Rickey Vincent is not only one of the key inspirations for this blog. But also for my own expanded funk education. Am sure that’s a story for many. 20 years ago,this occurred when Vincent’s guide book Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One hit the stores. It not only offered a buyers guide,but serious literary commentary on funk as a genre and way of playing music. Vincent also hosts a radio show called ‘The History Of Funk’,whose Facebook group is also a key platform used to share the articles written here with the funk loving community.
On October 27th of this year,Vincent released an album called Phool 4 The Funk,which celebrates the genre Vincent has devoted his life to. Of all possible twists,I was personally interrupted in writing this article a month ago by the news that Donald Trump was suddenly winning the US presidential election. That event struck me with a bizarre sense of literary catatonia . Today is Mister Vincent’s birthday. So in tribute to him and his new album,wanted to discuss a version of a song he,Ziel McCarter and Will Magid did that I know very well. Its “Put The Word Out”,originally done by Heatwave.
An Afro Brazilian style conga/percussive rhythm opens the album with a jazzy bass improvising just below the groove. A somewhat scratchy synthesizer opens into the main groove. This consists if a loping drum,melodic organ along with 6 not bass riff and chunky rhythm guitar right up front with the hot horn charts. This represents the refrain. On the choruses,it comes to a hand clap/wah wah based breakdown after which Herb Alpert style trumpet solos on the bridge of the song. The chorus repeats to fade,with the trumpet eventually duetting right along with the vocals.
This might be one of the first times I’ve reviewed a cover of a classic funk song. And for what they are,both versions are theatrically funky. Rickey Vincent’s version however comes at a somewhat slower and more live band funk approach to it. And everything has a huge instrumental punch here. The drums,bass,guitar and horns all emerge as a rhythmic monster on this wonderful remake. Vincent and his band take the funkiest aspects of Heatwave’s already hard groove original.,and just builds them up with (as Vincent himself might call it) a great “united funk” groove mixed with a strong late 70’s influence too.
Rickey Vincent’s Phool 4 The Funk available in physical media here
*Also available for download on Amazon.com and iTunes
If those who read this are aware of my musical tastes,it would seem that someone like Mayer Hawthorne would be just up my alley. That is someone in my age group who was taking up with the pre hip-hop sub genre of retro soul/funk. Interestingly enough that was the main reason why I shied away from him. There was something about his entire approach that was,to use a rather tired critics device,a bit derivative. On the other hand,from the individual songs I heard there was an individual musical personality bubbling under the surface. At the same time as a singer,songwriter and multi instrumentalist Mayer Hawthorne was someone whose music did interest me. So when it came to my attention Mayer Hawthorne was dropping a third album that would be a stylistic (and more individualistic) change in his music,I thought it was the time was right to begin exploring what he had to offer.
“Back Seat Lover” and “The Innocent” are very spare Fender Rhodes electric piano led pieces-kind of a “naked jazz/pop/funk” hybrid for those familiar with writer Ricky Vincent’s categorizations within the funk genre. “Allie Jones”,”The Only One” and “Crime”-featuring what I find to be a rather useless (to me anyway) rap by Kendrick Lamar,are probably the biggest departure because they do reflect modern hip-hop’s approach to funk more. Still it is very much live instrumental funk too which gives it an extra dash of spice. “Wind Glass Woman” is a favorite of mine on this album,with it’s spirited late 70’s dance/funk friendly ethic. The vocal range and bass/keyboard dynamics on “Her Favorite Song” are another amazing turn here. Two songs here are very indicative of Steely Dan’s production approach. “Reach Out Richard” has a strong Aja era flavor while “The Stars Are Ours” is a heavier jazzy funk shuffle. Appropriately both showcase the more…shall I saw reflectively seedy aspects of the lyrics to these songs.
