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Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Special

Black History Month is admittedly one of those things my opinion of has vacillated on through the course of my life. When I was a young child in school I enjoyed it more than anything else in my school curriculum. I have always been the type of individual who views the acquisition of knowledge with the attitude of exploration and discovery. And Black history, both in Africa and America having the “Hidden” quality that it does, due to suppression, ignorance, arrogance the profitability of subjugation and domination. My parents always had a strong sense of Black history simply from their backgrounds, my father being born in the Depression era south and being active in the Civil Rights movement, and my mother being a Liberian with a rich understanding of both Africa and her country’s roots in being established as a haven from American slavery and white supremacy. Still, I don’t think the majority of Black parents want to overburden their children with sad and negative messages. So even with my parents having the knowledge of things that they did, some of the most substantial information would come out when they were watching and responding to news items.

I was fortunate enough to have Asian and white teachers in Oakland, California who were very responsive and understanding of the predominantly Black demographics of their school, under the guidance of Mrs. Kelly, a strong Black Principal, to inject Black and multi cultural information into the curriculum. I still remember my kindergarten Teacher Ms. Huen giving us red envelopes for Chinese New Year, which is also this month, and marks the return of my birth sign, the Rooster!

So I always enjoyed learning about Carter G Woodson, Lewis Latimer, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B DuBois, Madame C.J Walker, and the numerous other luminary figures who against all odds contributed to America and kept Black people alive to get to the point we are today. Many of their inventions and discoveries proved to me a truth my father related to me from his experience down south, that a great many things were invented by very hands on Black people who were tasked with getting the work done and took it upon themselves to find an easier way to get those tasks accomplished.

Then when I grew up, in the Def Comedy Jam ’90s, I got innundated with the same jokes as everybody else, about how they “gave Black people the shortest month.” Which totally overlooks the contributions of Carter G Woodson and the fact that Black History Month is a BLACK invention. More recently the line has been “Black history is all year round”, which is one that I wholeheartedly agree with and try to practice on this blog and my other writing activities. However, just as with holidays, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other events, there is a reason Human beings choose dates to commemorate things. There is a great power to Human ritual that we sometimes forget in our modern fragmented world, a certain purification of purpose and inspiration. And it’s in that spirit that I’m adding a supplement to “Music 4 the Nxt 1” in honor of Black history month. I will still review funky songs but the scope will expand in terms of era, genre, and locale. I will cover songs of inspiration, songs in honor of Black historical figures, and songs that were just breakthroughs or inspiring to Black people at any given point of time. These grooves will come from Reggae, Soul, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz and many other genres. I hope that my readers enjoy it and that it reminds you of the struggles, accomplishments, joys, pains and exultations of peoples of African descent and why it is critical our position continue to be strengthened for the good of all.

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

#SummerOfJ.B: A Funky Introduction.

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The debut on August 1, 2014 of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” starring Chadwick Boseman, Jill Scott, and Viola Davis, allows hard core James Brown fans like myself a chance to reassess his legacy. When the Godfather passed in 2006, there was a suitable outpouring of emotion represented by his tributes at the Apollo Theater and at James Brown Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. Yet, Brown had survived Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Little Willie John, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and many other artists of his generation who were essential in providing a musical soundtrack for the social changes that took place in the latter half of the 20th Century. Because of his longevity and the massive reach of his impact, Mr. Brown became someone one could almost take for granted.

The true appreciation of Mr. Brown for me began early, but still somewhat later than it should have. As an ’80s baby, I grew up with The Godfathers descendants such as Prince, and Michael Jackson. The large funk bands were generally seen as on the decline, excepting Cameo, The Gap Band, and survivors like Kool & The Gang and The (Lionel Ritchie less) Commodores. Groups like New Edition had the youth audience. New soul flavors were coming over from the United Kingdom. My parents were huge James Brown fans but they were also musical progressives. In the home I was hearing a lot of Grover Washington Jr, Miles Davis, Sade, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, George Benson, recent late ’70s Commodores, Herbie Hancock electric funk, Steps Ahead, and a whole lot of Reggae. My older brothers and sisters were playing Prince and Hip Hop, plus great ’80s singles like “Hangin On a String” by Loose Ends. On lazy Saturdays or Sundays Dad would break out the reel to reel machine and play Coltrane, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, old Miles Davis, Eddie Harris, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Diz and Bird, and many programs he D.J’ed for VOA’s “Sound of Jazz” program.

Somehow in all of this, I only saw and heard fleeting glimpses of James Brown. Of course, J.B was very busy at this time, recording “Unity” with Afrika Baambaata, having one of his biggest pop hits ever in “Living in America”, touring all around the world, and eventually, getting into trouble. But somehow, in Oakland, California, a city that had been finally taken over politically by its black majority, and which had always been a key stop on the James Brown Express, I didn’t actually hear too much J.B in my earliest years.

All of this seemed to change around 1987, 1988, which is right when Hip Hop reasserted James Brown’s influence on both their music and the culture. The early Hip Hop D.J’s in New York used all manner of James Brown tunes to rock their parties. What sometimes gets lost is, many of these James Brown songs were contemporaneous to the early hip hop parties. For instance, in 1974 when the first Hip Hop parties were held, James Brown had singles such as “The Payback”, “Doin it to Death”, and “Funky President.” He also rocked the concert in Zaire (now the Congo) that went along with the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title fight known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, of which this year is the 40th anniversary. James pop profile dimminished each year after that, but he still had thunderous hits like 1976’s “Get Up Offa That Thang” (which provided the horn blasts for Boogie Down Production’s classic “South Bronx”). He was a fixture on the R&B charts even in the late ’70s, as viewings of ’70s episodes of Soul Train will attest to. Records like “The Spank”, “For Goodness Sakes Take a Look at Those Cakes”, “Eyesight”, “A Man Understands”, “Bodyheat” and “Give Me Some Skin”. These records captured the essence of the J.B groove in the high point of the great funk bands such as EWF, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Commodores, Kool & The Gang, The Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, Graham Central Station, and many other funky artists in that funky decade. A glance at Soul Train episodes post 1975 will show you how whether a song went to the top of the charts or not, James Brown funk always did what it was designed to do, get people up!

