In an earlier series of articles I wrote here,I discussed my own musical biography as a metaphorical toy box of sounds that affected me in different ways throughout life. Here I wanted to single out one very important aspect of this journey that,in fact,is at the very core of why I started The Rhythmic Nucleus in the first place. Now I always liked listening to pop music. Throughout my childhood I found a lot of it very meaningful in growing up even. Everything from the post WWII popular music my grandparents played on their radio while travelling in the car with them to the dance music and rock n roll songs I’d hear on the radio. One night though something hit me. It was that night coming home from the city of Portland Maine with my parents listening to that Best Of The Funk Essentials cassette. It was funk. Funk was the base term for the music that got my attention. And it wasn’t because I found it a fun retro novelty music as most people did.
It was a music played with so much more instrumental intricacy than a lot of what I was hearing. It created so many sounds I’d never heard before. It made me want to explore and learn in general. But at that time,I wanted to learn and explore into more about this music. So with no internet for help,I rented books. Asked my parents questions. They pulled records out of their vinyl collection and learned funk had been a part of my life even as a baby. I just didn’t realize it. I’d see pictures in books of bands like Earth Wind & Fire and Kool & The Gang dressed like glittering soothsayers-delivering a musical message that didn’t require prayer,a temple or scriptures. All it asked is to listen to the message and translate it to your life. And to enjoy the music that flowed from it. In terms of the records I went to,it was almost purely random. And that is what I am presenting now-the records that officially introduced me to funk and the stories of how,by and large,I didn’t choose them-they chose me.
This was probably the album that started it all for me. I first heard it at the families summer camp on one of those 4-in-one record/cassette/8 track player and AM/FM stereo devices. This album was on 8 track. It was a favorite of my moms. She was and is a hard worker. But she delighted in playing,singing and even dancing to these songs with me. There was something about this music that was beyond mere sentimental satisfaction however. It was largely the work of singer/songwriter Johnnie Wilder and producer/musician Rod Temperton. Both of these men were brilliant at presenting epic instrumental and melodic/harmonic dynamics that were both awe inspiring and down in a back to basics groove. Perfect examples are songs such as “Put The Word Out”,”Send Out For Sunshine”,The Groove Line” and “Star Of A Story” . The echoed keyboards,multi tracked vocal harmonies and rhythmically synced sound effects on these songs have never ceased to excite me. Never heard music quite like it since,and it was the beginning of my than unknown journey to discovering the ultimate groove.
On one trip to Portland I visited a store called Enterprise Records run by a man who called himself Friendly Bob. Well that couldn’t have been more of a misnomer but he had an excellent collection of vinyl. In fact,that’s all he chose to sell. I was deeply involved in a Jacksons phase at this time. I had heard about this album,the final Jackson 5 album-recorded during the time the brothers were in the process of leaving Motown. I expected a fair to middling quality album. I was blown away by these extremely percussive,cinematic psychedelic funk numbers clearly influenced by Ike Hayes and Funkadelic such as “Call Of The Wild”,”Honey Love”,”You Were Made Especially For Me”,”Body Language” and the attention getting closer “Time Explosion”. The Jackson 5 were one of Motown’s greatest singles acts of the 1970’s. Even though this was at the end of the line for them,it was so happy to hear at least their first real sojourn into the album oriented medium was such a heavily funky one.
I found this album digging through the dusty vinyl bins at an antique store in the town of Hamden. I knew who the Spinners were from hearing “One Of A Kind Love Affair” and “I’ll Be Around” played endlessly on oldies radio. But something about think very P-Funk friendly cover told me I’d be in for something different. Knowing them primarily as a band who were in the late 70’s recording oldies based disco medleys this 1979 album contained three songs I simple could not stop playing. One was “One Man Wonderful Band”,a clavinet fueled tribute to Stevie Wonder as well as “If You Wanna Do A Dance All Night”,from the sound of things where the P-Funk influence came in. Than their was the closer “Once You Fall In Love”,a wonderfully electrified funk/soul number amped up similarly to a Rod Temperton production for Heatwave. A very surprising revelation from this sweet Philly soulsters.
