Afrika Bambaataa,born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx to black activist Barbados immigrants,was at one point a lieutenant in the NYC borough’s most powerful gang-known as the Black Spades. Interestingly enough,he often used the idea of unity and brotherhood to promote recruitment into the gang. It was also a gang known for clearing the streets of drug dealers and assisting in community health care projects. When he won an essay contest and a trip to Africa,his life changed around. He left the Black Spades behind. And began to promote pro black unity through music.
That music was the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the mid/late 70’s. By 1982,he and the Soul Sonic Force,inspired by Bambaataa’s love of Kraftwerk,released their iconic song “Planet Rock”-a reworking of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans Europe Express” credited as the beginning of the electro funk sound. In 1984,Bambaataa helped revive the recording career of funk innovator and hip-hop icon James Brown. That 12″ inch single Unity has been a mainstay in my family’s vinyl collection since it first came out. And its first part alone is a wonderful cornerstone of funk onto early recorded hip-hop.
JB and Bambaataa begin the tune with a similar call and response acapella exchange as JB did on “Get Up,Get Into It And Get Involved” 13 years earlier. Keith LeBlanc comes in with the funky drum-with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald providing some classic spiraling bass/chicken scratch guitar interaction play along with some round synth bass washes. On the refrain of the song,that same bass and guitar do their business with the horn section known as Chops. After several exchanges between the chorus and refrain,the song outro’s to the next segment of the suite with the same drum rhythm.
“Unity Part 1” is a straight up JB style funk jam. Using then contemporary musicians, everyone involved really gets the flavor of what the classic JB’s lineup achieved as they built the genre of funk from the ground up. With Bambaatta acting as something of a new Bobby Byrd for JB on this record,the lyrics of the groove state that the solution to the self hate and violence within the black community during the 1980’s would be “peace,unity,love and having fun”. Its an amazingly funky collaboration between funk and hip-hop’s earliest icons. And musically bridges two generations of funk.
Hamilton Bohannon is one of the key figures with me in getting into funk. Starting out as a school teacher,he eventually became a drummer for Little Stevie Wonder’s touring band in 1964. After moving to Detroit in 1967,his band The Motown Sound provided a similar function to The Funk Brothers-backing up many of Motown’s major acts. When the label moved to LA,Bohannon stayed behind and formed his own group. His name became part of the Talking Head spinoff Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love”-chanted rhythmically on the bridge of the song.
Where Bohannon,whose turning 74 today,came into my musical orbit was via the Best Of Funk Essentials compilation that introduced me to funkiness as a musical genre. It was a song that took me totally by surprise then. And even 22 years later,it still has a similar effect. Last year,I located a used vinyl copy of Bohannon’s 1978 album Summertime Groove. Part of the reason was because I knew that that song was on it. And funk is something I’ve learned to look for in its original album context. Its a heavily funkified album throughout. But still,it just bursts out of the box with “Let’s Start The Dance”.
Bohannon himself kicks right into gear from the start. The majority of the song is a high octane dance groove with the drums and its many fills up high in the mix. The rhythm consists of a high pitched rhythm guitar,a Clavinet playing the melodic accents and a jazzy bass line playing across two octaves. Each choral section is split by refrains featuring Bohannon’s flamboyant break beats-as the guitar plays some of the most rubbery chicken scratch rhythms around. The second chorus gets started with a revved up,rocking guitar part before the Clavinet takes more of a role in the mix before the song fades.
“Let’s Start The Dance” is a superb example of how of hard funk where all the instrumentation and vocals are extremely high key in sound. Even the melodic instrumental parts are projecting the same rhythmic flamboyance as everything else in the song. The result is punishing,super heavy funk that was recorded during the height of the disco era. The powerful gospel belt of Caroline Crawford on the refrains,along the drum breaks/chicken scratch guitar really become the defining moment of this song even after all these years. One which makes this a true late 70’s funk classic.
Chuckii Booker is one of those artists whose intricate history is equal to the seeming few who have a strong knowledge of him. He was perhaps better known as the musical director,producer and opening act for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour at only 23-24 years old. His talents as multi talented singer/songwriter/producer/multi instrumentalist got him signed as a solo artist to Atlantic in 1988. Not because of his original talents as primarily a bass player. But because execs accidentally listened to the other side of the demo tape that featured his vocals.