Of course, around 1988-1989 Mr. Brown came into my attention for the troubles he was having with the law at that time. I’d seen him earlier do his cape routine on the special, “Motown Goes Back to the Apollo.” It was kind of hard to seperate James Brown, his impact, and how his music still related to the modern thing, when he was placed alongside his peers and rock and roll legends such as Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and the Four Tops. All of these artists were great, influnetial artists, but their music and social impacts were not about to reignite like Mr. Brown’s was, in the late ’80s.

I remember watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom and seeing Mr. Brown going to jail and her talking about “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and James Browns concert in Monrovia, Liberia, and how she loved his hair. My dad talked about James Brown and the J.B’s and his favorite songs, like “You Can Have Watergate (But Gimmie Some Bucks and I’ll be straight), and “There Was a Time” with it’s “Groove Maker”, and “Doin it to Death”, and J.B’s career as an organist on Smash records.

Then, my real immersion into hip hop began. Earlier Hip Hop in the ’80s had used drum machines to contstruct spare, original beats, inspired by older funk and rock, but not directly sampling the recordings. By the late ’80s it seemed the world was a constant barrage of raw, James Brown beats. On every side of hip hop I liked, JB was there, from Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Aint No Joke”, to Salt & Pepa hollering “Pick up on this”, from Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”, to The 45 King’s “900 Number.”

My primary two influnces in hip hop, disparate as they were, both trafficed in James Brown. Public Enemy and M.C Hammer covered different sides of the man’s music and legacy. Public Enemy sampled bits and pieces of many recordings to create their own new funk. Chuck D and Flavor Flav traded off vocals in the manner of James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Their music focused on street conditions and black empowerment, just as Mr. Brown did on “Dont Be a Dropout”, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, “Mind Power”, “Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved”, “Soul Power”, “Funky President”, “Reality”, and many other songs. The controversy they generated at times in their career could call to mind the social currency James Brown had, the way he was black listed after “Say it Loud” for instance.

M.C Hammer, my Oakland hometown hero, represented another side of James Brown legacy. While Public Enemy were consumate performers as well, Hammer actually was a dancing machine, with a large band, back up dancers, and the theatrical presentation that Mr. Brown and other soul era performers bought. He also was largely successfull and admired for his business acumen, as Mr. Brown was in his day, when he was known for owning 4 radio stations and a Lear Jet. Hammer built on and expanded on the R&B influenced side of Hip Hop performing, represented over the years by Afrika Baambaata, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Whodini, and Kool Moe Dee. This style has pretty much always lost out in hip hop to the spare RUN DMC style of M.C’s walking back and forth across the stage, which some people feel is more pure and reflective of Hip Hop’s New York City park origins. But there are always people like Hammer who bring the R&B glitter and excitement to their performances as well. Hammer though, was the best and the most compelling.

Hammer also represented the other side of James Browns social concern. If Public Enemy was pegged as the radical side, Hammer represented the side that was about stopping the violence in the urban neighborhoods, getting an education, going to work, owning businesses, and building. Of course, in a post Civil Rights, post Black Power world, Hammer, who was from the city of the Black Panthers, had a millitant side too, but that is not what people saw. Hammers insistence on not cursing because he was a role model for kids was also from the James Brown book. Together, Public Enemy and Hammer represented all those sides of J.B.

But Browns impact was not limited to them. Somehow, as a little kid in the ’80s I didn’t know Michael Jackson and Prince were descendants of J.B as well, maybe the TOP two. M.J maybe took James Browns performance based ethic to it’s highest height, and Prince expanded on his role as a musical innovator of funk, by also incorporating the innovations of Brown’s contemporaries, like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, P-Funk, Al Green, and many others. But M.J and Prince were able to inhabit a whole other rarified air for black pop stars, delivering music that was authentic and yet widely popular at the same time. But somehow, it would take much later for me to understand the high tech, futuristic funky pop of The Thriller and His Royal Badness as fruits from the James Brown root.

Arsenio Hall’s show was key in exposing me to James Browns performances. I remember pestering my Dad about Brown, and pops breaking out the vinyl to “Live At the Apollo Vol 2” and “Doin it to Death”. He laughed as he recounted stories of Richard Nixon and Watergate. And he told me about a huge audience in Monrovia, Liberia singing along to “Hey, Hey, I Feel all Right.”

My appreciation for Mr. Brown would grow throughout the ’90s, as I purchased CD compilations and eventually vinyl albums. A James Brown concert was even my first concert ever, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, with my parents and my best friends, Jesse and Frank. The appreciation of Mr. Brown has been something I’ve bonded with over many people, and his determination, drive, attention to appearance, independence, pride and many other aspects of the man continue to inspire me to this day.

This series will cover various aspects of James Brown’s music and career in anticipation of the August 1 release of the “Get on Up” movie. It will continue to run for the duration of the summer, which will take us into around October on the West Coast. James Brown’s funk music is very direct and does not take much thought to get into. But James Brown’s life, career, impact, and the specific messages he put out there are very rich subjects that point to a very unique viewpoint on America, Black people in America, and the world. James Brown was a poor sharecropers son who grew up in a Whorehouse and was a Juevenile Delinquent, who rose from that to become one of the most impactful, classiest entertainers of all time. As such, he had a unique message to share. And he was never one of those singers who felt they should “just sing.” Brown was unique because although his show definitely provided escapism, through its funky grooves, slick outfits and large dynamics, it was an escapism of, or through IMMERSION. James Brown, in that fine Black tradition, immersed you in reality, and sometimes troubles, to get you to go past and transcend them. Or as he would say, “Get Up offa that thang, and dance till you feel better!” As Chadwick Boseman brings him to life across the celluloid screen, now is as fine a time as ever to look at a portion of what Mr. Brown did and how he did it.

