Without question, The Foreign Exhange has been one of my favorite groups since it’s inception. Producer/Musician Nicolay, Writer/Vocalist/M.C Phonte, along with musician Zo!, and the fabulous female vocalists who contribute so much to the groups sound, make up one of the most deeply rooted, forward looking, progressively funky musical outfits on the scene today. Their last album, 2013’s “Love in Flying Colors” was an outright masterpiece that perfectly captured mid ’70s Stevie Wonderesque synthesizer led song writing. Zo!’s album “Man Made” along with his fantastic single “We’re on The Move” upped the stakes for producer/vocalist albums last year. The group returns this year with a new album, “Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey.” Today’s funk bomb, “Work it to the Top”, ups the ante in the early ’80s funk vein mined recently by Dam-Funk’s catalog, and the smash “Uptown Funk”, among other recent jams. It’s a record built on Phonte and company’s unique ability to deliver old school sounds with tounge in cheek humor as well as trying on dad’s coat respect, exemplified by their hilarious Whispers inspired video for Zo!’s “We’re on the Move.”
“Work it to the Top” begins with the drums pounding out a steady beat, kick drums thudding in a lock step on all four beats. Synth bass is also present, a variation of the bass line on The Fatback Bands classic, “Backstrokin’. “Backstrokin” is one of the true classics of ’80s funk, and it’s influence has been fossilized into modern music through the work of Dr. Dre, who has interlaced it in many of his G Funk arrangements, from Snoop Doggs “Ain’t No Fun”, to his own “Let’s Get High.” As the funk cycles back around through the influence of the 1990s, “Backstrokin” pops up again through Mark Ronson and Tuxedo’s interpolations of “Ain’t No Fun.” The bass line includes a pentatonic flurry similar to Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mamajama”, that leads u back to the top of the line, making the song a true compilation of early ’80s funk. A high pitched sawtooth synth tone plays a single note line on top of that, with juicy synth chords chiming in. Phonte takes on the lead rapper, M.C role so common to Funk through the work of a James Brown, and especially Dr. Funkenstein George Clinton, emulated in many other funk records. This was a style funk had in common with the early hip hop, as Phonte brings us “Tales from the land of Milk and Honey”.
The song begins in classic funk style, with the chorus on top, a unified choir of male and female voices, sing, “When you think you’re gonna stop/shake your thing/and work it to the top!” To which is added the hearty male exclamation of “Huh!” Found on records such as War’s “All Day Music”, and many a Brass Construction jam. A high pitched synth note holds a drone like figure up top as synth parts sneak around the vocals and comment on the grooves open spaces.
Phonte begins to sing in a nasally, high pitched soul whine that’s an obvious homage to Steve Arrington, drummer and lead vocalist for the group Slave. The lyrical text recalls “Watching You” as well, as Phonte croons, “Pretty girl/looking fine/walking down the street.” A Fender Rhodes part begins to play lush tones that help distinguish the verse from the chorus as Phonte kills it with the Arrington influenced idiosyncrasies. Female voices answer him, and he promises to “take her to the top.”
The Foreign Exchange continues to bring the Funk with this song, capturing so many elements of early ’80s funk as embodied by groups such as Slave, Skyy, Fatback, Cameo, Lakeside, Con Funk Shun and many others. They mix up a phat synth bass, single note synth leads in place of guitars, group chorus singing, the mixture of male and female voices, steady drums, and girl watching lyrics to create the ultimate age convertible, top down, city so bright I gotta wear shades Backstrokin’ joint. Score up another win for the soul brothers from different mothers!