Elvis Costello and the Roots 2013 collabo “Wise Up Ghost”, was one of the most fascinating albums of last year. The pairing of an artsy, eclectic vocalist who traffics in many styles with an artsy, eclectic hip hop band that traffics in various styles as well was one that sent my antenna’s buzzing. The album didn’t disapoint for me either, as it merged many classic lyrics and songs from Costello’s career with a lean, mean funk sound from the Roots. Basically, the Roots took a sound from the era that inspired the golden age of hip hop sampling, the late ’60s to mid ’70s, and plied it behind a diverse palete of vocals from Costello. That period is known as one that had a somewhat dark and sinister undercurrent to it, due to the supression of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Anti War Movements, and the election of Richard M Nixon. This is articulated in songs such as the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers” and The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces.” Questlove and Co spend the album giving Costello’s pointed lyrics the vibe of a scrappy funk band grooving in a room with inscence and black light posters.
“Stick Out Your Tounge” is one of the most hard hitting joints on the album, hammering home the late ’60s Daishiki and Beatle Boots vibe. It is a reworking of Costello’s classic Thatcher era lament, “Pills and Soap” from 1983. “Pills and Soap” was a dark record, much as the records mentioned earlier. “Pills and Soap” was inspired on the lyrical end by the budget cuts and the period of “austerity” introduced by Thatcher during her regime, and musically and thematically it was inspired by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s seminal 1982 classic “The Message.” Over a stark Linn Drum beat with gothic sounding gospel/jazz chords, Costello describes a scene of Biblical disaster brought on by Thatcherism: “What would you say/what would you do?/Children and animals/two by two/give me the needle/give me the rope/we’re gonna melt them down/for pills and soap.”
“Stick Out Your Tounge” takes the lyrics of “Pills and Soap” and drops them off into some funk. The song wastes no time establishing a groove, laying in four bars before Costello begins to speak. What’s interesting about it is the way The Roots band takes the skeletal music from “Pills and Soap” and expands on it. Questlove gives you the same basic Linn Drum machine beat from the earlier classsic, pounded out from his drum kit, four stuttering, foot shuffling sixteenth note kicks that culminate in a resolute slap of the snare. The electric piano provides an almost droning sound, as wah wah guitars add rhythmic support as well as counterpoint to Costello’s vocals. The bass guitar brings up the rear of the phrase. Costello is backed by female vocal backing at various points, and also his own multi tracked vocals doing response and testifiy lines, including a track of himself singing falsetto. The classic soul-funk vibe is brought out by the horn sections riffing and support on the chorus.
One of the most exciting things about the revival of funk taking place over the last few years is the diversity of it. Artists doing funk now can pull from 20 or so strong years of the genre, as well as musical developments that have been made since the height of the funk era has finnished. On “Stick Out Your Tounge”, Elvis Costello and the Roots take “Pills and Soap” from it’s classic spare hip hop vibe of dread, and drop it off into a world of deep, meditative, activist funk. It reminds me of the deeper dark edge of early funk, such as Sly’s “Riot Going On”, Baby Huey, Issac Hayes and other artists. Questlove ads to this a breakbeat drumming sensibility that delights in reanmiating the drum parts Hip Hop producers made careers out of sampling and emulating. It all ads up to a very funky brew indeed.