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Filed under Appreciation, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")

Quick Thoughts on Nelson George’s “Finding the Funk”

In the mid 1990s there was a documentary program I viewed on PBS entitled “The History of Rock & Roll.” One of the later episodes of this program was entitled “Make it Funky.” This episode was a comprehensive examination of funk music through the James Brown roots, and covered the major proponents of the genre, from James Brown, to Sly Stone and P Funk, interviewing musicians such as Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, and featuring commentators such as James Brown and Prince road manager Alan Leeds, and author Nelson George. I taped that documentary on VHS and would study it over and over again, marveling at the outfits, the musical clips, and the idea that there was a black dance based music called funk that ruled black dance music and stage presentation from roughly 1965 to 1982. The interesting thing is, I knew all the artists the show talked about. I also knew the songs, from “Cold Sweat” to “Superfreak”, and I knew words such as “funky”, “Groove”, “Thumping”, and other words synonymous with the genre. I also knew the Hip Hop I loved was drawing from that time period. Many of those records were also present in my home. But in some form or fashion, I didn’t know that Funk was it’s own music, seperate and distinct from soul and hip hop both. I didn’t know that Funk represented such a revolution in outfits, playing styles, subject matter and aspirations. That documentary and Rickey Vincents opus, “Funk: The Music, People, and History of the One”, helped solidify in my mind what had already been my favorite music all of my life, from James Brown, to the Commodores, to Ramsey Lewis, to Herbie Hancock, M.C Hammer and Public Enemy. One of my favorite writers, Nelson George, who was also very prominent on that earlier documentary, has a new one, entitled “Finding the Funk”, that stands out by taking the basic story of funk which has already been sketched , and coloring and texturing that story, with another 20 or so years of perspective and grooves laid on top of the documentary that came out back in the ’90s.

Nelson George has always been one of my favorite writers, due to the unique, black perspective he provides on black music. It might sound redundant, but he’s actually in a very rarified air of black writers who’ve written with consistency about the specific musical tastes of the black community. He actually wrote and covered funk during it’s heyday, so it was a pleasure to see him take up this project.

“Finding the Funk” uses a modern multimedia internet age approach to telling the story of funk, with “Funk Chunks” appearing on the screen at various intervals to add information to what is being discussed or displayed on the screen. I really like the “talking heads” used, featuring musicians such as Marcus Miller, Questlove and Mike D from the Beeastie Boys. These are all musicians who were not generally old enough to be major players during the heyday of funk, but served their apprentichips in that era and have kept the flame of funk buring during their careers in the ’80s, ’90s’, and ’00s. In Millers case, he was involved in records in the late ’70s on the tail end of the funk era. The Beastie Boys also had a funk and punk cover band in the early ’80s, and Questlove was learning to play those records and in some cases playing them as a little kid in his fathers band. These commentators all speak of funk from the perspectives of fans, but also musicians serving their apprentischips and learning, as when Miller demonstrates Larry Grahams “Hair” or “Skin Tight”, Questlove the Honey Drippers “Impeach the President”, D’Angelo doing Parliaments “Do That Stuff”, or Mike D Funkadelics “Good Ole Funky Music.” These performance features are some of my favorite momments of the doc.

“Funk” goes farther than the documentary I saw back in the ’90s in tracing the musics history, reminding me more of the deep roots Rickey Vincent uncovered for the music in his book, the roots musicians have always given for the music. It traces the Funk back to New Orleans, which is so crucial in black music as the area that kept the drums of African music alive in America. He talks to New Orleans brass bands that play funk to this day, in the age of hip hop and electronic music. The roots of the music are traced from there to the Hard Bop jazz movement of the 1950s, where artists such as Jimmy Smith, the Jazz Crusaders, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Ray Charles embraced modal jazz, the blues scale, the 12 bar blues, African percussion (and often African and muslim names), gospel music, honking horns, and other down home musical elements they described as “funky.” These elements were a “blackenizing” of the music in reaction to the extremely popular West Coast Cool school, as well as a reaction to the often undanceable abstractions of be bop. This movement towards funkiness in jazz was what inspired the sound James Brown was going to the most, as Brown always mentioned early rock & Roll pioneer Louis Jordan as his biggest influence, and Jordan was a musician who came from Swing Jazz.

The doc goes on to focus on the Kings of Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton, but it adds space that other funk docs havent, for Earth, Wind & Fire, and Prince in the ’80s. It also deals with hip hop as the direct desendant of funk, and deals with the new funk frontier, also featuring D’Angelo and Dam Funk. This was a modern approach I was particularly pleased with. The earlier “History of Funk” I saw back in the ’90s made a clear narrative choice to treat funk as the creative black music of the ’70s, that was overtaken by hip hop in the ’80s. While that is true to some extent in historical terms, its only a small part of the story in real terms. George alters this perception by covering funk bands that were cracking in the late ’70s and early ’80s like Slave, and highlighting how Prince was a musician well versed in funk, as was Michael Jackson. He also emphasizes the importance of funk to hip hop. All of this is a vital contribution to how we think about funk.

The regional nature of the funk is another thing George took care to stress in his doc. The film uses map graphics to represent the regional spread of the one, from Brass Construction and Crown Heights Affair (who I was glad to see mentioned) in New York City, to War and The Brothers Johnson in LA, to Sly Stone in the Bay Area, and a whole mess of groups in Dayton, Ohio. He also highlights how groups like Cameo and EWF moved around to find the spot that would suit their grooves the best. The story of Dayton Funk in particular is a valuable contribution to funk on the screen. The economics of the matter were discussed, as Scott Brown mentioned parents in Dayton had the disposable income to purchase instruments to keep their children out of trouble.

