Wednesday, 9 November 2011

When it became embarrassing to talk of Funk

I am a heavy admirer of the super heavyweight sounds of the US funk scene – but somewhere over the years it became a cliché. A north London DJ route that’s all open sandwiches and jazz bars. I blame ACID JAZZ – I shouldn’t I know - but the whole music got wrapped in a soul boy styling when we should have just been sharing the tunes not trying to dig so deep in the crates that every record played was a one-off – a unique slice of soul that no one had heard but made you hip because it was rare – man – really rare.

I‘ll tell you what’s rare – Polar bears they’re rare.

Anyway, I once was a deejay – for a night sometimes – not as a career choice – dropping 45s of funk as we warmed up a room ready to go wild for the drum and bass – right in tha face at the end of an evening. And those nights were fuelled with our chemical beats for all those speed freak – northern soul stompers making way for the hardcore partiers in tha house. I loved finding a funk 45 that had been sampled and dropping those tunes – the essence of the hip hop scene – distilled in a bass line and a drum break that would make you stop in your tracks [which of course is ironic given we were playing tunes to make you dance]

And clearly I spent many years safe in the notion that I had the funk. But somewhere amidst the James Brown hollers and the loose booty of the family stone a barrier was built. So I’m trying to figure this out. You see I was trying to make a compilation the other day/ night and I’m the selector – so it’s about my choices – I control the flow – ya’ know – but I take a walk in the park and right by the Johnny Pate selection, WAR don’t get a look in, I’ve got reasons for not selecting Mary Jane Hooper and I’m [Humpty] dumping the Vibrettes.

Why is this?

It’s not that I don’t like the songs – it’s as if something has crept in beside it and sullied it and part of me feels it was the sudden rush to funk up the 90s and the noughties that killed it for me. Throughout those youthful years – before wrinkles and weight would make me weary – I would happen across a gem – a diamond – a belter of a tune. In a car boot cardboard box [Slaughter’s Big Rip Off soundtrack by James Brown for 50p], or stall in Greenwich [Richard and I carving out the cash to purchase Me and Baby Brother by WAR for four pound] or in a handful of scuffed and scratched records in SCOPE on the high street [Memphis Soul Stew on an Atlantic 4 track ep] or PDSA near Sainsbury’s in Beeston [that’s Nottingham folks - where I would purchase funk delight after funk delight as animal lovers offloaded vinyl by the cartload]

Mixed in with these finds would be the scraps of information picked up in reviews, interviews, or conversations with older folks, hip hop headz and soul boys. Scouring the sample clearance information on Three Feet High and Rising to see where that Potholes beat came from – which of course is the mighty Eric Burdon & War’s Magic Mountain – listen for yourself at – it’s easier now to find this and that.

No one was taping their records for the internet generation. Not that I’m against it – it’s wonderful to tap right in – drill on down to the sounds that inspire the underground that go overground for us all.

But the funk scraps we were fed were tantalising. I remember a wonderful friend of mine’s brother – Carl he was called, a true funk and soul aficionado – crafting columns for Blues and Soul, starting up his own magazine and building up a collection that rivalled any North London wannabe – this was real NORTHERN soul – brother. And he gave me a box of records – stuff he wasn’t hip to – for a small fee – early Mo’Wax, compilations, Acid Jazz, Grant Green and Mick Talbot’s solo album. But there on side two of a nondescript funk album was Jimmy James’ Root Down – soon to be sampled by The Beastie Boys – this huge ever pulsating tune from the centre of the Funkiverse – building from bass through drum roll and organ swipes – setting the funk up for the day ahead. I lived with these tunes – the market find of Black Ceasar in the Loire Valley while we camped – the Quest sample album picked up in Selectadisc on the way home from work – or the random 7inch from The Five Stairsteps [ok – I know it’s soul – but it’s a little funky – their bassist used to hang with the family stone – you’re bound to let that rub off on the fretboard] thrust into my hand by the owner of a lovely yet incredible messy store on Lee High Road [that’s Lewisham folks]

Mixed with that came tales of legendary films with Dolemite and Coffey Brown – or watching The Mack on video through a find from Chris – Carl’s brother and all round wonderful bloke – lost touch with him but fondly remembered in these parts - discovered in a discounted bin in a shop in Ridings [that’s Scunthorpe folks].

So what changed?

As I said I think the ubiquitous use by advertisers to sell us the carnal and exotic became demeaning – divorced the fury from the funk and rendered it solid – commodified through hot pants, knee socks and bubble blowing girls – forgetting the struggles that funk had endured. Rendered in vibrant colours to represent that 70s swing – they were burning records back then – they were burning lots of things back then – including the cross. And now it’s a photoshopped urban image with a day-glo vibe shifting tunes that spoke volumes about circumstance and opportunity. Check the Chi-Lites For God's Sake Give More Power To The People for want of anthem about being oppressed and depressed. But those off the peg fancy dress – let’s ridicule a style – appropriate the hate and laugh at the threads of sub cultures fighting for a corner kind of made me wary of the whole thang. Whilst Tarantino told us how hip he was in his blatant ripping off of film making by directors who were never given a chance with mainstream audiences.

Somewhere in all of that – I stopped listening and starting skipping the tunes.

It is not funk’s fault that it got sold out. I should stop being embarrassed and remember to listen more because when the bass and guitar and breaks connect – it makes me want to dance. And I have always loved dancing – you can’t do that to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports – you can do it to The Meters.