If funk/soul music had followed a totally straight line in the late 80’s/early 90’s,Chuckii Booker would likely have been the intermediary step between Prince and D’Angelo. After a couple Top 10 R&B smashes,Booker became regarded as a producer. In that respect touching on the work of artists ranging from Vanessa Williams,his godfather Barry White and EWF alumni Phillip Bailey. It took me a couple decades to go out and pick up Booker’s two solo CD’s. One of them (and his final one to date) was 1992’s Niice ‘N Wiild. One of the songs that’s really gotten my attention off of it is called “I Git Around”.
After a brief moment of party dialog,the main groove of the song sets in. This is a pounding drum machine that hits a very strong,electrified snare drum sound on the second beat. Along with that are two bass lines. One is a pulsing synth bass,the other is “possibly” a live one playing a “duck face” funky wiggle. Booker brings explosive synth strings,horn lines providing a strong “video game” sound along with the bluesy accents of the chorus. Not to mention a chromatic piano walk down playing in and out throughout the song. Just before the song fades,Booker brings in a tough chicken scratch guitar.
The new jack swing style could (and often was) made extremely generic by many in its commercial heyday. Yet Chuckii Booker used this song (along with many of his others) to point out the sub genres roots in 80’s funk. And even with the mildly new jack friendly rhythm,the instrumental toughness and electronic flamboyance is straight up P-Funk. Everything from the instrumentation to the lyric is pretty much a direct extension of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” from a decade before it. Makes one wonder how different 90’s uptempo music might’ve been had it followed this ultra funky model.
Filed under 1990s, chicken scratch guitar, chromatic walkdown, Chuckii Booker, drum machine, drums, Funk Bass, New Jack Swing, P-Funk, piano, synth bass, synth brass
Shuggie Otis represents what I refer to as a “new old artist” who defined my musical interests just after the turn of the millennium. His only knowledge to me before that was a passing reference as the composer (and original recorder of) the Brothers Johnson hit “Strawberry Letter#23”. It was through a Luaka Pop label reissue of his under sung 1974 album Inspiration Information that got my attention,through my father of course. My first thoughts hearing it was “this was a Prince/Stevie Wonder type musician who never was”.
Otis’s father Johnny was a very famous musical impresario,known in the lingo of his day as the “white negro” singer/musician/arranger/talent scout/DJ out of the Bay Area of California. Shuggie began playing with his dad in the end of the 60’s. But his own career never truly took off. In fact,he spent over 33 years tinkering with his follow up to Inspiration Information. The album was finally released in 2013 and was entitled Wings Of Love. Recorded over several decades,the first full song on the album (recorded around 1980) really caught my own ear. It was called “Special”.
A wooshing sound drives in the fuzz/ringing rhythm guitar combo of the intro as Otis responds to his own echoplex vocally. Than the main rhythm of the song kicks in-driving both the refrain and chorus whose changes are carried largely by Otis’s vocal changes. The drums have a heavy Brazilian march approach. The bass line loops around several guitar parts. One a phat wah wah,the other a light chicken scratch and another playing a quavering,high pitched ringing melody. On the refrain parts,Otis singing’s in a higher and calmer voice. And on the refrains,with a heavier shout along with the ringing guitar part.
Again,this was a song that seemed to be recorded in the early 80’s. Yet its origins seems to come out of the psychedelic/cinematic funk sound of the late 60’s/early 70’s. The production is very trippy-full of echo and fuzz filter on nearly every sound. Yet the groove is strong and funky all the way. In the intro especially,it reminds me a bit of Curtis Mayfield’s “(If There’s A Hell Below) We’re All Gonna Go”. Needless to say,this is generally punchier and more stripped down than that song was. Still,its one of the finest grooves I’ve heard Shuggie Otis throw down since the mid 70’s.