The economics of funk were mentioned several times in the doc. Stuart Matheson of Sade mentioned you get funk by getting people in a room together and jamming, which is really expensive these days. Nile Rogers made the point that whenever he got together with hip hoppers, they were always amazed at his chops and he always took sampling to say, “I wish I could do that.” The film definitely brought out the long held belief that Reagenomics and the decline of the cities helped kill the black band movement and make the spare technology of hip hop a more affordable artistic direction.

Otherwise, there are plenty of other gems to be found here. Prince finally gets his due from a FUNK standpoint, with it being mentioned that Prince’s adoption of “white” rock is really not unusual in a funk context, when artists like Sly Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, and even Issac Hayes, the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield did the same with the psychedelic rock techniques of their day that were heavily blues based. The doc also sheds some light on the battle for funk dominance between Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire,captured for the first time on film. D’Angelo made a comparison I’d heard Gary Shider of P Funk himself make, that EWF represented the “good guy” facet of Funk a la The Beatles, and P-Funk the black hatted, Rolling Stones role. EWF’s elegance was mentioned, and supported with an exceptionally funky film clip of a live performance of “Shining Star.”

“Funk” also makes many other rarely made connections. Nona Hendrix and Labelle are covered, which aims to make up for the sorely under discussed female side of funk. In discussing their fabulous stage outfits, George also talked about Larry Legazi, a costume designer who masterminded many of the space funk outfits of the era.

One of the most valuable things about the documentary, is it’s compiling of anecdotes about funk. Many of these anecdotes have been revealed over the last 20 years or so, but the screen has its own unique power to bring them across. We get anecdotes from a slick suited marcel waved George Clinton about hairstyles and music, we get Bootsy Collins talking about the dynamics of “The One”, and Dawn Silva talking about how (literally) funky the room was when the MOB recorded “Knee Deep.” We are also treated to lesser known anecdotes, like Steve Arrington talking about how his singing on “Just a Touch of Love” was an accident.

Of course, everybody I talk to seems to have a long list of artists they felt were excluded. For me, there could have been more focus paid to how the big soul stars did funk, such as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Issa Hayes, Barry White, and the Isley Brothers. These artists made some of the funkiest songs ever, but their musical catalogs are so varied and their star power so great that some don’t place them within funk. But I dare people who say they don’t care much for funk to say they don’t like “Higher Ground”, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquidali (whatever) or “Live it Up” and “Fight the Power”, all of which are funk songs. I also would have liked to have seen more coverage on the Crusaders, Headhunters, Jaco Pastorius, George Duke, and artists who came at thefunk from a jazz perspective. I could also have had stylistic innovators like Ray Parker Jr. Bernard Purdie, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, and other musicians covered who were funky session musicians and made many funky records although they didn’t per se play in “funk bands.” But those musicians styles are definitely a part of what funk musicans play today. Of course, some mention of Funk’s international reach must also be made at some point, as we’re discovering more and more each year that funk was a music that deeply touched the African diaspora as well as the African continent itself, with funk being uncovered regularly from Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo and other countries.

“Finding the Funk” is an essential piece of viewing, and it would be even if it simply consisted of Sly Stone saying funk sounded like musicians who “wanted to curse”, playing. It extends the story of funk before James Brown and after P-Funk, on into the ’80s and also tips the viewers off to some of the Funk innovators of today. It’s also special that 50 years on, the major principals of funk were captured in interviews as well. All in all it’s a worthy companion to Rickey Vincents “The History of Funk”, and many Nelson George books such as “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” and “Post Soul America.” And because of George’s efforts, we have a new film in 2014 to help people visualize what we’re talking about when we talk about funk.

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Concert Notes: George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Yoshi’s 3/29/13

If you’re a funkateer of any stripe, it’s a rite of passage to see George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic live. No matter how much bad press you may hear about the sloppiness of the band, or how the songs drag on too slowly, or that some of George’s uncut funk might could use a little trimming, there is no substitute to stomping your feet and shaking your ass real time with the U.S Funk Mob.

The desire to be a part of the P-Funk live experience is one that was passed down, like an appreciation of fine wines, from my elders. Being in attendance at the original arrival of the mothership is a generation marker for many akin to “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The Bay Area, like Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, New Jersey, and especially Washington D.C, is one of the true P-Funk strongholds in this country. Part of P-Funk’s legendary, “P-Funk Earth Tour” LP was recorded at the Oakland Coliseum, on which the late Glen Goins can be heard intoning “Oakland, do you want to ride?” There’s also the tale of a lineup at the Oakland Coliseum, an outdoor funk fest that featured the Bar Kays, Cameo (in the year they released “I Just Want to Be”), our own local heroes Con Funk Shun, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and Parliament Funkadelic.

As with any “legendary” musical group, it can be hard to live up to this type of legacy. The first time I saw P-Funk in 2005, I must admit I was disapointed. I caught them at the Filmore, in San Francisco. That year was supposed to be a big year in P-Funk history, some sort of anniversary. I remember it was special because Bootsy Collins actually was with the group on that tour. Bootsy came out with a thunderous version of “Up for the Down Stroke.” Leaning on the Filmore’s history as a legendary rock venue, the band leaned heavily on Funkadelic’s rock side that night. Something about that gig just didn’t do it for me though. I had a good time, but the experience couldn’t quite live up to my bootleg tapes of all those old tours.

Then in 2011, I saw Bootsy Collins perform a set with his band for the first time. That show really rekindled my desire to feel P-Funk live, for the simple fact that it was very tight and delivered P-Funk and Bootsy classics with as much or more vitality than the recorded versions. Songs like “Flashlight” and “One Nation” were done in a better fashion for me than they were done at the earlier P-Funk show I’d seen because they were done with the new Mini Moog Voyager keyboard and at a tempo that was very close to the tempo’s they were recorded with.

