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James Brown Day, May 3rd 2013

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Last friday was a holiday. Most people still went to work, I don’t know how many barbecued, and I don’t think too many gifts were given. But one thing I know for sure, is that all over this earth, funky music was played somewhere. The vibrations of that music were much more meaningful on that day because it was the 80th birthday of the Godfather of Soul James Brown.

Back in the early ’90s, when I was in the fifth grade or so and first developed my own appreciation of James Brown, I remember we were given an assignment to write on a notable black person for black history month. The assignment was given to us by Ms. Greene, who was not my teacher, but taught fifth grade at John Marshall Elementary alongside Mr. Williams, my teacher. Mr. Williams primary strength was math, while Ms. Greene’s was English, so they swapped classes according to their specialty. Ms.Greene had us compile a long list of Black American achievers to do reports on. I remember it striking me that she would not allow me to nominate James Brown’s name on the list.

This was the first time in my life I got some pushback from a older black person with regards to James Brown. Ms. Greene was somewhere in her 30s, and most likely a feminist of some variety, so that may have had something to do with it. Of course, this was around the time Mr. Brown was undergoing trials and tribulations regarding drug abuse and other things. But there were other people on the list as well. I’m not sure, but it may have been way back then that I devoted myself to reminding people of the impact and importance of James Brown.

It may sound crazy, but I don’t think James Brown is appreciated enough. There are many reasons for this, and many of them are probably quite valid. I see JB as one of those patriarchial figures who’s contribution was so elemental, so basic, to popular music and culture, it’s easy to overlook at times. The beat of music, something brought to American pop through African rhythms, refined in blues, soul, jazz, R&B, gospel, funk and hip hop, on to foreign genres such as reggae and Afro-beat, Salsa and other world musics of African descent, found one it’s greatest modern scientists in James Brown. Towards the end of James Brown’s life I heard him complaining about the state of music and he said the problem with it was, “everybody was only playing one note.” On “They Don’t Want Music” with the Black Eyed Peas, James Brown said, “They don’t want music/they don’t know how to use it/all they want/is BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.” Which is hilarious because Mr. Brown was the biggest proponent of the “boom” in American popular music.

But there are many reasons Ms.Greene might not have allowed us to write about Mr. Brown back in ’91. His arrests. His staunch patriarchy and sometimes violent relationships with women. His country accent, mocked by talents such as Eddie Murphy. His very funk itself, and the emotional honesty and rawness of it, and that it represented another time in black America.

Inspired by hip hop, Public Enemy, my parents, my own study of history, and my local hero M.C Hammer, I never lost my interest in James Brown. And even as late as the ’90s, the first concert I attended was a James Brown concert, on which he shared the bill with one of the great Oakland/East Bay funk bands, Tower of Power. That concert was special to me because I saw it with my best friends Jesse and Frank, and my mother and father as well.

Last weekend, I went to see one of James Brown’s greatest inheritors, Prince, in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Hotel. There is a great James Brown exhibit there, featuring one of his capes, a non stop loop of his performance at the T.A.M.I show, a stage outfit, and a shoeshine stand that Mr. Brown owned to remind him of his roots. On the ride back from Vegas, I played a record for my friend Angelina, and I told her to listen carefully because it was Mr. Brown’s advice to women of today. Of course, that record was “It’s a New Day, So Let a Man Come In and do the Popcorn.” Her husband, Ron, had a big laugh, as we all recited the lyrics to the song. “Hold your man!!!!!”

There are many things I could say about Brown, and I’m sure there are other things that I will discover over time, but as I think of Mr. Brown around his 80th birthday, here are some things that come to mind:

1) His business acumen. Mr. Brown always grabbed the bull by the horns when it came to business. He booked his own tours, getting out maps to do so, and remembering many venues he’d played in in cities across America. He was one of the first artists outside of the classical musical realm to get a 10% royalty rate. He had a practice of renting out places like the Apollo Theater to stage his own productions. He paid for many of his early hits such as “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” out of his own pocket and paid money for the promotions as well. He paid himself to have the legendary “Love at the Apollo” Volume 1 album recorded when the record label didn’t beleive in it.

