Today’s Friday Funk “Anatomy of THE Groove” feature returns back to the 1990s and one of that decades great artists, Lenny Kravitz. I was discussing Kravitz with my good friend Calvin last week, and I came to somewhat of a realization about him and his career. I’ve heard lots of criticism of him, even from people one would think would make up his core constituency. The main complaint always seems to be that his Gemini versatility and gift for emulation prevent him from having his own style and somehow lack authenticity. When one considers Lenny’s upbringing however, one finds a resume that is quite unusual for an artist smack dap in Generation X as he (b.1964). Kravitz, growing up the son of star actress Roxie Roker of “The Jeffersons” fame, saw most of the major stars of the great ’60s and ’70s boom of soul, rock, and funk. Kravitz saw artists such as Miles Davis, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, P Funk, and The Jackson 5 LIVE. He also talks of going to see the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich play live. At the same time he was playing and learning instruments himself. The great R&B star Teena Marie personally took him in and encouraged his music. By the time he began recording and found his trademark eclectic groove and image, what the world had was a young musician, younger than M.C’s such as Chuck D, Ice T and Kool Moe Dee, who had the music of the ’60s & 70’s music explosion deep within him. Where the rap acts did as well, their non instrumental direction took them to making new tracks over the old sounds. Kravitz paid homage in the way he knew how, making songs such as “What Goes Around Comes Around” in the style of his great hero and fellow Gemini master, Curtis Mayfield.
Kravitz had just produced a song for Mayfield with Ice T providing a guest rap, called “Superfly 1990” for a little seen (and rightfully so) sequel to that blaxploitation classic. That song amazed me with its perfect update of the Curtis Mayfield classic funk vibe. Kravitz doubled down on the Curtis Mayfield sound with this song from his breakthrough 1991 album “Mama Said.”
A drum kick paves the way for the Curtis Mayfield inspired funk. Kravitz himself is on drums, and he plays the classic Curtis Mayfield funk drum beat, a Motown drum beat, which features the snare drum playing a consistent pattern on all four beats. Instead of the loud snare and rim shots you’d get from a great Motown drummer like Benny Benjamin, Curtis’ drummers like Quentin Joseph would play that snare drum on the cross sticks, which gives the groove a mellower, cooler, Afro Latin derived feel. With the snare holding steady, the kick drum is used to dance.
One of the interesting things I found out about this track recently is that Kravitz used Curtis Mayfields great bass player, “Lucky” Scott on this track. And he lays down exactly the type of bass line he would behind Curtis, a melodic bass line with a lot of space that creates a feel of walking, or more accurately, strutting down the avenue. On top of that Kravitz lays some very sensitive clean guitar chording.
The vocals are sung in falsetto, just as Curtis would, and the moral of the lyrical text is also Curtis influenced. Kravitz basically sings a song about Karma, using a blues type story in the first verse where the character is not living right and suffering because of it. The next verse tells the story of a persons who’s “cup over runneth/with fullness and grace.” Kravitz total devotion to the classic sound on this song is evident when the horns come in, and he used Earth, Wind & Fire’s renowned Phenix Horns to play the horn chart, which is a snappy accompanying riff. Kravitz also includes an interesting string part that he sings along with in falsetto. The third verse is about how we can’t afford to destroy the planet, and hte last verse takes on another Curtis like topic, encouraging the children of the future. And he speaks directly of Gen X and the Milenials, with a Mayfield like twist of phrase and rhyme : “Your forefathers said/but they did not do/the things that would show/that they cared for you.”
Lenny truly goes for the soul-funk crown on this one, adjusting his guitar comping in several sections and adding a Phenix Horn (probalby Don Myrick) sax solo. I really dig the solo, especially the way the horn player starts off in a totally conventional matter and moves way out into free jazz Coltrane/Dolphy/Sanders abstraction. It reminds me of the sax solo on EWF”s live rendition of “Sun Goddess.” Kravitz plays some very responsive guitar underneath the solo, actually adjusting what he’s playing to support and provide interest behind the soloist. By the end of the song Lenny is singing “I’m gonna take you higher.”
When Lenny Kravitz recorded and released this song, the late great Curtis Mayfield was in a wheel chair, paralyzed from an accident at a New York concert. Curtis himself was no longer able to play his guitar, on which he was a great innovator and stylist. It was very special then, that Lenny did this song, and brought Curtis’ voice, wisdom, and healing through music to those times. And he did it in a way that was stylistically true to one of the most unique styles in funk music history. “Mama’s Said” was a diverse album that featured all sorts of variations of rock and funk, including the great Philly Soul love letter to Lisa Bonet, “It aint over till it’s over.” I would love to play this song now for an old funk fan who ignored Kravitz because of his percieved weirdness. I’d bet they’d marvel at how well one up and coming master captured the unique artistry of another. And by “marvel”, I do mean GROOVE!