A few months after that, around Independence Day of that year, I had the chance to see P-Funk at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland. The funk was right this time. George Clinton had unveiled a new image, in slick suits, with his hair laid down in coal black waves. It was reminiscent of the bands genesis as the Parliaments, and also an image George had adopted around 1980, during the “Trombipulation” album. George Clinton has always maintained his roots as a barber/hair stylist inform his attitude of musical styles, that a change in musical styles can be as simple as changing your hair do and clothes. This was true when Parliament was a doo-wop, soul, Temptations styled group and had to change clothes to get into the hippie, mod, phsychedelic music of Funkadelic, and the freaked out arena Funk vibe of the glory years.

Well, George’s new doo review proved to be a super tight one. That particular night they opened with “Funkentelechy”, with the bass player totally nailing one of my favorite bass lines of all time. Hits like “Atomic Dog”, “Flashlight”, and “One Nation”, were laid down with an accuracy that was felt by heads, hearts, hips, and feet.

So it was on and crackin from then. I resolved I’d see P-Funk every chance I got, and enjoy this national treasure while we still have it. With that in mind, me and my running partner Kenny Route hit Yoshi’s up last Friday night. I was mad I missed the last P-Funk show in the Bay Area, about four or five months ago, mainly because two of my homegirls, Angelina and Gi Gi got to dance on stage with George Clinton during “Atomic Dog” in a momment that is preserved for posterity on YouTube. It was dope to see two of my favorite ladies getting down with one of my favorite dudes, George Clinton!

Kenny Route chose to see Earth, Wind & Fire instead of P-Funk back in the ’70s, and he said the EWF show was great, but he always missed out on seeing P-Funk with all his relatives and friends. I always feel like in a way that might be a blessing too, because as bad as P-Funk was in 1977, great songs like “Atomic Dog”, “Aqua Boogie”, “(Not Just) Knee Deep”, and “One Nation Under a Groove”, were yet to come. There is something special about catching a musical group when the bulk of their legacy has already been done. It’s almost like hearing/seeing/feeling your whole life in one night.

The show was opened in Funkadelic mode with the throbbing, pounding, bluesy, soulful field holler for peace, “Me and My Folks”, from 1971’s “Maggot Brain” LP. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”, the P-Funk chorus moaned as the drummer whopped the audience upside their complacency witha rock hard beat, with a bass jam spread on top of it like beddings in a hospital. This is one of my favorite deep cuts and one I never thought I’d hear live, and even though all of the audience might not have been familiar with it, it was the perfect intro to the concept of “one nation under a groove.”

The Mob let the first song draw out until all the soul that could be had was had, and then funked on to “The Goose”, from 1974’s “Up for the Down Stroke.” That LP was one of the first P-Funk albums I ever bought, on tape, from the old Leopold’s records in Berkeley. My friend Calvin was juiced because it’s a P-Funk record from the catalog you don’t hear often. The groove was mesmerizing as blunts were passed all through the audience, and by the end of the song, the P-Funk horn players Bennie Cowan and Greg Thomas were inserting the riffs frrom Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”, which was one of a few Al Green/Memphis themes introduced by P-Funk on that night. The chant from Bootsy Collins’ “The Pinnochio Theory” found it’s way into the end of the song too, which gave Robert “P-Nut” Johnson, one of Bootsy’s singers who was present on this night, a chance to shine. P-Funk also found ways to squeeze in the chants to “Unfunky UFO” and “Up for the Down Stroke” as well.

The way George does his show now reminds me of Chuck Brown and D.C go-go music. Many people wonder what George’s contribution to P-Funk was in a musical sense, but he is one of the most phenomenal creators of phrases, lyrics, and hooks in American music. There are so many chants and catchphrases, they could never perform them all as songs in their entirety. So, they go the route of Chuck Brown, playing the same beat and layering various chants and choruses from the P-Funk song book over whatever beat is going. It got me fired up just to hear these bits and pieces of songs over a funky beat, much more so than to hear bits and pieces of songs in the manner of say, James Brown’s concert medly’s.

They bumped right up on from that into “Flashlight.” Calvin let me know it was going o be a shorter show for real if they were going into that, and in reality, not counting the bits and pieces of all the chants, P-Funk only did 10 songs that night. And only 8 were actual P-Funk songs. I did understand it was the third night of a three night engagement, and at 72, you might not gain strength on your third day, but George Clinton was by no means a weak link, as he had a truckload of energy on that night. “Flashlight” came off hard, as the keyboardist used the Minimoog Voyager synthesizer, a recent version of the keyboard the original “Flashlight” was recorded on, to play Bernie Worrell’s famous bassline. That was interesting because even in the classic years after “Flashlight” came out, P-Funk usually used a live bassist to play the bassline. On this night however, the bass was played by the keyboardist and Jeff “Cherokee” Bunn, bass player for the Brides of Funkenstien, augmented the bass line with his bass guitar.

The P-Funk horns included one of my absolute favorite horn riffs into the coda to “Flashlight”, Eddie Harris jazz classic, “Freedom Jazz Dance”, recorded by such people as Miles Davis, Charles Earland, and Brian Auger.

P-Funk is well aware of the bad rap they’ve gotten from time to time, because Clip Payne at one point announced “Ya’ll were expecting to see some old guy in a Mu-Mu with some multicolored dreads weren’t you?” Which spoke volumes to people expecting the image and shows George gave us in the ’90s shows. But this was not that, this was real true blue P-Funk brought by a group of talented men and women who know what their funkateers epect of them.

The next day, Calvin and myself went to the hotel where P-Funk was staying to interview Jeff “Cherokee Bunn.” “Cherokee” was really deep, really spiritual, and very welcoming as well. I also got to shyly/slyly say “hi” to fine miss Kendra Foster, but that’s neither here nor there, we got a great interview with Cherokee that will be in a future post. As a coincidence, the hotel they were staying at was within eyesight of the Oakland Coliseum, site of many P-Funk triumphs in the past. They may no longer be rocking Coliseums and Arena’s like that, but their funk is back streamlined and arena sized for sure.

