Saturday, December 29, 2012

RVs favorite funky releases for 2012:

Another year, another plunge into the inspired world of funk music. This year has been both invigorating and frustrating because so much great funky music is being released, but the lack of recognition of the music outside of our funk networks is galling. Nowadays the funk is both everywhere and nowhere, as you cannot find any great funk release on the R&B or hip hop charts, but through our doo doo loops we often hear of killer music before it is even released. So if you want to find The Funk, here's some good starting points:

Ronkat Spearman’s Katdelic: D.O.T.M.S. P-Funk guitarist sideman Ronkat Spearman left George Clinton’s touring group a few years back to concentrate on his own band and his own production and it has taken off in blazing fashion. Katdelic is a great experience live, but one of Ronkat’s greatest talents is songwriting, and he has put together a deep, diverse, thunderous, tender, sentimental and stylish celebration of the magnificence of The Funk. Utter funk slabs like “Oh Hi” and “Mackin’ with No Hands” are complimented by ever so groovy trips as “Drive Away,” “Change Generation” and the haunting tribute to Garry Shider: “Peace to You.” This disc is silly, serious, soaring, subtle and superior in every way. Bustin’ “Bob” Mitchell at The Funk wrote a spectacular review of the CD that I could not have said better myself. Check this review here, or better yet, check the CD and you’ll see it is THE ONE for this year, and you will be Dancing on the Mothership.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station: Raise Up! FINALLY! Larry Graham is back with The Thunder and he’s here to let every body know what The Funk is all about. Graham has been in collaboration with Prince for a number of years, and it hasn’t always produced music that brings out the best of each artist. Raise Up! is the most Larry Graham-ish record in years! By far the best production quality of any record on this list, the record has that ole school Bay Area feel of atmospheric soul, and incredible bass tone that the REAL GCS was all about. Some of the surprise of this is taken away by Larry’s remakes of original GCS tunes like “It’s Alright” and “Ain’t No Fun to Me.” I’m not entirely sold on those, but the redo of “Now Do You Wanta Dance” is in another place altogether, and reconfigures the notion of 2000s funk in about 30 seconds of hump.

Ida Nielsen: Sometimes a Girl Needs Some Sugar Too Formerly known as Bass-Ida, Prince’s astoundlingly funky bass player Ida Nielsen delivers a brilliant stomp fest here, with some vicious chops and an excellent range of moods to compliment her butt ripping bass slams. Listening to this set gives a clue as to why Prince has been getting so deep into the super strong funk sound nowadays. The hard funk tracks like “Feed Me” and “Rubber Toy in my Bathtub” and the title track are just the front lines to a nonstop slice of multiple mood funky heat from an underrated master of the craft.

GoGo Get Down Compiled By Joey Negro: Pure Ghetto Funk from Washington D.C. This one brings it! The days of the wacky and badly mixed Go Go comps are finally over! 24 of the wildest, looniest, meanest and ghettoest 80s Go Go tracks ever put to disc shine here in this one of a kind celebration of the crank!! There are some tracks and some artists here that are fairly well known, but the true magic of this mix is the consistently grooving genius of Go Go street funk from the depths of the scene, captured and apparently remastered for a consistent mash of magnificent, endless funk joy! This came out just weeks before we lost Chuck Brown, and his legacy as the Godfater of Go Go shines brighter than ever here.

New Trinity Revolution: 9 and Zootzilla: To Lie With Wolves These two discs are from P-funk styled Bay Area producer Phil “PTFI” Jones. PTFI keeps the groove slow, lean, tight, dirty and clean all at once. Both of these CD’s are in such a pocket that they should be listed together. Zootzilla is the lunatic George Clinton clone with the voice of a wild wolf in heat, and he growls and clowns over PTFI’s stomping bottom on each loony track. The bass goes off on “Long Gone Fishin” and Zoot just be clowinin’ on “Lord of the Wolves”. This is a nut case of crazy contemporary funky conduits, like “Parasite Dooky Drop” with George Clinton. The New Trinity Revolution is a slightly smoother PTFI project, with cleaner, meaner message music and stoopid thomps. PTFI is Phil the Funky Instrumentalist, and you get the real deal on songs like “Electrohipnoticbumpmusic” and “Funkin’ out of Time”. As serious as the groove gets, guests like George Clinton and Trey Lewd keep the nonsense factor higher than high, while guest Lil T, daughter of Dr. Illenstein, makes her case to keep Obama in the White House on “Letter to the President.”

