Public Enemy’s 2007 album release, “How do you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul”, bore a mouthful of a title that provided some insight on what many in the music loving community have felt in recent years. The facts are, artists in the various facets of soul music have a much lower profile in the music industry. Soul legends are trotted out and acclaimed for what they did in the golden era from time to time, but other than that, music seems to continously march towards pop uniformity. Do not for one instant think this means there is no soul and funk music being produced. There are independent labels all over the country, such as Stones Throw Records, that use the power of the internet and the avaliability of musical production equipment and promotional tools, to make whatever kind of music they want. The live show and touring business is also thriving, as fans realize in this age of studio magic and the perfection it provides, the live show more than ever seperates the men from the boys and the girls from the grown women. I’ve noticed that no matter what one feels about funk, funk never has a problem coming across live. Funk is a music with an extremely low name recognition and a limited perception in the minds of many music fans. Many people understand “funky” as an adjective, but are not too familiar with Funk as a noun, that describes specific groups and a specific set of musical particulars. But all that is irrelevant when the rhythm of the one gets fired up and the bass and drums force one’s booty to do its duty. If you’re lucky, your city has funky bands big and small that hit up the clubs and medium sized music halls of your area. If you’re really lucky, you have funk bands that perform on the street, like the Bay Area’s New Funk Generation.
San Francisco has a long tradition of street performers. The legendary mime, and influence on American funk style dance, Robert Shields, once performed on Union Square in the early ’70s. My first personal experience with a street performer, came through a jazz saxophonist who played at Pier 39 named Laurie Watkins. “Mr. Watkins”, as I remember him from phone calls to our home, had a thriving business performing jazz tunes at the Pier, that won him fans from all over the world. People would come to San Francisco years after they first came and be delighted to find Mr. Watkins still there blowing the tenor saxophone with much soul, backed up by pre recorded drum tracks. I came to know him through my father, because Watkins did so well with his music playing in the city, he was able to invest in a gold finding expedition to Liberia that my dad put together. I still remember going to see him and the Duke Ellington like introduction he’d do, “Hello ladies and gentlemen, I’m Mr. Watkins. The space directly in front of me is the floor…feel free to dance and do what you like as I play some tunes for you!”
So when I first encountered the New Funk Generation in my High School years, I knew how to respond to music being played on the streets. It was in Berkeley that I first ran into the New Funk Generation. The drummer, Larry, was playing drums on buckets, and the bass player Brian had an acoustic bass plugged into a Bootsy Collins style bass filter. They played Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s “Hollywood Squares” that day, and it was a landmark for me because I’d never heard that type of funk played live before that, especially from the vantage point of standing where I could feel the wind of the speaker. Young cats from Oakland would stop by for a minute and dance and rap over it, because “Hollywood Squares” was well known, both in its original form, and through it’s usage by legendary bay area rapper Too $hort. But New Funk Generation moved everybody, from the young cats who happened to be walking by on a school ditch from Berkeley High or Oakland Tech, to their real audience, the UC Berkeley college kids. That was my first experience with hearing funk live, right there on the street on University. Larry and Brian played with true proffessionalism, with clothes on that were raggedy/eccentric. The clothes fit the vibe, because for one, they were playing for donations, and then again, it really made them look like members of Parliament Funkadelic, who were known for wearing anything on stage.
Fast forward a few years, I ‘ve graduated from High School and started avoiding Berkeley like the plague. I’m rolling through SF now, with my keyboard playing buddy Dameion. Me and Dame would be driving through the city, dealing with snooty yuppies, talking to snooty yuppie chicks and ghetto girls, buying records, playing music off cassette tapes, laptops and samples, and humming musical ideas. One day, we heard somebody playing some serious funk, I think it might have been “Mr. Wiggles” by Parliament. And lo and behold, it was Larry and Brian, the “New Funk Generation.” It quickly became a ritual to find their band and enjoy their music. I had finally bought my first bass and was procrastinating my way through learning it, but Brian always inspired me. They played songs I’d never heard lived or always hoped I would, like “Soft and Wet”, “Sir Nose D’Void of Funk”, “Slide”, “Glide”, and other funk chestnuts. What amazed and impressed me, as I’m sure it did other observers, was the accuracy of their playing and the tightness of their groove. They played with the precision of the James Brown band, but not on an elevated platform, right there on the street, with people dropping money into the jar.
Seeing and hearing this kind of funk on the streets sparked all types of reactions in me. Sometimes folks walked by and looked personally offended that the guys were doing their thing. The police stopped it a couple of times. But still, for the most part, Bay Area people being the party people they are, folks would walk by and really have a ball, most people would stop and listen for a few minutes, dance, and contribute, and the guys also kept a sizeable audience glued to their set for however long they played. They’d actually play long sets with intermissions and structure. Young dudes would want to rap, people would want to show off their dance moves, and the spirit of funk would be strong on any corner they plugged up on.
It never ceased to amaze me, how middle aged white dudes would come up to the band and request rare funk classics. It also shocked me when saggy pants sporting, hip hop heads would let themselves go and dance in the street to the band. Dame and myself would talk about whether we had the courage to go out there and jam like the guys, on the street, the courage to make our own gig. We never made it out there like them. But we did become very friendly with the guys and we always talked to them after the show, something few people did. The band usually had people there passing the can, collecting money, and they even featured other artists from time to time. I distinctly recall them bringing back a female rapper from Japan and putting her in the act, as well as a little four year old kid who did the James Brown in zoot suits.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen the New Funk Generation perform in San Francisco. Maybe I’ll go look for them one weekend. Larry, the drummer, actually had a brief cameo in a montage scene in Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I hear some rumblings about the city trying to crack down on their performances. If that’s true, it’s another horrible case of Bay Area gentrification running rampant. With the Google buses, high rents, and all of the other things going on in San Francisco, they shouldnt get rid of the ability of people to take their talents to the streets and get money. If they do, they’ll be diminishing their status as a world class city, because world class cities all over the world have places for people to display their talents and make money off them, as well as to sell and trade on the street. But when I go the city, I still see performers of various stripes, including a young African American lady at the BART station playing the cello! So here’s to the New Funk Generation and their brand of street funk, a treasure of the Bay Area that needs to be on tourist brochures next to the Golden Gate bridge, bread bowls and Cable Cars