Last December at Yoshi’s SF, my friend Angelina dancing with George, and my friend Gi-Gi dancing with Sir Nose, captured by Evol Knight

Video I recorded last Friday, Greg Thomas leading the crowd in th scat solo on “(Not Just) Knee Deep”

P-Funk doing “The Goose” at Yoshi’s

Soulschool interview Calvin Lincoln did with Greg Thomas of P-Funk

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Robert Glasper brings “Black Radio” back to Oakland!

One of my favorite things to do is to get out, see, hear and feel, live music, and I had my first chance to do that a few weeks back, when the Robert Glasper Expiriment came through The New Parish in Oakland, California. I couldn’t have had a better group to get my feet wet with.

Glasper is an artist I’ve been following for some time. Him and his group are currently riding high after taking home the Grammy for Best R&B album. Every now and then the NARAS people give the award to somebody based on the quality of their music and tries to make a stand for music that’s not 100% image based. In Glaspers case, when I told most people around me who I was going to see, their response was, “who.” Glasper is getting a great write up in various music media outlets and among a certain type of “neo-soul”, “conscious hip hop”, jazz interested crowd, but not much noise outside of that group. Our local R&B station, KBLX, used to feature a quiet storm format that included classic soul, funk, and disco, and lots of urban adult contemporary music. I mean, this station was huge on Sade, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Jefferey Osbourne, Frankie Beverley and Maze, the Whispers, Grover Washington Jr, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Waymon Tisdale, and others of that ilk. They wouldn’t play “All Night Long” too much, but they would sure enough rock “Love Will Find a Way.”

It was also a great place to find out about smooth jazz type recordings. I know smooth jazz is anathema to most people (myself included), but I remember my dad purchasing some great albums based on KBLX airplay back in the ’90s. Albums by Randy Crawford, Joe Sample, the Crusaders, George Duke, Craig T Cooper and many others. KBLX was the station that played Hidden Beach’s “Unwrapped” jazz hip hop fusions back in the ’00s. In the early ’90s they played Miles Davis “Doo Bop” LP. “Unwrapped” didn’t get any play on the local hip hop stations, even though it was versions of hip hop songs that particular album featured. Point is, the old KBLX would have been the perfect showcase for “Afro Blue”, “Gonna Be Alright”, “Cherish the Day”, almost any track on Glasper’s “Black Radio” LP. Glasper’s LP is part of a long tradition of jazzy music based on sophisticated R&B songs.

Glasper was born in Houston, Texas, just like those other heroes of Jazz fusion, the (Jazz) Crusaders. He also went to school with Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, that force of nature known as Beyonce. He’s always been a straight ahead jazz pianist but he’s also put in a lot of work in the hip hop scene, being an associate of Bilal and working with acts such as Common, Maxwell, and Mos Def.

His “Black Radio” LP is exactly the type of LP that makes me wish my father was alive. Pops was a hardcore jazz man of a Hard Bop bent, a big fan of Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Miles, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie and others with that modern jazz bent. But he also was a huge fan of blusier artists such as the Crusaders, Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, and Jimmy Smith. Glasper builds up a new brand of “jazz fusion”, based in the chill out tones of “neo-soul” and jazz influenced hip hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, the Philadelphia Sound, Erykah Badu). The result is kind of on the mellow side, but the music has a strong groove that pulls you in, in the vein of Sade.

The New Parish, in the DTO (DownTown Oakland) was the perfect venue to see Glasper and his group in. The New Parish building was formerly the site of a somewhat notorious club in Oakland called Sweet Jimmie’s. Sweet Jimmie’s was known in my time for being a club that older people frequented that would play soul, funk, jazz, disco, and for having a regular TV program that broadcast on local low budjet, public access cable station known as SoulBeat. Every weekend you could turn on your TV and see older folks getting down at Sweet Jimmies and lip synching to soul hits. I watched this all through my teenage years on TV, but I didn’t dare step foot in Jimmie’s when I came of age. Although in the early ’00s it became popular with young folks, which eventually led to it’s demise as an institution.

As I qued in line to enter the venue, I thought of this history. It trips me out to be standing in line with a multiracial group of individuals waiting to go into The New Parish and vibe on some world class music. In many ways, it’s still Sweet Jimmie’s to me, but then again it isn’t, because although I was seriously familiar with Jimmie’s, I never went in when it was cracking. So the Parish is a new thing for me. It’s a great, intimate, large club type concert setting, the type of place where the artists are walking around in the courtyard before the show (which Glasper did). The venue has a great open air courtyard where one can sit outside, sip on their libation of choice, toke on their smoke of choice, and take in the vibes of the music.

I had one of my OG buddies with me, Ken, and he’d frequented Jimmie’s several times and couldn’t believe the changes the venue had undergone. Most times myself and my peers try to tell some of the older folks about the changes DTO has undergone and the active social life that exists there currently, (relatively) drama free. They usually come away with a mixture of amazement at the changes and mixed emotions over gentrification. But besides all that, they generally have a good time!

Oakland’s own Kev Choice opened the show up. Kev had a band that featured, in addition to bass, drums, guitar, and himself on keys, a young lady on violin. Kev is a major musician who has worked with people like Lauryn Hill and Too Short and continues to call the Bay Area home.  The band was tight, he played keyboards well, and he also impressed me by rapping, both from behind the keyboards, and from the front man position, center stage. I have seen the Kev Choice Ensemble open up for several top notch groups at the New Parish and I enjoyed them more on this particular night than ever before, and I always enjoy them, I especiallydug the textures the violinist brought to the heavy hip hop/funk beats and the thick harmonic wall.

Glaspers album was heavy on great cameo’s, it was almost like a Quincy Jones album for the Neo-Soul movement. Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michelle, Meschell N’degeocello, Stokely Williams, and Yalsin Bey (aka Mos Def) made the album flow like The Dude, or Back on the Block, or Sounds…and Stuff Like That.