“Corsican Rose” has a larger,mildly electronic mid 80’s production yet at the same time a contemporary funk via hip-hop type groove-yet another effective hybrid. That electronic flavor of course shows up again on the witty “Robot Love”,another spare groove introduced by a sample from “Family Guy”. Of the two ballads the title song is a huge sounding,orchestral soul epic whereas the closer “All Better” is a somewhat more subtle piano based melodic type number. Hawthorne does a lot with his sound on this album. These songs have much more elaborate melodies and vocal harmonies that what I’ve heard from him. The key to this album is the heavier emphasis on the deepest end of the sea of funk. Mayer’s bass lines on some of these numbers are among the heaviest on a modern soul/funk album aimed at a contemporary audience. His love of hip-hop actually guides this album (for the most part) in a very positive way as well-more through rhythm than production. I personally feel this is a very impressive album and an excellent way for Hawthorne to develop his own unique signature sound.
Originally posted on July 18th,2013
Link to original review here!*
Personally I can truly relate to Harvey Fierstein’s remark about having to have to a literal translation of heterosexual romance to apply to who I was as a homosexual man. Right in the middle of when I was getting deeply into funk and soul? I’d often find myself asking “why are these love themed songs about the opposite sex only?”. Many years later,I would learn of the homosexuality of the late Wayne Cooper (from Cameo) and Billy Preston. Also,and somewhat unfortunately of the homophobic content of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Subject Was Faggots” and,far less overtly Graham Central Stations otherwise extremely funky song “Mirror”. But during much of the 1990’s? Any reference to homosexuality in funk/soul music was truly a dark theater. As was often the case with me growing up,my father introduced me to the song that really changed this factor in my adolescent life. And before he was (at least admittedly) are that I was gay no less. Not only that but it was the revelation of a new artist-during that personally disturbing summer of 1996. The artist was Me’SHell Ndegeocello,the CD was Peace Beyond Passion and the song was called “Leviticus: Faggot”.
The song begins with a high hat drum kick that increases in volume until Me’Shell’s sturdy,popping and ascending bass line kicks in-very prominently so as well. Surrounded by layers of wah-wah guitar and even a cinematic string section? The music is as straight up mid 70’s “united funk”,as writer Ricky Vincent refers to it,as one could possibly get. Me’Shell half sings/rhythmically speaks in her slippery baritone as she tells the tale of a young gay black man-as she describes a situation where “daddy’s sweet little boy’s just a little too sweet”. As she illustrates his desire for love “from strong hands” and “wanting the love of a man”. The chorus immediately turns into a full on hallelujah gospel chorus of “his mother would pray” before returning to the full on funk approach as Me’Shell states the actual prayer of “save him from this life”. The story continues on as the mans father tries to find him that woman “fine and beautiful” to give him more acceptability among the family’s social circle. After finally throwing his gay son out of the house,the music suddenly turns to an uncertain electric piano based jazz-funk sound as the song closes-with Me’Shell’s harmonizing vocalese leading out.
One thing that I never told my family,or anyone else for that matter until now, is that this song was the beginning of a six-seven year thought process that culminated in me coming out of the closet. I knew my family would never conceive of reacting as the father in this songs lyrics did. But in the end,Me’Shell provided a means by which funk was not only changing my perceptions of music. But funk was also now instrumental in helping me to come to terms with the truth of my own sexual orientation. The thing that really moves me about “Leviticus: Faggot”,it’s title of course referring to the often opportunistically quoted-out-of-context biblical verse,is that it came out long before any massive LGBT oriented activism was in the media. Very few homosexual male celebrities,especially in the black community,were truthfully discussing their sexuality. And even Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet at this time. KD Lang not withstanding. Though I was aware that Boy George was bold enough in his soulful and funky new wave era music to sing to and about male characters in his songs? The fact that Me’Shell Ndegeocello,herself a relatively new up and coming artist,was making “people music” funk in a Nina Simone style about the then still uncomfortable subject matter of homophobia at this particular time? It showed me how much bravery and fearlessness she has. And that any person who are who they are should really have in terms of speaking,singing and playing the truth about themselves.
