, and she's just talking nonsense sometimes, and people are having a blast.

And, you know, after that, we did a bunch of 45s and eventually an album and another album, and here we are.

GROSS: Well, "Switchblade" is really hard to find. It's out of print, but fortunately, you have a copy for us to hear. So why don't we listen to it.

(Soundbite of song, "Switchblade")

Ms. JONES: I done told you to get away from me. Don't make me cut you with this switchblade. I'll cut you up. I'll cut your back. I'll cut you so bad your momma won't know 'ya. Just step away. I'll slit you where the good lord split you, double, twice and three times more.

Just get on away from here now. Don't make me slice you. Don't make me slice you because I'm bad, and I'm mad. Now, you're talking about grooving? Grooving? The only that's going to be grooving is blood going to be flyin' when I finish slicing you up now. Move on away now. Step on back. (Unintelligible). That's why they call me, switchblade...

GROSS: So that's "Switchblade," with my guest Sharon Jones, recorded so she could be slowed down and sound like a man. And my guests are Sharon Jones, who is the lead singer of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and Gabriel Roth, who is the founder of the band, the lead songwriter and the bass player.

So Sharon, I know you spent some time as a prison guard at Rikers Island. Did you record this rap before or after you held that job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: After.

GROSS: So you had inspiration for this.

Ms. JONES: Oh, yeah, I was ready. I think maybe that's why when I went in, it was so sharp. Everything just came real fast, you know. And actually, I remember when I went in the studio, the asked the question, pretend, you know, some guy, you know, like, you know, a bad guy I'm going to cut you so fast with a razor, you know, back in the day, just talking smack like in the alley or something. And so that's what I went to, a junkyard dog, tuck his tail under and run when he see me coming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: And it was all just, like, spur - I mean, just the words just flew out. It was, like, I didn't even think of what I was saying, concentrating on. I just went with it.

GROSS: While we're on the subject, how did you get the job as a prison guard at Rikers Island in New York?

Ms. JONES: Oh, I took the test. There was I took a lot of tests at that time. I took the police test, you know...

GROSS: What was the test like? I mean, what you really need to do is to be able to, you know, get people to respect you. How do you pass a test on that?

Ms. JONES: Oh, they give you a psychological test, you know, the physical test you have to go through, background check on you, you know.

And it was great. I think I would've I would've still been there, but it just took me away from my singing, you know, the music, you know. It was like a career, and after being in there, it was like an omen.

My first week, they stuck me outside, and I pulled a groin muscle in the side, I fell. Then I came back, and I was in believe it or not, it's so weird a car accident, a truck hit me, and I was out for another, like, nine months.

And they forced me back to work, and that same day I came to work, I had a back brace and neck brace, you know, and I'm walking on it, and I fell on the curb. So now I'm injured again.

GROSS: Oh now.

Ms. JONES: I'm telling you, it was an omen. It wasn't meant for me. I fell on the job, and I was confident I'm out again for another couple of months, and so when I finally came in, they said, you know, the lawyer said, why don't you just resign? This way, they won't fire you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: And so I resigned for medical reasons.

GROSS: How many days did you actually work?

Ms. JONES: Okay, I would say out of the two years, from '88 to '90, maybe eight months.

GROSS: So when you were there, given how you kept injuring yourself, and you weren't in the best physical shape, how were you able to convince the prisoners that you were strong enough and focused enough to do the job and keep them in line?

Ms. JONES: Let me tell you, it's a look in my eyes. You may have, like 80 inmates to maybe three officers or two officers. So it was really weird, but you could not show fear. And that's one thing I didn't show, you know, and I got the respect from them right there, and they knew that I didn't take stuff. I wasn't scared.

GROSS: Let's hear another track from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. And this song is called "Humble Me." And this is another song, Gabe, that you wrote. Do you want to say anything about writing or recording this track?

Mr. ROTH: Well, it's a very simple song. There wasn't much to write. It's just a couple chords and some simple, heartfelt words that Sharon could really get into. I mean, the thing I learned about writing is that, you know, I've never been a genius or anything, but I learned how to kind of get out of the way of great musicians and great singers.

So, you know, if you listen to the song, there's not much to the writing in it, but I think Sharon puts a lot of heart into it, you know.

Ms. JONES: Because actually, I think that song, like, you was writing something about me, the inside of me. But I think, you know, by knowing me all these years, Gabe knew that how I am at the church. I'm always saying that, you know, I'm so thankful for what God gave me.

So that's why I'm always saying if you see me like I'm higher than everybody else, you know, bring me down. Let me know I'm not. If you see me up here wanting all these here fancy things, which he knows they don't ever see me out flashing and wearing stuff. But if you see me doing that, I want all these shoes that cost $2,000, $3,000, think about that man over there who don't even have a foot is cut off, you know, don't even have legs, you know.

And then I'm also thankful, humble for when I'm on the road. People come out and pay to come and see me, and I get on that stage, and I'm humble for them coming out to see me every night, and I'm so thankful for them, for God, for having me to be able to dance and jump and sing and keep my voice open. So that song is just about me thanking God, being humble for my blessings.

GROSS: All right. Well, here it is, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "Humble Me," from their CD, "100 Days, 100 Nights."

(Soundbite of song, "Humble Me")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Humble me, humble me. Don't let me forget who I am. Humble me, humble me. Don't let me forget who I am.

When I start talking down like I'm hovering above, like I'm made of something better than what you're made of, and when you hear me asking for all kinds of fancy things, things you never had, no, and things you know you can't bring, don't be afraid to humble me, humble me. Don't let me forget who I am.