2) His musical impact: Really, what role did James Brown play in music? Do we judge him as a singer, dancer, performer, instrumentalist, composer? He was all of those in various measures. But when musicians and many people talk about Brown, besides his singing, his great performing, and his hit records, James Brown was a bandleader, and a conciever of a sound. He took his influences such as Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Ricahrd, and Hank Ballard, and his roots in gospel and folk rhythms and the blues, and concieved of a whole new way of playing music. But this way of music didn’t feel just brand new, it also felt ancient at the same time, or in it’s way, just RIGHT. Brown’s groove was so powerful, it made a Nigerian musician like Fela Kuti feel he hadn’t been playing African music at all, Brown’s music struck out all over the world as a modern, transformed, American, futuristic version of the African groove that has been here since the beginning of time, and it paved the way for years of funk, disco, dance, house, hip hop, and many other dance genres since then.

3) Of any musical innovator, James Brown is unique because as much as he is copied, he’s also a conduit to finding one’s own originality in music. Brown always talked about “doing my thang.” As much as his groove brought out a kind of African communal spirit, it also exaulted the individual. Which is why artists from Prince, to Michael Jackson, to Miles Davis, to Kool & The Gang, to Public Enemy, to Iggy Pop all cite James Brown as an influence.. What I appreciate about it, is that unlike some artists, like Michael Jackson, where it so’s obvious when you do certain moves you’re doing Michael Jackson, there are so many things you can learn from James Brown, such as his showmanship, his zeal for presentation, the tightness of his band, his penchant for down to earth street slang, his business acumen, and most of all, his FUNK, that you can incorporate into how you do things musically without looking like a carbon copy. Because the James Brown style is a ROOTS style, it lies on the bottom (got to have a mutha for me), not the top!

4) His emphasis on “reality.” Although James Brown put on a great show, wore sequins, danced, and generally took you away from your problems in the two hours he performed for you, or the three minutes, fifty seconds you danced to his 45 rpm, he insisted his theme was reality. All you have to do to check me on that is go and listen to “Mind Power.”

But as for me:

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James Brown performing outfit and shoeshine stand he owned, Hard Rock Hotel Las Vega

James Brown performing outfit and shoeshine stand he owned, Hard Rock Hotel Las Vega

Frank with the James Brown crown

Frank with the James Brown crown

Riquespeaks at the Godfather James Brown exhibit, Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas, USA

Riquespeaks at the Godfather James Brown exhibit, Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas, USA

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Filed under Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Music Matters, Pictures, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Interview with Kevin Toney of the Blackbyrds: SoulSchool behind the Scenes!

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  One of the more enriching relationships I have developed over the past decade or so is with Calvin Lincoln of SoulSchool television. I have been an interested viewer of the SoulSchool program , a local bay area music program, since it’s inception in the mid ’90s. It was during that time that my interest in genres such as soul, funk and jazz began to overtake my interest in most of the music being produced at the time. I began to take more interest in the vast storehouse of music my dad had accumulated. By the 1990s however, the visuals attached to music, to many music fans dismay, had become more important than the music itself in selling it.  The one thing I was craving, as I was digesting James Brown, George Clinton, Prince and Chaka Khan,  was to actually be able to SEE them do their respective “things.”

There were brief snippets of footage I’d see here and there, but when I talked to older people, they’d  definitley turn my brown eyes green with their stories of seeing great artists on Don Cornelius’ Soul Train, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and other shows of the time such as, The Midnight Special.

The problem at the time however, was the 1960s was viewed by the rock and roll establishment as the sacred time in rock history, and there was much more footage avaliable from that time. Add to that the fact that funk, soul, jazz-funk etc, were predominatley supported by black audiences and that made their video footage even lower release priorities.

But in the Bay Area in the late ’90s, we didn’t have to worry about that. We had Chuck Johnsons SoulBeat, a black local cable channel who’s production values we laughed at, but who also showed very valuable musical footage, and we also had Calvin Lincoln’s SoulSchool.

Calvin showed all kinds of footage of the legends of soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, etc. I recall first seeing Parliament Funkadelic footage on his show. Also, I remember seeing the powerful footage of James Brown’s 1967 concert at the Boston Gardens after Dr. Kings death on a friday night viewing of SoulSchool. My father used to tape his show, and I recall taping his show myself every friday night. I’d tape his show on TV and Rickey Vincent’s The History of Funk on local KPFA radio and really get a good feeling for the groove.