Earth Wind & Fire had an entire career even on Columbia before they made their great pop hits like “Shining Star” and “Reasons”. This is where that story begins. Found it on a cassette at a store called Strawberries. Didn’t know a single song on it. I played that tape so much it almost snapped in two. The music sounded like the EWF I was familiar with,but they flew at me with John Coltrane like jazz on “Spasmodic Movements” and psychedelic Brazilian fusion on “Drum Song” and “Caribou”. And no three songs epitomized the emotionally healthy qualities I found in funk music more than “Devotion”,”Fair But So Uncool” and “Feelin’ Blue”. This music creates a personally moving ,touching groove. It laid the groundwork for the type of funk,instrumentally and lyrically,that changed my life for the better.
The summer of 1996 was a very strange one for me. Deep into my advanced funk education,it turned out the one friend I had during this time had schizophrenia. I was going on 16 and barely understand what that meant. When I listened to this album,filled with the unique and futurist funk textures Stevie Wonder created from his love of synthesizers. I listened to songs like “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”,”Looking For Another Pure Love” and “Maybe Your Baby”. Stevie sang about hope coming out from the sadness bought on by the end of a relationship-in his case a marriage,in mine a deeply profound friendship. With the way Stevie conveyed his full expressions of lyrical emotion with music of equal power,didn’t take much for me to translate this music into my own life.
This was the first Sly & The Family Stone album I ever bought. From the time I heard it until now,it’s one of the greatest musical works I’ve heard him do. Part of that is because my feelings on it have stayed the same. It’s bare bones,it’s eerie. In a lot of ways,with it’s organ percussion and minimal high bass lines it’s rather like the funk era version of Peter And The Wolf to me. It paints tales of uncertainty and fear-even to the point of coming unhinged. Yet somehow the songs always begin and end in a state of joy. From “In Time” to “Babies Makin’ Babies”,this is musically the start of the road that probably ended with Erykah Badu somewhere. Still to me,I think this album is more about Sly Stone himself than his outward turned message of the late 60’s. So it feeds the feet in as strange a way as it does the ego.
One day I went to Borders Books & Music with my grandparents after lunch and decided to pick up my first Funkadelic album. Now as a Parliament listener by this time I had heard this side of P-Funk might come as a musical shock. They way Funkadelic were described to me in books and magazines,I was expecting this to sound like very loud grunge rock with a lot of screaming guitars. So this was the first CD I put on with a little fear. What I heard was “Nappy Dugout”. I was amazed. It was much more stripped down than Parliament,it was mostly instrumental and zeroed right in on this hummable bass line which,in retrospect is similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”. Although this is an excellent album,nothing on it quite had the impact on me that the first song did. And yes there are some acid rock guitars on this from Eddie Hazel. But they are so pretty and clean it actually helped me to appreciate the acid rock sound. In fact,it reminded me of all I’d heard of Jimi Hendrix at this point on “Up From The Skies. So this was a huge learning curve in funk for me,and a very important one too.
I was deep into reading Ricky Vincent’s Funk during the time I ordered this through the old BMG record club. Ricky’s descriptions of Rufus & Chaka’s instrumental and vocal contribution to funk sold me on this and the previous two records. But from the striking cover art on,this album is another one of those recordings that put into lyrical poetry my own outlook on the world at that time. From “Fools Paradise” to Chaka singing “my love is like a zero/is it nothing or everything” I am hearing musings on everything life philosophy or the value of pi as a metaphor for romance. All sung by this flamboyant,scaling singer and this band who were fusing jazz,soul,funk and rock in a very different way on songs like “Have A Good Time” and “Dance With Me”. From this point on I was a bonnified “Chakaholic”.
Knowing my interest in Earth Wind & Fire my father pulled this album out of his vinyl collection to play for me on his turntable. Of course EWF founder Maurice White had been the drummer for the late 60’s lineup of the Ramsey Lewis trio. All I knew is the classic EWF sound,as produced by Charles Stepney who also produced this 1975 album,is all over this. Though in a much jazzier way. Through uptempo material such as “What’s The Name Of The Funk (Spider Man)”,”Fish Bite” and of course the slow and deep title song,I got acquianted with the jazz-funk sound on this album. Much later I got deep into the music of the Crusaders from albums like this. But that’s a whole other story.
One day at Strawberries I encountered a young man named Jeb who worked there. He also loved funk,especially Heatwave and P-Funk. He recommended this album to me as an example of a newer band doing something based off of that. Interestingly enough,I wasn’t and still am not completely wowed from this albums major hit “Virtual Insanity”. It was hearing the Rod Temperton-like productions of “Cosmic Girl”,”Alright”,”High Times”,”You Are My Love” the and percussive explosion of “Use The Force” that drew me in,although it was my mother-not me who was so taken by this and purchased it. I recently got my own CD copy. Reason being is because this album showed me uncut funk,free from having to blend with trendy hip-hop or alternative rock styles,could exist in the modern age and in fact thrive. This lesson would be very significant to me in years to come.