At this particular date, he had Mr. Cory Benjamin with him as his front man. Benjamin is an excellent performer who wears a unique hairstyle of dreadlocks that rise from his head in a regal pompadour. On this nite he sang through a vocoder to handle the vocals on songs like “Afro Blue” and “Cherish the Day.” His vocoder singing was not like the guitar controlled talk box of Roger Troutman, but more in line with the emotional keyboard vocal tones Herbie Hancock used on songs such as “I thought it was You”, and he especially reminde me of Herbie’s  “Come Running to Me”.  This Herbie influenced vibe especially fit in well with Glaspers Fender Rhodes toned comping. Benjamin did whip out his saxophone once to do some fluent bop jazz type soloing.

The vocoder vocals of Mr. Benjamin, Glaspers unique Fender Rhodes textures, and the whip tight rhythm section, all conspired to cast a hypnotizing spell over Oakland that night. At one point Glasper told us it was the first concert since winning the Grammy and that he was celebrating it with Oakland. Then he asked for three vodka cranberry’s. I felt of the moment because that was also what I was drinking (in moderation) that night.

They finnished the evening with one of my favorite songs on the album, “Oh Yeah”, which features the lyrics “cause I’ve learned in this life/you’ve gotta be with someone you like.” Words to go home on for real.

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Unsung Quick Thoughts: Mint Condition

cd-coverThe Mint Condition episode was special to me because of a close friend of mine, a lovely Virgo lady  named Liz who is absolutely the biggest Mint Condition fan I know. Every time the group is in town, usually at Yoshi’s, either the Oakland, or San Francisco clubs, she’s there, and her support extends to buying their new CD’s too. It was with her in mind that I checked out Mint Conditions’ Unsung.

Mint Condition is an interesting group for the program because in some ways, they represent what happened in black popular music after the collapse of disco, the rise of hip hop, and the emphasizing of singers and producers over bands. Mint Condition is a group that started after the narrative that led to a lower profile for the Ohio Players, P-Funk, Bootsy, Roger and Zapp, and many other funk bands who have been featured on the show. As a result they never reached those peaks of success that the earlier bands reached in terms of being icons in music, but on the positive side, they seem to have avoided many of the personal problems those groups faced as well. The members stressed that they knew the importance of their status as a band and the image of unity it represented for a group of black men to be united in the enterprise of playing music. Various clips were shown with people like the comedian Sinbad stressing the need to appreciate the group while they are here because they had a special status as one of the last popular black bands.

The groups origins in Minnesota were covered. Five of the original memebers hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota. Stokely Williams father, Mahmoud El-Kuti, was mentioned and interviewed, and he was a leader in the black community in St. Paul, an afrocentrist and a college proffessor. Stokely explained that there were always live African rhtyms in the home and he began to play the conga drums early, four years old early, which led to him taking up the trap drums.

The band came together at St. Paul Central High School, in the recording arts program. I was slightly jealous at the in depth nature of the schools program, way back in the ’80s! The school had a recording console, proffesional looking mixing board, the whole nine! I found this part of their story exceeingly interesting in regard to the musical changes since the late ’70s or so. One of the stories spun regarding hip hop and the lack of instruments and bands in recent black music has been the elimination of music programs in public schools due to budjet cuts enacted by President Ronald Wilson Reagen. The reason this was so crucial, is because the school, alongside the black church, has been a vital incubator of black musical talent. Examples of this include Capt Walter Henri Dyett, of DuSable High School in Chicago, Illinois, who mentored artists such as Eddie Harris, Gene Ammons, Nat King Cole, Bo Diddly, Dinah Washington, and Red Foxx through his band program. Captain Dyett was said to arrange for private instruction for his students at low cost, in addition to their lessons at the school, also providing mentoring after his students graduated.

There were other examples of this around the country, such as the Kashmer Stage Band from Houston, Texas, run by Conrad O Johnson, about whom the recent picture Thunder Soul was released. Johnson’s program featured young people playing funk so good ithas been sampled just like the proffesional’s. Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles is another example, putting out artists such as Patrice Rushen, Gerald Albright, and Leon “Ndugu” Chancelor. So it was very telling that Mint Condition was nurtured in a program that survived those Reagen era cuts. It also makes one wonder if they were not benefited by being in a school district that was by no means predominately black or minority and probably had access to better resources. His royal badness, Prince, also came through a state of the art music program up in Minneapolis.

The program treated us to early footage of the band, in which they were a Prince influenced band in Jheri Curls and super stage outfits. They performed at the legendary First Avenue club, made popular in the classic film Purple Rain. As a whole, the documentary showed how successful musical acts from various far flung outposts on the musical map can be a big boon to local artists. The group was signed to a label run by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and their album was produced by Jellybean Johnson, the drummer for The Time.

Early in their career Mint Condition released a single entitled “Are You Free”, that did not do particularly well. Jam and Lewis mention that they always wanted to have an uptempo hit. Finally they released “Breakin My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)”, which Jam and Lewis always felt was their strongest song anyway. Jam and Lewis sort of laughed, in the manner of father figure/big brother types sayin, “well, they got that uptempo stuff out of their system”. That whole point kind of touched one of the realities for a black band in a post-funk world. One of my own criticisms of the band has always been, “when are they gonna lay that heavy funk dance groove” on us. There is a perception out there among most of the black listening community that the dance grooves will come from electronics and hip hop artists and that bands are best for mellow music and love songs. This irks me because I see people at live shows moving vigorously to the sounds bands can make, moving both young and old. But that perception is there and it’s hard to shake. I’m always pulling for an R&B based band to come out with a major dance hit, in the line of all the great funk, R&B, and soul groups, and it was interesting to see that Mint Condition, raised on this type of music, had a similar type of thinking, but “Pretty Brown Eyes” turned out to be a huge smash for them that has sustained their career.