James Brown would’ve been 81 years old today had he not passed away on Christmas Day of 2006. He lived the life he always had; consistently on the road and performing as best as his body would allow almost until the very end. While its been noted of late that lack of vulnerability has been somewhat overstated in reference to black American men, James symbolized such a concept in reference to his music. Though in terms of losing a son in the early 70’s and other domestic problems in the 1980’s? He was actually quite vulnerable. Music was what liberated him. It took him on a journey to being black and proud,and encouraging millions who admired him to do the same: learn,achieve and get involved.
Viewing James’ vast recorded catalog of music,like the largest collection of albums and singles in popular music history, selecting which albums to purchase depended largely on what little of it is actually in print. Between a couple of vinyl records and CD’s,I dug up a good handful of his records here and there. When I decided to post a review of one these recordings for this weeks blog post,a similar daunting task presented itself. Each of the James Brown albums I have are another link in a chain in terms of the funk genre he innovated. There was even a thought of breaking with tradition and selecting two reviews. Realizing how cumbersome that would be,I checked my reviews of his music and decided to select the following album-which I feel reflects perhaps several important steps in his musical evolution.
Okay that’s got to be my worst review title but after hearing this album you may have a similar reaction. True it took a several years and many a patchwork album for James Brown to finally get to this,one of his earliest full on album masterpieces. And in all honesty? It’s an album I only really knew a lot about recently due in part via a strong recommendation via the members of Breakestra in Waxpoetics magazine. In all likelihood this the earliest full length studio assemblage of the original JB’s lineup with Bootsy and Catfish Collins and such. One of the qualities that makes this such a unique album even by James’ standards is how much he goes for the cinematic approach to funk here-taking the basic framework of his sound and often augmenting it with either dynamic orchestrations,arrangements or both within his still intensely rhythmic framework. Not only that but he’s concentrating very heavily on melody. The idea of James combining melody and arrangements into his trademark tight funk sound opened up his music to many new possibilities and allowed his new musical recruits the change to challange themselves instrumentally. The title,in fact is no lie.
It goes way beyond music here. Culturally James is at the PEAK of his Say It Loud: I’m Black And I’m Proud period. So the message in his music is in full swing. The first two numbers in the title song and “Let The Man Come In And Do The Popcorn” are perfect examples of his “new funk” as it were. Very much in the league of his early full on funk period but also superbly arranged as well. On “World” he actually showcases how the cinematic groove has bought him to a distinctive funk ballad style and he re-harmonizes his older “It’s A Man’s World” and “If I Ruled The World” in much the same way. The result is their original message is also deepened as well. “Georgia On The Mind” takes the song normally associated with Ray Charles and takes his own lyrical liberties,even adding “I’m from August Georgia”,an interesting reference for this South Carolina native. “Give It Up” is an instrumental rendering of one of his biggest funk era numbers. The closer’s “Man In The Glass” and “I’m Not Demanding” are additional great examples of his unique brand of cinematic funk-the latter making his social agenda more than clear as he insists (I’m not demanding,I’m begging and pleading),showing a type of…confident desperation if you can imagine it as he speaks to “the people” very directly and honestly.
In addition to the musical aspect of funk James Brown was more than key in developing the consciousness in it’s lyrical message. It’s a type of construct I myself refer to as “people music” and it was key to the development of what funk writer Ricky Vincent calls the united funk period in the music. On this 1970 album James is laying the groundwork for all of that. I am not sure if anyone does or ever will think of James Brown as an album artist in any way. But if they do,or ever do it’s likely works like this will be part of what’s mentioned in that context. It’s not merely the focus on longer songs. But also they fact there is a very flowing musical concept at work here. Something James had been putting together in one way or another since the mid 60’s. And it was finally coming into itself in the early 70’s on albums such as this. As for his 60’s innovations there are many compilations that tell the story about as perfectly as one could ask. But as for where James stood at the start of the album oriented 70’s funk era? This would be an excellent release to explore along with his many full length triumphs to come early in that decade.
-Originally Printed On August 23rd,2011