One day before going roller skating I picked this up at Borders. The front cover art was irresistible. My only familiarity with Parliament came from their Tear The Roof Off compilation,which presented them as a singles act. Even by this time,I was aware a lot of P-Funk fans didn’t regard this album highly. Still today however,I rate this right up there with their better known Mothership Connection. The reason is that it’s consistently funky with no very slow ballads. Not only that,keyboardist Bernie Worrell gets a heavy chance to shine on this album with songs like “Let’s Play House” and “Agony Of Defeet”. Between that and the cinematic “Long Way Around” and “Peel-A -Groove”,this more electronic Parliament-defined heavier by that “video game” style synthesizer defined their 80’s sound. Plus this era of Parliament is a favorite for sampling by Digital Underground as well. And to think this is the only original Parliament currently out of print. It sure increased my already high opinion of George Clinton and P-Funk’s musical virtues.
The reason this particular Prince album caught my attention is because I got it on vinyl from a local used record store called Dr. Records. It was on CD but I wanted that vinyl copy because it included that poster of Prince in the shower in black bikini briefs. That image typified Prince during this period,even though at the time I got this he was known as “The Artist”. Interestingly this 1981 release basically is the Minneapolis sound as far as I’m concerned. Prince plays most of the instruments,produces it very cleanly and it includes some wonderfully stripped down funk in the elongated title track,heavily evoking the Lords Prayer rather in vein which was refreshing. And there’s also “Let’s Work”,where you really see the classic sound of The Time in Prince’s music. And by mixing funk and new wave so perfectly on “Sexuality” and “Private Joy”? This album told me along with his debut For You somewhat more about what the core of Prince’s original creative psyche was all about more than his more popular works did.
I realize there are some who would never call this a funk album. But when I found this as an import at Tower Records in Manhattan,I picked it up sight unseen. I listened to it on the portable CD player I had in NYC with me that week over and over again. And than when I got back. I just couldn’t stop humming these songs while taking walks or in the shower. This funk was from Ashford & Simpson on “Clouds”,”Get Ready Get Set”,”Too Much Love” and a magical cover of “Move Me No Mountain”. It’s full of glittery dyno electric piano sounds,very much like a Steely Dan production-only it still has that Rufus & Chaka touch to it. It was a cleaner funk than the music,clean on it’s own away,tended to me. Sophistifunk I call it. Some might call it “standard soul”,or even a disco-dance record. Still it introduced me to a heavily soulful, elegantly produced style of the music.
This is not the first War album I ever had. But it really completed my introductory journey into funk for one crucial reason. I was aware by this time that this album was considered the lowest ebb for War during the disco era which,much to my surprise,I learned was viewed with much vitriol. When I took a listen to these heavy bass funk numbers such as “Don’t Take It Away” to the higher tempo “Good Good Feelin”,it was still every bit War-the percussion,Lee Oskar’s harmonica solos,Lonnie Jordan’s passionate vocals and the bands wonderful back round harmonies. And “Corns And Callouses”? Well the uncut funk is still here,even if reading about it didn’t tell me so. Proved I just had to keep my ears and mind open to it at all times.
The albums I just spoke about entered my life during the second half of the 1990’s-roughly 1994 through 1998. During this period,as illustrated in my previous article to this,popular music was judged by most of the younger generation-my generation at the time,for how loud and confrontational it could be. As The New Radicals illustrated in their song “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint For You”,it was usually the story of a someone listening to an obscure band but ridiculing anyone else who listened to them. Because it was never instrumentally presented with such nihilism,expanding on my interests in funk never presented me with those sorts of contradictions. It helped me understand different ways instruments could be played aside from an egotist guitar hero trying to make as much noise as possible. In that way it helped me to view rock n roll from a broader perspective as well. By embracing ideas from rock,jazz,blues and soul music funk also helped me to see how genres were all really strands of musical DNA in one functional,living being of sound. That it was all a link in a chain. And what better lesson could a music teach one? I recommend anyone who reads this who hasn’t discovered this music thoroughly yet to go make your own exploration of it. It may just change your life for the better as it did mine.