I personally love the huge synth chords on “Pretty Brown Eyes”, they are very Minneapolis sound as well, and recall for me, the synth chords on Prince’s “Darling Nikki”. I also love the huge reverb on the drums and the big live sound, almost like a band in a practice room. The record soared to #1 R&B, and #6 pop, reining on the R&B charts over Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time”, and Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.”

I must admit as a kid I didn’t understand that Mint Condition was a band, or exactly what kind of music a black band would play in the age of hip hop. I understood Cameo, Prince, and other artists who were older and played instruments, I understood the older jazz artists, and Stevie Wonder, but the sight of a band in the present tense was a curiosity. The record label apparently understood this confusion of mine, because they tried to front the group off as a vocal group in videos, having them appear without instruments. The group says their perspective was changed when they played a gig with a DAT tape and people were disapointed, they actually WANTED to see a band playing live.

All in all, Mint Condition was presented as another of those groups with a great integrity to their fans and their music. It was mentioned that Stokely has had several oppurtunities to go solo, but he views himself as a musician and is very much into being part of a band. Also the band shared royalties, much as the Ohio Players did. This has been a common theme on the Unsung program as well, as there are some bands who shared money in a way that money issues never divided the band, whereas that was the dividing issue for others. Mint Condition is still performing today, and releasing albums that are very successful from an Independent perspective, their debt to their funk roots in particular is continually discharged in their explosive live show.

Mint Conditions episode made me think of another definition of “unsung” that is covered in the show. They were a band doing something that was not trendy among the black audience at the time they came out. It’s like a blues artist during the time period of Motown, or a southern soul artist during the height of disco, or a swing jazz artist during the time of bebop. Several artists like Bobby Womack who have been profiled on the show fit into this category, people who do good quality music regardless of the trends. All in all it was a fine program for a band that went for what it knew.

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Whispers UnSung: Quick Thoughts


whisperslp
Last weeks UnSung episode featuring the mighty Whispers was one of my favorite yet, and I must admit, it’s mostly a Bay thang. There have been several Bay Area based episodes on UnSung, including the Sly Stone episode, Shiela E, and the great Con Funk Shun episode. The Whispers show both shed some light on the SuperFly atmosphere of Oakland in the 1970s and also impressed me with the story of a musical group that was hardworking, talented, loyal to one another and truly worthy of all the props we could give them for hanging in the music business for fifty years.

Finally, the Whispers origins were clarified to the satisfaction of this Oakland based blogger. I’d heard some things about the Whispers being from LA. and other reports about them being from the Bay. Several friends of mine recall seeing them perform during their high school years at various now defunct Bay Area nightclubs. Turns out Walter and Scotty were born in Houston and raised in Los Angeles, which is where the group came together. However, they were adopted so well by audiences in the Bay Area that they decided to make that their home base. I’ve heard many things about how the Bay Area of that time had a very strong performance circuit, that was able to sustain several groups, such as the Ballads, Eugene Blacknell, and the Natural Four. It was also revealed in this episode that the Pimps and Players of Oakland were one of the Whispers primary fan bases. That revelation was very interesting to me because of Oakland’s history as a city where the pimping game was very strong, an example of that being 1973’s The Mack. The thing that made that film notable is it was in part financed by the Ward Brothers and feature

many real life participants in that life.

The Whispers performed throughout the ’70s, being a very well respected group for both their vocals and their stage show, but never quite getting that big break. I found out more about the group in the last decade when I began purchasing episodes of Don Cornelius’ Soul Train. I’d buy episodes for groups who I’d never seen footage of at the time, like the Crusaders, or Mandrill, or Marvin Gaye, and lo and behold, the Whispers would always be on the same episode. I was impressed by their moves, their songs, and the rapport they had with Don Cornelius. If you watch episodes of Soul Train hosted by Don Cornelius, you’ll see there were certain artists he had a special rapport with, such as Rick James, or the O’Jays. The Whispers were one of those groups, and the Soul Train program gave them exposure even before they had that huge hit record.

It was on one of those episodes I encountered the early song “Seems like I gotta do wrong for someone to notice me”, which was a very poignant song for me. It could be applied many ways, but it makes me think especially of our current news culture and the amount of attention given to people who act outrageously.

Another song that was featured in the episode was  “(Olivia) Lost and Turned Out.” This is a song I only became familiar with a few years ago, when our local “Quiet Storm” station, KBLX, put it back into rotation. I was shocked by the story, and the lyrics, “he wants to buy a new Seville.” The group memebers talked about this song and mentioned the songwriters niece had been turned out by some pimps and the song was his effort to speak to her and get her to leave “the life.”  It didn’t please their fan base, but the song did become a hit on the charts.

The show glided right into their ’80s success with “And the Beat Goes On”, and of course “Rock Steady” and “It Just Gets Better With Time.” “Rock Steady” is probably the song I first got familiar with the group with in the late ’80s, while “It Just Gets Better With Time” is one of the ultimate California cruising songs.

The most impressive aspect of the show to me however, was the loyalty exhibited by the group. Several group members had serious problems, from incarceration, to inability to perform due to drugs. But the group made sure they continued to recieve a salary all the time they dealt with those issues and received them back into the group when they got over them. This was very impressive in light of some of the implosions witnessed among other groups. It reminded me of the Ohio Players equal sharing of credit for all the songs they wrote.

At the end of the day the episode made a fine case for why the Whispers seem to hold the special place in the hearts of their fans. It was funny to me that the Whispers and Frankie Beverley and Maze, though not outselling groups like the Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, and many other groups, were able to consistently tour and draw seriously passionate fan bases, years after their hey day. In fact, they seemed even more vital than the groups who outsold them years ago. I’m not sure we can truly ever answer that, but for me, it has something to do with the loyalty the Whispers showed to their talents, their band mates, and their fans. When you do that, you just get better with time.

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