Monophonics: In Your Brain These bay area funk-rockers put a dirty 60’s rock feel into The Funk for 2012 and don’t miss anything. It is a throwback and blast forward all at once. This is that meeting of 60’s psychedelia and bottom heavy thump that we’ve been waiting for since 1972. Lead singer Kelly Finnigan has the look and sound of someone that played Woodstock and survived, and then did gigs at the Keystone Corner in Berkeley in 1971 fronting this band before time warping it to 2012.

D’Angelo: Live in Oslo For years there has been a buzz about the new D’Angelo studio album, but no dice, no news, only cryptic teases. Then we started to hear stories of D’angelo’s magnificent live tour of Europe early in 2012. He had some great funk players with him, like Kendra Foster on vocals, Amp Fiddler on keys and Jesse Johnson on guitar. We kept seeing the great wobbly youtube posts of his tour, and were left to wonder how and when he would bring That Funk to the States. Then he returned and performed at a B.E.T. awards show, (a fantastic set) and toured – opening for Mary J Blige in a setting that wasted his growing funk legend. Meanwhile still no word about the new album. But lo and behold, his 2012 European tour was captured on a spectacular 2-disc set released in Europe. Everything you loved about D’Angelo is captured in full, thrilling effect on this disc. Why it was not released to great fanfare in the U.S. is a complete mystery because it is KILLER.

Danny Bedrosian’s Secret Army: Lost Froth P-Funk keyboardist Danny Bedrosian’s Lost Froth is once again a brilliant mash a mug of his keyboard genius and soulful, jazzy song styling. Danny’s music takes you crazy places that sometimes you want to desperately stay in, and sometimes you want to get out of right away. Maybe anticipating this, Lost Froth features a crazy mix of some songs that are too short and some that are hella long. But once you take the plunge in the lunatic tripology, you’ll never want to climb out.

Lettuce: Fly This Brooklyn based instrumental group once again packaged a lean and mean funky groove session that takes no prisoners and plays every song like it is their most important selection. Nonstop funk-jazz like it used to be done. Their cover of “Slippin into Darkness” is only the beginning of a deep tribute to the groove, including the killer “Let it Gogo”

Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music Society The delightful bass playing prodigy (and dreamy vocalist) made her move toward R&B with her 4th album of exquisitely soulful jazz driven mellow groove music. She won the ‘best new artist’ Grammy Award in 2011 over the media favorite Justin Bieber, and her career has far more substance to it, regardless of her hit list. This album features some brilliant inspiring soul in the vein of Minnie Riperton, with tracks like “Black Gold” and “Cinnamon Tree” she clearly has a vision that needs to be heard. It is sad to me that she has so few contemporaries in the world of conscious, cool, positive black jazzy, soulful groove music.

On the hip hop front, Boots Riley's latest, "Sorry to Bother You" from The Coup is as wild as ever and pushes the boundaries of hip hop forward into headslamming conscious rage music, and the latest Public Enemy is doing an honorable job of reclaiming the roots of conscious rap, but the strate up funk connection is harder and harder to find in hip hop today. Maybe that's as it should be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Return of The Soul Brother

I caught D’Angelo on the BET Awards the other night. (July 1). His set included a classic ballad of his, and a bouncing, funky groove from his new upcoming album. He played some mean piano, and cooked up the funk at the end with a jam that started to truly smoke, and just pushed aside the shallow pop dribblers in the audience. D’Angelo deliberately gave us multiple sides of this soul/funk master in effect. It was so so refreshing.

It is so important for a “Soul Singer” to re-emerge with the values of Soul, because the idea has been getting a bad wrap lately. When Barack Obama “Slow jammed the news” with Jimmy Fallon in April, it let us all know that, while Obama has his ‘race’ card fully intact, it also made a statement that the slow jam from a strong man is now an artifact, an item to be manipulated like a trinket at tourist trap gift shop.