I’d seen Calvin around town once, at the old Lucky’s on High Street, but around 2004 or so I was introduced to him through our mutual friend, Ed Harris, proprieter of Funky Soul Stop Records, my favorite record shop on Jefferson St. in Oakland.

Calvin quickly became like a brother to me. I met him, and his fellow co hosts, Truck, Odis and Mashtan, and they took me in like I was family. Becoming friends with Cal gave me access to learn from his vast library of musical video footage, which he spent time and money procuring himself, simply for the love of it and with the intentions of preserving the art.  Through him I was introduced to footage of 1970s Soul Train, as well as footage from every Parliament Tour, from 1976-1984. All of this footage greatly expanded my understanding of the music and the times in which that music was created. Also, Calvin is one of the most intelligent, well spoken, and kind hearted people I’ve ever come across, a true role model, brother, and friend!

This past year, when I was struggling through some very hard times, it seems Calvin was always hitting me up to accompany him to interview various legendary musical figures. We got to interview The Lowrider Band, which features four original members of War, Greg Enrico, the original drummer of Sly & the Family Stone, or meeting Mike Hampton, “Kidd Funkadelic”, himself.

One of the most special ones that happened last year was interviewing Kevin Toney of the Blackbyrds. I remember when I first started seeing footage that Calvin had, one of the first bands I’d asked for was the Blackbyrds. Calvin responded with something like, “that’s the group I want the most to, but I can’t find anything from them.” There is a group of baby boomers who I’ve grown up under, born somewhere in the 1950s, for whom the Blackbyrds are almost the most representative musical group. They all looked up to the Blackbyrds for being college student-musicians, in the immediate years after the Civil Rights movement, at Howard University, one of the great HBCU’s. The Blackbyrds remind them more than any other group of the optimism, fun, and story of their young adulthood.

So of course, we were super excited when we’d heard that Kevin Toney and the Blackbryds were coming to Yoshi’s Oakland for their first concers in many years. We were able to meet with Mr. Toney before the show and we found him a very intelligent, sincere, and personable man, with a lot to say on many subjects. One of his primary projects now is a book he’s written, The Virtueous Man, which shows men how they can be more faithful in their relationships. He was very welcoming to us and he made us feel that what we were doing in documenting the music was just as important as what he was doing in performing it.

The Blackbyrds gave a great show that night, I’ve gotten to see many legendary acts and some hold up better than others. The bands I find the best are ususally those for who it was always all about the music anyway, rather than being about the image. The Blackbyrds played a tight funky set that included an homage to their founder, jazz great Donald Byrd, playing some of his tunes like, “(Fallin Like) Dominoes”, and “Change Makes You Wanna Hustle”, in concert with a full complement of Blackbyrds hits. They especially made me happy when they went into “Do It, Fluid”, which is the first song I ever heard from them, my dad playing it down in the garage, me tripping off, “Drugs are for the fool….”, as the lyrics went. It was totally fullfilling for a group you’ve been waiting a long time to see.

After the show we talked some more and I was even able to meet Ms. Domonique Toney, Kevin’s daughter, who sang lead, she gave the Bay Area much props, telling me, “I see why people like it up here, it’s so mellow and laid back.” Typical compliment people give the Bay (and Cali as a whole), but coming from a lady that pretty, I wasn’t mad!!!!

All in all it was a great experience I have to thank Mr. Toney and the Blackbyrds for, as well as my good brother Calvin.

Video of the event:

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Filed under Appreciation, FUNK, Music Matters, Oakland-Bay Area, Pictures

Kevin Toney of the Blackbyrds with Riquespeaks and Calvin Lincoln of SoulSchool

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Calvin Lincoln of SoulSchool television, Kevin Toney, keyboardist and founding member of the legendary Jazz Funk band “The Blackbyrds”, and riquespeaks

This picture is a teaser for am upcoming posting about one of the most special events I had this year : meeting Kevin Toney and seeing the Blackbyrds perform live. It was one of several adventures I had with my good brother, friend and mentor, Calvin Lincoln, the host and operator of SoulSchool television.

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December 16, 2012 · 10:44 am

“Stay in Your Lane”: Off the Dome,no Notes review: Wreck it, Ralph

Pixellated Rique outside Metreon Bus Stop

Rique in Video game form

Yesterday was my first day out and about since I got back from Paris, the time change and jet lag, mixed with the furious effort to get out of Paris before Hurricane Sandy hit, left me in a horizontal haze. I made up my mind I’d get out of the house to check out a movie, and out of all the films that appealed to me, me and my homeboy Frank decided on “Wreck-It, Ralph”. 