Filed under 2013, chicken scratch guitar, cinematic funk, drums, Funk Bass, funk rock, fuzz guitar, guitar, lead guitar, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar, Shuggie Otis, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar
Nu Shooz were an 80’s freestyle funk duo from the 1980’s who,among others,represented some of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio. Of course this came in form of the iconic 80’s hit “I Can’t Wait”. Hailing from Portland Oregon,currently 9 member group were led by the married couple of John Smith and lead singer Valerie Day. In the United States,they are considered something of a one hit wonder. Yet from the moment I began exploring that hit’s ultra funky flip side “Make Your Mind Up”,I know this would be a group worthy of exploration for any aficionado of strong 80’s soul/funk music.
Nu Shooz still record and perform today-occasionally recording independent online releases now and then. Its clear from listening to these new songs from them that they are indeed some of the funkiest bands of the 80’s still functioning today. Right up there Cameo to me,anyway. Over the years of course,there instrumental sound and priorities have changed. But there are still some core elements,such as emphasis on hummable melody,that remain intact. That’s very much in the case in the title song of the newest release from May 2016 entitled Bagtown.
A thick hard bop style synth solo begins the song. Then the shuffling funky drum/percussion rhythm kicks into high gear. The chicken scratch rhythm guitar is accompanied by a phat bass line playing the empty spaces within that guitar riff. In and around this,the harmonically complex horns play musical hide and seek with Valerie Day’s lead vocals. Towards the middle of the song,a vibraphone enters the mix as both a melodic and percussive element before the drums lead into a lower guitar solo. The bass/guitar dynamic becomes the focus until the horn chart and percussion close out the song.
“Bagtown” really showcase Nu Shooz having evolved into a sharp,live instrumental based jazz/funk outfit. Everything from the drums,vibes,bass and guitar just smoke on this song with a super hot mix. The harmonic nature of the horn voices brings my mind to something else. Its like a mixture of the soul jazz inspired hip-hop of Us3 in the early 90’s and the final musical decade of Miles Davis. Its got the funk,its got the soul but when it comes to how the horns treat the melody,its built upon a hardcore hard bop/soul jazz foundation. That makes this a standout jazz/funk jam for 2016 so far.
Filed under 2016, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, John Smith, new music, Nu Shooz, percussion, soul jazz, synthesizer, Valerie Day, vibraphone
Prince came into the new millennium with a revived sense of energy. One thing Henrique and I have been discussing recently is how much one can become frustrated chasing Prince’s career motivations. And I’ve recently found myself dealing with that. One thing that’s for sure is that Prince 90’s era output found him courting the present rather than making the future of music. With his 2001 release The Rainbow Children,the middle aged artist had re-emerged with the name that made him famous. And more so his musical trajectory had come back into better focus. Especially in terms of finding the funk.
The Rainbow Children didn’t come across strongly with the mass audience of its time. But four years (and two online only album releases) came his second album of the 21st century. It was titled Musicology. Interestingly enough,financial realities kept me from exploring the album when it was fresh on the record store racks. I would up picking it up two years later along with 3121 when that album was new. There is one common feeling I have about the album from when I saw a music video from it in 2004 to hearing it on the album. And its that the albums successes was likely carried heavily by the opening title song.
Prince’s yelp starts the song into a Clyde Stubblefield style funky drum starts out the song with Prince playing a deep strutting rhythm guitar. This is soon accompanied by one of Prince’s trademark middle to high on the neck chicken scratch guitar lines-along with an organ like sustained synth line. This is primarily the main body of the song. The solo drum bridge has Prince famously shouting ” don’t you TOUCH my stereo! these is MY records!” On the last few bars of the song,Minneapolis synth brass accompanies the song as it fades out on a radio dial switching between several of Prince’s 80’s hits.
In a similar manner to 1987’s “Housequake”,this song would’ve served well as a James Brown comeback for the early aughts. On the other hand,this song is much more purely a retro JB style rhythm section based funk stomp. But in its stripped down nature,it funks super hard. And Prince substitutes the live JB horns with his own MPLS style synth brass. Lyrically Prince is extremely nostalgic about funk on this song-alluding to Earth Wind & Fire,Sly Stone and of course James Brown. That along with its semi autobiographical seeming music video give it the feel of Prince looking to the past for his future.