Black popular music has been in bad shape for a number of years. It is not simply that people are not talented, well ok, a case can be made that the talent level of black popular artists of recent vintage has been lacking, but a larger issue has developed, one in which black male performers are caught in a creative vise grip, due to forces from within and without.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to come across such young female firebrands as Ledisi, Goapele, and Jill Scott. The rise of mature black women such as Sharon Jones & her Dap Kings is heartwarming. Esperanza Spalding is a delight and a genius, and her incredible album “Radio Music Society” is a ray of hope for black popular music.

But I’ve been asking myself for years now, where are the brothers? Can a brotha sing with the raw power of Ledisi or the hypnotic allure of Esperanza Spalding or exotic passion of Goapele? For what its worth, the great female pop stars enjoy a range of styles and sounds in their works. Even Beyonce can do ballads as well as dancefloor burners.

The brothers? Well there have been some great lovermen, bedroom crooners like Eric Benet and the legendary Luther Vandross. But their range remains in the bedroom, as if they are capable of imagining nothing else. This is a problem.

To their credit, a wave of new black male vocalists is on the scene, trying to break out of the loverman image, and present themselves as thoughtful, original, entertainers. I’m not talking about the Bruno Mars clown show or the Chris Brown fiasco, but provocative and original black male singers like Bilal, Martin Luther, Van Hunt, Reggie Watts, Amp Fiddler, Dwele, and a long list of others.

Most of these self styled soul brothas do a fine job of working around a musical idea, of working around a groove, and working their emotions to make excellent songs of personal love and a greater social love.

But without attempting any disrespect, to my ear, most of their songs sound like Prince or Marvin Gaye b-sides. Not that this is a bad thing necessarily, but everyone is trying to be the next b-side balladeer. Where is the next Rick James? So much great soul music works around a soft side, but nobody wants to stand up and throw down!

As much as these fine neo-soul singers emulate the b-side material of Prince and Marvin Gaye and the ballads of Michael Jackson, it is as if they have forgotten that Prince and MJ would rip the dancefloor to pieces with their hot funky party jams. As much as Prince could create an intimate bedroom mood and writhe on the floor in intense passion, he is still just as capable of bringing that passion to the Funk, to the party music.

Dwele in the club? Bilal stomping the stage? Van Hunt doing some club moves? He tried on his second album, but just didn’t put it together. It is like they are all doing the ‘safe’ black male singing thing. The hard stuff, well, let’s face it, that’s the domain of the rappers.

As I see it, we all have abdicated a critical perspective on our young male artists, and simply allowed them to diverge into one of two characters: the hypermasculine hip hop male pimp-daddy clown, or the hyper-sexualized R&B man-servant. Where is the middle ground? In this formula, folks like R. Kelly show their ‘hardness’ by their ability to abuse and humiliate women, not in their abilities to rouse their passions in a dance.

My issue is this: to be a black male soul singer today, these artists are compelled to leave their masculinity at the door. One can be a lover, but not a fighter too.

You want to emulate some great black soul singing? Try the Isley Brothers’ “The Pride” or “Who’s That Lady” or “Fight the Power.” We all love Ronnie Isley, but he did far more than great love ballads. Everyone remembers the O’Jays ballads like “Cry Together” and “”Let Me Make Love to You” – because they get played on ‘quiet storm’ radio formats regularly - but they also scorched the dancefloor with the number one pop tune “I Love Music” and the legendary “For the Love of Money” was a funk classic. And while we regularly hear legendary Lionel Richie ballads like “Just to Be Close to You” and “Three Times A Lady,” people forget that he was singing in the Commodores at the time, and those same albums had bigger hits with dancefloor punishers “Fancy Dancer,” “Slippery When Wet” and “Brick House.”

But here’s my deal: almost all of these newbies are masters of the whispering/singing/whining bedroom tones that are the “standard” of black music nowadays. Van Hunt blew up in 2004 with an amazing debut album and the single “Seconds of Pleasure” and he’s been trying to figure out how to get past that image ever since.

The emasculation of the black male soul singer is a direct reflection of the fossilization of the black male image in the public imagination – as a rapper, as a thug, as a hip hop gangster – in a hoodie. Nothing confirms this pathetic state of the black male image more starkly thatn the wanton attack on black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was walking from a convenience store “in a hoodie” and therefore “looking suspicious.” The resultant harrasment, confrontation and murder of the Trayvon Martin is a direct result of the public image of the young black male as one of impossibly narrow characteristics: violent, criminal thug. Despite the fact that the Commander in Chief is an African Amerian who claims his son would ‘look like Trayvon” the fact remains that someone or some thing or some entity in our nation has fixated upon the black male and fixed in the national imagination a black man with narrow ideas, narrow values, and a presence to be feared.

