The year 1987 is one of my favorite ones for Funk, Soul, and Hip Hop. This particular song from that year has a mighty periodic table of elements. How much funk power can be conjured up when you mix a production team from Minneapolis that was affiliated with Prince, a singing Jackson sister in the midst of her own musical coming out party, and a legendary music biz figure who’d gone from outselling the Beatles to owning the label for the aforementioned artists? The results were the hit album “Keep Your Eye on Me” and the MPLS Funk Sound classic, “Diamonds.” Herb Alpert, trumpet and flugelhorn player was the artist, as well as record company President. In fact, he would go on to sell A&M Records for $500 million in ’87, enough money to purchase a whole boat load of “Diamonds”. Maybe this song had something to do with that? Alpert already had one of the most successful careers one could imagine, outselling the Beatles with his Tijuana Brass group in the 1960s, and enjoying a super funky #1 hit with “Rise” in 1980. Alpert had also collaborated with South African great Hugh Masekela and his label was home to the musical projects of Quincy Jones, including ’70s funk band The Brothers Johnson. “Diamonds” lyrically continues on in the materialistic, no nonsense “Aint nothing going on but the rent” female attitude of much of ’80s R&B music, the perfect antidote to mens newly unfettered, post-sexual revolution, unabated horn dogishness. In it’s unique presentation of a funky trumpet player over a funky groove, it delivers on the type of sound the great Miles Davis himself seemed to be searching for in the last decade of his career, a jazz improv based trumpeter riffing over the hottest of contemporary funk grooves.
“Diamonds” starts off with a prototypical Minneapolis drum beat, featuring a heavy kick as well as a heavy snare, accented every two bars by a big hand clap on beat four that starts the beat over again for the dancers, one clap the first time, two claps the second. There is also a rhythm in the background with a prototypical ’80s feel, like somebody playing Clave’s in an echo chamber, with a three beat rhythm. After the rhythm makes our acquaintence Alpert begins to blow his horn, and he conjures up something like a mix of Bubber Miley/early Duke Ellington growling, funky down home trumpet mixed with a fragile Miles Davis tone when he plays open notes. Alpert’s playing is really funky rhythmically, supported by a sustained Rhodes patch from a digital keyboard and Jam & Lewis typical big, brassy Fairlight keyboard stabs. Underneath the groove Terry Lewis is chugging and choking and beating up his bass strings, with very few notes breaking free from his rhythmic spanking, but a serious push and pull happening on the lower level of the groove. Alpert solo’s for 16 bars and then the main theme emerges.
The main theme of the song hits with a new energy as the keyboard plays one of them ‘ol Minneapolis riffs, 4 notes that sound like the biggest notes ever due to the digital keyboard and Jam & Lewis’s masterful studio layerings. The bass throb becomes louder and more prominent, with notes actually becoming audible. Janet Jackson sings her part in a funky, strident near mono tone, which only enhances her tough, “Diamonds are a girls best friend” stance. Her story sounds like she’s talking about a rich man who has her for eye (and arm) candy because when she’s there, “It’s like I’m not there.” The story makes you think of rich, 50 something year old Herb Alpert in 1987, with the biggest artist on his label telling him about himself. The song invokes the classic Bond trope of “Diamonds are Forever” by mentioning, “I want me a token/that wont go to waste.” Janet Jacksons vocals sound harsh and somewhat disembodied, but super funky at the same time.
The distance of Janet’s vocals makes it sound all the more human when Alpert comes back on a strong open trumpet, with a much more powerful tone than the walking on eggshells growl of the opening solo. The “fellas” encourage Alpert, singing riffs right along with his solo. They really throw down on the end vamp, as Alpert spits funky licks over a more prominent and dominant Terry Lewis bass vamp. The boys are boisterous and happy at the end of the song as they call for the next tune.
“Diamonds” pairs music biz legend and record company head Herb Alpert with two musical entities from his stable at the height of their powers. It was a song that stormed all the way up the pop and R&B charts but represented a very unique approach to a hit record, taking an instrumentalist and pairing him with the hottest female vocalist of the moment on a blazing dance/Funk track. The results more than paid off for everybody involved, with this song even making some of Janet Jackson’s greatest hits compilations. The video is a lot of fun as well, with Jerome serving as aide de camp to Herb Alpert in the same way he did for Morris Day and Prince, and TK Carter making an appearance as a DJ named Bunkh. Herb Alpert is a musician who took a lot of flak in the jazz world for blowing all the way up with a musical style that was probably less than he could play, but on this song and the whole “Keep Your Eye On Me” album he showed that the Funk is one of the most liberating musical styles a musician can get their lips on.