Filed under 2004, chicken scratch guitar, classic funk, drums, Funk, James Brown, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Musicology, New Power Generation, Prince, synth brass
The Time’s story was covered last month extremely well by my newest blogging partner Zach Hoskins. Today is the birthday of Jerome Benton. He has not only been a member of every lineup of The Time (including the Original7even) but was also part of The Family-the protege band of a protege band. The story of The Time itself is complex and intricate. But in 1989,they were planning a comeback with Prince for an album entitled Corporate World. That album was never released. But The Time did actually make that comeback a year later with a reworked version of that album entitled Pandemonium.
Pandemonium, along with its newer songs,contained a number of tunes that had actually been recorded long ago. This kind of goes with Prince’s tendency in the year 1990 of dipping into his vault a great deal. One of these songs was recorded in the spring of 1983 for The Time’s Ice Cream Castles. It originally featured Prince playing all the instruments. But for this album,the song was reworked to feature some instrumental participation from the band members. Happily in any case,it was among the funkiest songs on the album as well. It was called “Chocolate”.
The sound of a car screeching to a halt,along with Morris Day’s trademark scream. Then the drum solo comes in-somewhat similar to The Jacksons “State Of Shock” in tone actually. After the first few beats,the 10 note bass line comes in. The main chorus of the song rushes in after that. This consist of fast paced synth brass interlocking with a similarly paced,deep rhythm guitar. This strips down a bit for the refrains. For sections where Morris Day does some of his comic raps,a thick chicken scratch guitar takes over. Morris and the synth brass all come to their own halt again at the songs conclusion.
“Chocolate” is one of those funk jams where it is clearly out of the school of the synth brass heavy,stripped down funk sound of Prince’s early 80’s jams. Including the musical touches added by people such as guitarist Jesse Johnson,Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,the reworked song really brings out how much,in a manner similar to “Housequake”,how much of a modern day James Brown funk sound it all is. In this one,the JB approach is even more overt overall. Still its the funky instrumental personality and The Time’s humor that really bring this song to life.
Filed under 1990s, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk Bass, Jam & Lewis, Jerome Benton, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Morris Day, naked funk, Prince, rhythm guitar, synth brass, The Time
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour,better known as Public Enemy’s main emcee Chuck D,has long been part of my collective consciousness. Suppose it started when a friend my father’s came him his cassette copy of PE’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. It wasn’t something I was encouraged to listen to at 9 years old. But a little over a decade later,I checked it out on CD myself. And onward through my conversations with this blogs co-founder and friend Henrique Hopkins,Public Enemy/Chuck D have been a consistent conversational fixture in terms of hip-hop keeping the funk alive and kicking.
During Public Enemy’s nearly 30 years of existence,Chuck D has only recorded two proper solo albums. He’s preferred to focus his energies as an individual on activism and public lecturing about important matters effecting the black American community. So its been good to have PE be his chief musical focus for that message,while he does more physical work through his political activism. Having based his entire musical career on his deep love of James Brown’s funk in particular,its more than fitting that one of the songs on his second solo album The Black In Man from 2014 is a version of JB’s “Say It Loud”.
For the most part,the song is built on Chuck’s live band playing the song very close to the way James Brown and the JB’s had done it. The drums and horns start out the song before the bass/guitar interaction comes in. The chicken scratch guitar on this version is not mixed quite as high as Jimmy Nolan’s was on the original. But the round bass line is left almost completely intact. Chuck adds some more rap style vocal accents and meter to his vocal. On the bridge however,some heavy scratching changes over to Kyle Jason’s conscious rap that goes right with the theme of the song before it comes to an abrupt stop.
One of the themes of Chuck D’s music throughout his career has been the kind of thematic power different songs can have. He has often stated this about his critiques on hip-hop-that while some of the more commercially successfully music of the genre has importance as aural escapism,its vital that the potential for hip-hop to transmit positive messages of self improvement to black America needs to be better realized. In doing “Say It Loud”,Chuck brings out that the original song actually WAS hip-hop along with that message-with it’s rhythmically rapped lyrics and message. So it works on both levels.
Filed under 2014, black power, chicken scratch guitar, Chuck D, conscious rap, drums, Funk Bass, hip-hop funk, horns, James Brown, Kyle Jason, Public Enemy, rap, scratching
Jennifer Lopez,that Bronx born Nuyorican “Jenny from the block”,had a fabulous career as an actress in the mid 80’s. Her fame skyrocketed when she stared in the title role of the biopic Selena,the story of the murdered Latin pop pioneer. When she began her musical career a couple of years later,she still held fast by her Latina heritage in that medium as well. Over the years,Lopez’s music has drifted further into hi NRG techno pop territory. In the beginning of her musical career however,she developed a creative team who helped her fashion danceable music that became popular by being pretty daring musically.
