It seems curious to me that this is titled from a quotation of a book I have not read,and that I only heard about half a day ago. The book ‘Nowhere To Run-The Story Of Soul Music’ by author Gerri Hirshey contains a reference to James Brown regarding what he called “nuclear soul”. No more fitting a term can be found for what I am going to be discussing here. I’ll begin on the personal end of the story. Growing up I had a great passion and a great fear. That great passion was for what I later learned was funk music. And that great fear was of atomic weapons and nuclear warfare. During adolescence I heard George Clinton,possibly the greatest theorist of the music,refer to funk as “the bomb”. As with many things it was this and a continual process of musical evolution and self-education on my part did I recently come to a megaton sized revelation: that funk music and the atomic age are actually very deeply in tandem.
For example when a nuclear weapon explodes,the very heart of the atom itself (known as the nucleus) is split and unleashes a level of energy that remains almost incomprehensible to human kind to this day. In fact if one is too close to this release from an atomic chain reaction,a human being will be instantly vaporized. Yet from a distance,the entire biochemistry of any matter living or dead is mutated or altered in some fashion. When funk music is played the very core of the core of the rhythm section,the drums and bass,are bought upfront-bring forward a much thicker and heavier end of the music normally in the back round. If one is too close to this music,they have a chance of being seriously overwhelmed to the point of being alienated from it. Yet from the distance,say in the balcony of one of James Brown’s classic matinee shows at “the Apollo theater ,as it were,one might find this method of utilizing rhythm is mutating their bodies as they dance in ways they never thought any human being could before.
There are different types of nuclear bombs too. You have atomic bombs,which can cause heavy damage to a city. There are hydrogen bombs,which can vaporize entire cities. And there are neutron bombs,whose principle destructive force comes from expelling radiation. Funk music functions in a similar manner. The funk of Earth,Wind And Fire and Stevie Wonder often has the effect of deeply inspiring listeners on a personal level. That music as delivered by George Clinton’s P-Funk ,James Brown,Sly Stone and Larry Graham have such a strong impact they can often alter your entire personality. And in the case of other artists such as Prince and Michael Jackson can change your moves and your mind over time without you even realizing it. In the case of both funk and atomic energy,it’s tempting for a lot of people to think of them both as fairly recent as well. But in fact both embody something that has been there since the dawn of time itself.
A single atom of any type of matter is made up of different combinations of electrons surrounded by a single nucleus. Human beings depend everyday on chemical energy from the electrons of an atom. On the other hand,nuclear energy is far more complex and very dangerous to deal with if one isn’t properly experienced. At the same time,our planet is dependent on the controlled atomic energy of our sun to sustain itself. Funk is like the sun too. In fact many songs of the genre make that reference from Ramsey Lewis’s “Sun Goddess” to Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”. In much the same way most people are familiar and have fallen in love with jazz,soul,hip-hop and the blues for different reasons. Each of these music’s germinated at different times in history,and often have very different audience. All the same,like the electrons of an atom, they have a “central nucleus”,that that is the quality of funk-of bringing rhythm out front.
In any case of funk and atomic power,both release an enormous amount of energy and rhythm-in both cases through a shock wave. A shock wave either of a power magnetic force or an aural one of sound. Culturally this tandem between funk and atomic power of which I speak is felt in society in many ways,both implicit and explicit. The term “bomb” has been used from P-Funk on,most notably in the politically motivated hip-hop collective Public Enemy who utilize a group of sound sampling producers known as The Bomb Squad. More literally George Clinton himself made a song called “Atomic Dog”,while my chief inspiration for this blog was singer/poet Gil Scott Heron’s 1980 nuclear power protest funk groove of “Shut ‘Em Down’. So whether it be a clerk in a Swiss patent office in 1905 scribbling “E=MC2” in a notebook,or a Georgian bandleader one day proclaiming to his drummer and bass player “jam it on the one”,it’s not difficult if one really looks around them to see the nuclear soul in these two different places.