BIANCULLI: That's "Humble Me" by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, produced by Gabriel Roth. They have a new CD called "I Learned the Hard Way." They'll both be back, continuing their conversation with Terry, in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Let's continue Terry's 2007 conversation with singer Sharon Jones and Gabriel Roth, the leader of the band the Dap-Kings. Their new CD produced by Roth is called "I Learned the Hard Way." Heres another track from it.

(Soundbite of song)

SHARON JONES: (Singing) I'm a better woman than I have been 'cause I dont think about way back when. It takes two to love, but only one to leave. It was you who did that dirty deed. I got better things to do. Better things to do. Better things to do than I remember you. I got better things to do. Better things to do. Better things to do than remember you.

GROSS: Dave - now, you write songs under the Bosco Mann and you perform under the name Bosco Mann. Where does that name come from and why did you feel like you needed to have a stage name?

Mr. ROTH: Well, its actually, its very different now than when we started making records. We first started making records, it was a very different kind of business for us. We were, you know, I was about 19, 20 years old and we were really into these old records and we would make kind of these fake old records, you know, reissues of a sound - the first record album we do is a reissue of a soundtrack to a kung fu movie that never existed. You know, we just kind of made this stuff up. And so we were just having a blast making things up and putting them out, and people were buying them. And then we said, oh great, man, people really like this music, so we started using, you know, we'd do a real name and say, okay, this is a new record we just recorded, and nobody was interested.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: We couldnt give them away. So we got kind of more into the fake - we did a lot, man. We all used a lot of fake names. Man, we did, you know, fake sitar records and African records, all different kinds of stuff with all kinds of crazy names. But really, and once I got deeper into it, I had another problem, which was that the first record label that we had going, Desco Records, was funded a lot by credit cards and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: know, other people that I'd borrowed money from. So once we did start selling records, I was real worried about putting my real name on any of them because I had so many collect - I mean I was sleeping on somebody's floor and I had - was paying so much money to credit card companies every month and so many people coming down on me trying to take money, I just didnt want to put my real name on anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: But you know, in the long run it actually worked well because, you know, when I'm on the road and somebody comes up to me and they say hey Bosco, it's good to see you again, I know right away this is not somebody I'm real close to. So I can say, hey, its good to see you too, and I can try to remember who they are. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did you come up with the name?

Mr. ROTH: Well, the Bosco part of it actually, my dad wanted to name me Hieronymus after Hieronymus Bosch and was going to call me Bosco for short. And my mom wouldnt let him do it so eventually he named his dog Bosco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: But, so that was for him. And the Mann part of it was one of the first two records we did there was a guitar player name Scott Mann that played on the record and, you know, he used his real name, Scott Mann. I just thought it would be cool to have some brothers in the rhythm section, so I said yeah, Ill be his brother. I'll be Bosco Mann.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: But yeah, I didnt really think that much of it, you know. It's always the things that you dont really think out too much that end up - you end up explaining for years.

GROSS: One of the things that the Dap-Kings are known for is that in your studio you dont use digital recording technology. You use reel-to-reel tapes. These are recorded on vinyl. But anyways, you shy away from like the new digital technology. Why? Like what do you hear? What kind of sound can you get on analog that you feel you can't get on digital?

Mr. ROTH: I mean there's a lot of differences, but the main difference - I mean the thing is I've had a lot of technical - I have - very often engineers or producers or something will try to, you know, will engage me in these very technical conversations about what gear are you using, what kind of mics, or what kind of tape machines. But really, you know, my answer every time, which is, you know, is not trying to be modest or anything, but just being truthful is that really 99 percent of what's in a record is what's coming out of the musicians.

And I think that the arrangements and the sound that musicians have on their instruments that, you know, Dave Guy on the trumpet and Tommy playing guitar and Homer Steinweiss playing drums, these guys, all of them, the whole band, everybody's got a sound on their instrument and they actually sound like that. And a lot of people think I'm doing some crazy studio tricks, but really most of it is them.

As far as that last one percent, I think there's a lot of disadvantages to modern approaches to recording. One of them is that they tend to approach everything digitally with as many tracks as possible with everything's recorded to a computer so you can hit undo. If somebody's recording a solo you can have them record it 35 times and then take the best notes from them. And if they say, oh, well do you think that was good? Well, I dont know. Maybe try it again and we'll see.

When youre using when you're recording to like an eight track tape machine, youre recording mostly live and things are being mixed together, and if somebody goes back and they say, man, I dont about that solo I played, you know, I look them in the eye, I say, hey, are you going to play it better than that? And they either have to say yes or no. And you need great musicians to go back in there and either play it better or not. And there's definitely good sound out of the tape. You know, the sound of recording to tape has a certain compression and a certain warmth that's desirable. But I dont think that's a huge part of what we're doing. I think that it has much more to do with the approach of the musicians and just the approach of recording, just the, you know, the strategy of it.

GROSS: So one more question before we have to end. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing you on stage, only of listening to your recording. So what do you look like, all of you on stage? How do you dress? I mean some of the soul reviews, youre talking about like really loud clothes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: Well, I dont think it's loud. (Unintelligible)

Mr. ROTH: Well, no. We keep it sharp. Everybody's got suits and ties and shined shoes and locked in step, man. The horn section has got some unbelievable steps. The band's always stepping together and playing together, and Sharon always looks unbelievable. She comes out and is usually a blur from the beginning of the show to the end. Youve never seen something move so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: So yeah, visually it's definitely an event too.

GROSS: I guess those injuries from your prison guard days aren't holding you back.

Ms. JONES: No, they're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us. It's really been fun. Thanks a lot.

Ms. JONES: Thank you.

Mr. ROTH: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Singer Sharon Jones and producer Gabriel Roth. Their newest album by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is called "I Learned the Hard Way."

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