Racially speaking,I tend to culturally identify with my own Nuyorican back around-though it was my mother who was born in Brooklyn,NYC. So even though I never followed Lopez’s career intently,songs such as “If You Want My Love”,”Let’s Get Loud”,”Love Don’t Cost A Thing” and “Jenny From The Block” were always around on the radio and TV video shows during my early rising adulthood. Many celebrities get abbreviated nicknames. And Lopez set her’s up very early on-as the title for her sophomore album J.Lo in 2001. This album had a huge hit with what’s probably my favorite song of hers, entitled “Play”.
A deep choral synthesizer starts off the jam,essentially playing what becomes the regular bass line of the entire song. Than the drum machine kicks in playing an ultra funky, kicking shuffle. The lead synth and bass line are accompanied by a higher pitched trumpet like synth accent,and another that resembled a barking dog. A thick chicken scratch rhythm guitar introduces J.Lo’s vocal choruses and refrains. After one of the longest calculated musical pauses/breaks I’ve heard in modern music,that instrumental groove plays out the song as it fades out.
In the end,what does this song have to do with Prince? Obviously,he’s not creatively involved. But the musical approach,from the synthesizer arrangements to the rhythm guitar,are based in his approach to stripped down electro funk. With it’s fast tempo and heavy emphasis on danceability,this song also furthers the collaborative nature of the Minneapolis sound by taking a nod to the sound Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got with Janet Jackson in the late 80’s/early 90’s. “Play” showcases the durability of Minneapolis funk during the synth dominated early aughts. And is strong pop/funk for it’s time as well.
Filed under 2001, chicken scratch guitar, drums, elecro funk, Funk Bass, funky pop, J.Lo, Jennifer Lopez, Latin Funk, Minneapolis Sound, naked funk, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers
Prince’s final jam of the year for the 1990’s was 1999’s Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. This one and only Prince album on Arista derived from the artist’s legendary vault of unreleased music. One well known song was an outtake from the 1988 album Lovesexy. It was the new albums title song,and a funky one at that. The remainder of the album was catchy pop/rock oriented music featuring then very popular guests such as Ani DiFranco and Sheryl Crow. Public Enemy’s Chuck D even appeared on the hip-hop flavored “Undisputed”. Personally,this album had other levels of significance.
This would be the final album released by The Artist Formerly Known As Prince-using his O(+> glyph. It was pretty commercially successful at the time. Yet even though I personally was very interested in Prince,I avoided the album for years. This was due to one major moment of caving into record store peer pressure saying that this new Prince album was being out funked by Beck’s Midnight Vultures-released several days before it. A decade later,I began to see right through that statement and picked up the CD. I enjoyed much of it. But it was a hidden track called “Prettyman” that really stuck out most.
A fast paced drum shuffle,consistently accented by cowbell,gets the groove going and remains steady throughout most of it. A slippery bass line plays every note not heard within the fairly simple chords of the song for a thick bottom. Along with turn-tabling that brings in high pitched horn blast samples. Maceo Parker accents Prince’s chicken scratch rhythm guitar through a serious of calculated breaks-eventually coming back for Maceo to take one of his iconic sax solos. By the end,Prince is adding squiggly synth organ tones as he and Maceo solo fade the song right out to the sound of a glassy smash.
It was James Brown’s full rhythm approach that inspired Prince’s own type of funk from the outset. This can be heard as far back as 1987’s “Housequake”. On this song however,Prince isn’t just modernizing the JB funk sound: he’s outright re-creating it. Maceo Parker had by this time taken a journey through the three key phases of funk-through James Brown,P-Funk and winding up with Prince. And just at the time that the Minneapolis icon was finding his inner JB most fully. This approach to funk would be the one Prince would work around for much of the rest of his career as it turned out.
Filed under 1990s, Arista Records, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Maceo Parker, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, Sampling, Saxophone, synthesizer, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince