Category Archives: Sonny T

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Undertaker” by Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples represents the  black American civil rights era in music so much for me. She went from a gospel child star to one of the earliest purveyors of “people music” as the lead vocalist of The Staple Singers alone. She made a series of solo albums during the 1970’s. All without officially leaving her family’s musical fold. During the early 80’s,she returned with the Staple Singers as they modernized their sound. Later in the decade, Prince celebrated her strong musical legacy of humanistic gospel and funky soul by signing her to his Paisley Park label. There she recorded two more solo records in 1989 and 1993.

During her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as her producer,Mavis has never ceased to make civil rights messages the focus of her songs. That’s extremely admirable. Yet her productions by Tweedy and now M.Ward find her in a bluesy country rock musical direction-one where only her voice projects the strong funky soul element. Her brief time recording with Prince (including her memorable appearance in his final film Graffiti Bridge) really allowed Mavis to be funky AND sociopolitical at the same time. One good example comes from her 1993 Paisley Park album The Voice in the form of “The Undertaker”

Backup vocalists The Steeles  start the song off by singing its title. That breaks off into Michael B’s slow funky drum shuffle. Sonny Thompson’s 2 note bass pump is held up by non other than the late Pop Staples’ bluesy guitar licks. The NPG horns and Ricky Peterson’s organ washes play a call and response element to both Mavis’s vocal leads and The Steeles’ back-rounds. On the last couple of refrains of the song,Pop’s and Mavis deal with that father/daughter duet style they did so well-with his gentle tone and her husky well leading the groove onto it’s fade out.

This bluesy funk jam is a fine example of funky message music in the early 90’s. With it’s use of re-sequenced vocal and horn licks,it plays along with the slowly funky variety of hip-hop at the time as well. The New Power Generation’s groove holds up Mavis’s gospel authority delivering the basic message to the streets saying “Put away the guns for future’s sake/Don’t you be another number for the undertaker”. This LA riots era concept resonates with what’s happening today-with black American’s having enough of institutionalized violence towards them. So in that sense,this funk is still right on time!

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Filed under 1990s, blues funk, drums, Funk Bass, hip-hop funk, Mavis Staples, Michael Bland, New Power Generation, organ, Paisley Park, Pops Staples, Prince, rhythm guitar, Ricky Peterson, Sonny T, The Steeles, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Billy Jack Bitch” by Prince

Prince recorded so much music in his lifetime,there were going to be moments that would be left neglected by some people. The Gold Experience was such an album. It was recorded in 1993 during the most bitter stages of his legal battles with Warner Bros. The end result is that it was the very first album released under the name of O(+>,itself actually functioning as the title for his 1992 album a year before this was recorded.  The album was released on Warner’s yet distributed by Prince’s own NPG Records on September 26th,1995. Because of all the hype surrounding Prince’s name change,this album seemed to be a big deal.

It was a man named Andy,who worked behind the counter of the local branch Strawberries Music chain,who first bought this album to my attention. He asked me if I was a Prince fan. Said I hadn’t heard a lot of his music,which was not a lie at the time. It was that conversation that actually got me interested in revisiting Prince’s music and learning about his history-which was then a bit more recent than it is today. I picked up a pre-owned CD of The Gold Experience a year later. I still seldom listen to it all the way through. One song that I just happily revisited on it was “Billy Jack Bitch”.

Prince starts off the song singing the songs title,accented by a vocal sample from Fishbone’s song “Lying Ass Bitch” over a fast funky drums of Michael Bland-along with a higher and lower toned synthesizer squiggle. A snare kickoff brings in the thick,pulsing bass line of Sonny T. along with the pumping organ of  Tommy Barbarella. This rhythm keeps the same flow through several verse/chorus exchanges before Barbarella takes a steamy organ solo on the bridge-just around the same time Prince accents his melody with sheets of rock guitar. The NPG horns fanfare away just as the song begins to fade out.

Prince and the New Power Generation really do their stuff so well on this song. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me very recently,this is a pretty straight up P-Funk style jam out of the “One Nation Under A Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep” school. Rhythmically it’s a wonderful blend of the NPG’s band interplay with Prince’s instrumental and production touches-not to mention the harmony vocals of Lenny Kravitz-which brings the two contemporary funk/rockers together. That along with the tightly chorded horn voicing’s that come in at the songs concluding segment.

Lyrically this song has similar content to Michael Jackson’s Tabloid Junkie” from the same vintage. The focus is more personal-as Prince accuses the songs antagonist of “calling him silly names” as well as not being willing to confront him face to face. The song was recently confirmed  to have in fact been a direct statement about Minneapolis Star Tribute gossip columnist CJ,whom Prince saw as an enemy of his within the press. Even though it did have it’s place in the rather paranoid anti tabloid sentiment of it’s day,Prince and the NPG endowed it with some strong Minneapolis style P-Funk power.

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Filed under 1990s, Billy Jack Bitch, diss songs, drums, Fishbone, Funk Bass, horns, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Bland, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Powe Generation, NPG Records, organ, P-Funk, Prince, rock guitar, Sampling, Sonny T, synthesizers, Tommy Barbarella, Warner Bros.