The movie is a fresh, inventive take on the classic Disney theme of self love and acceptance. The story centers on the fable of a video game villian, “Wreck It Ralph”, from an early wave ’80s coin op, “Fix it Felix”. Ralph is the “villian” of the game, but contrasting early video games with modern games, Ralph does not per se inflict very much harm on the other characters in the game, he simply wrecks things, which isn’t really so bad when you consider that without his wreckage, the hero of the game, “Fix it Felix Jr”, wouldn’t be able to come in and practice his hammering alchemy.

The film follows the lead of films such as “Toy Story” and “Shrek”, in going into the lives of childrens playthings, anthropomorphizing them to show a rich inner life after the children have stopped playing with them. In this case, the video game characters all leave their respective games to hang out in “Game Central Station.” After work however, the same relationship heirarchy that exists in the games exists in their after work lives, with “good” characters associating with each other and villians getting together in group therapy meetings to affirm their villany so they can keep up the bad work.

Ralph is depicted as a “villian” with heart, in reality just a large man with large hands who is misunderstood. When the 30th anniversary of his game comes, he finds himself and uninvited and unwelcome guest at the anniversary party of the games protagonists. When he finally gets in, he finds himself depicted on the cake with a mean snarl, as if he actually does his acts of wreckery out of malice instead of that being his function in the game. His co characters fail to realize that Ralph is just doing his job and there would be no game without Ralph.

Ralph then goes on a quest for heroism in order to be accepted in his own game, which leads him to other games. His first stop is an ultra modern first person shooter entitled “Hero’s Duty.” Old school 8 bit Ralph, use to moving on a single screen, is totally intimidated by the ultra modern, omni directional first person shooter. The climax of the movie however, occurs in a Japanese style, younger kids racing game entitled “Sugar Rush”, where Ralph meets his true friend and agent of change, Vanellope Von Schweetz.

As Ralph goes on this journey however, he’s missing from his game and his counterparts in his video game recognize exactly how important he was, without Ralph the game is in danger of being shut down. Ralph ultimately triumphs through self acceptance, it’s not in the cards for him to magically become a good guy, and he does not at the end of the movie. He remains good ol “Wreck It, Ralph”, as ham handed as ever. But that’s what he’s suited to do. This movie is a good example of the adage, “stay in your lane.” What changes is not Ralphs role in the video game, but the appreciation he gains through his comrades understanding that without him, there is no game, and his role is of central importance to the success of their game.

Along the way he’s taught this in part by Vanellope Von Schwertz, the hero of “Sugar Rush”, wrongly dethroned by the villanous Turbo, masquerading as “King Candy.” Turbo was an early video game hero who could not adjust to his new role as new games took over. Vanellope chooses to retain her “glitch” even after she defeats it because it gives her character, individuality and special abilities, a clear message for the kids (and adults) in a world of conformity on various levels.

The film also offers some mild commentary on the more violent video games of today. Seargent Calhoun, the shapely ball busting leader of the heroes on “Hero’s Duty”, is shown to be in need of a hug more than anything (a character confides of her, “she was programmed with the most tragic backstory ever) and is mellowed out by a marraige to the corny, goofy, but sincere 8 bit character “Fix it Felix”, who I’m sure will take his magical hammer to her nightly. In the end the old 8 bit game becomes a revived hit after the calamity that almost destroys the whole arcade and everybody learns to respect each others roles, in what actually is one of the more realistic “happily ever afters” I’ve seen on the screen.

All in all this is a very fun movie with a very good message, not asking us to magically become princes (or frogs) after being kissed, but to accept oneself and to accept the contributions of others for what they do to keep the whole thing running, whether they are pleasant roles or not. While it’s still basically a kids movie and was slow in parts, it has a great appeal to the thirty and up crowd as well that grew up with video games, and it serves as a pocket history of and commentary on the video game movement at the same time it tells it’s story.

Frank in 8 bit form

“Wreck it Ralph” bus stop, San Francisco

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Filed under Appreciation, Moving Pictures, Oakland-Bay Area, Pictures, Uncategorized