This onslaught, while centuries in the making, can be disrupted, because it was disrupted in the past. For this to take place, black male entertainers can and must expand beyond their accepted ‘loverman’ stereotypes, and try to become spokespersons for a greater kind of love. John Legend made an admirable attempt in 2008 when he performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama’s nomination. He was joined by fellow stereotype distruptor Will.I.Am.

Unfortunately, black music after Obama’s election, like the movement that supported it, faded back to the standard status quo of pop nonsense, masculine blather and loverman overload.

Black artists and entertainers have a bound social contract with their community that they fail to adhere to when they narrow their voice to a simple stereotypical sound. This was and is the triumph of D’Angelo, to break through and destroy these stereotypes and present to the world a soulful black man.

This is why it is so important for artists like Martin Luther to expand beyond their love songs and become the psychedelic badass “Martian” Luther, with hard driving – indisputably masculine music – that showcases a range of black male musicality and masculinity, of vision and attraction, in complex ways.

This is why the return of D’Angelo is so important to the popular music scene, and to Black America overall. A creative tour de force, and a vibrant, masculine vigorous black man with ideas, vision and visceral magnetism has not been seen in the public domain in years. With the death of Barry White, of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, the passing of Teddy Pendergrass, the murder of Marvin Gaye, the suicide of Donny Hathaway, the deaths of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Phillipe Wynne of the Spinners, Joe Tex, Eddie LaVert and so many others, the broad minded black male has become a forgotten commodity in the American commercial culture.

D’Angelo represents so much more. He is a card carrying funkateer, with a repertoire of ballads and hard driving funk and thoughtful, spiritual soul that makes all the connections. The connections that the Original Soul Prophets – Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Sly, Aretha et al, were capable of doing on a regular basis.

D’angelo frames his work on his own, referencing Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Isley Brothers and George Clinton, as well as Prince and Marvin Gaye. His presence is as masculine as any of the rappers, yet his emotionality is a deep as any of the crooners. These were the traits of the original soul masters, capable of exuding masculinity and embracing their feminine side in a fearless expression of love of the human condition. This is where the black male soul singers need to go, so we can return to a sense of unity within our music and ourselves.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Notes from the Jimmy Castor Memorial

On Sunday March 4th I went to the Memorial for Jimmy Castor. Jimmy Castor was “The Everything Man” and one of my Super Funky heroes. In 2010 I was able to get to know Jimmy Castor and his son Jimmy Jr. and had the privilege of helping to facilitate Jimmy’s performance at the Long Beach Funk Fest, which would turn out to be his last live performance.

The Brooklyn native, Jimmy Castor grew up with members of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Jimmy wound up singing doo wop professionally while still in Junior High School. Some of his compositions, like “I Promise to Remember” are as fresh today as they were in the 1950s. For reasons that still mystify and amaze me, Jimmy Castor immersed himself in Latin Soul in the 1960, and generated some musical buzz with his 1966 hit “Hey Leroy Your Mama’s Calling You.” Jimmy was equally at home singing doo wop, playing blistering timbales solos and clave on the cowbell, or playing soul jazz on the saxophone.

But he’s best known for his outrageous cavemen characters and novelty funk hits in the 1970s, some which are hip hop break beat classics. Stompers like “Troglodyte,” “King Kong,” “Dracula,” “Space Age” and “The Bertha Butt Boogie” were standards of the funk fans of my generation. How one artist could attain a mastery of such a wide palate of music was one reason why Jimmy Castor is the brilliant genius legend that he is, and one reason why he’s often passed over when the greats are mentioned.

Jimmy Castor moved to Las Vegas over ten years ago, and found a niche playing his old school sounds with a band that was versatile enough to keep up with his un-matchable creative range. At The Bootlegger bistro, south of the Las Vegas strip, a stirring range of stars came out to pay tribute to the E-Man, Jimmy Castor. The legendary doo wop singer, latin soul maestro, and thumpasorus funkmaster was given a proper tribute that only few could have pulled off.

The energy of the place was vibrant, full of color and life. Like Jimmy would have liked it. Jimmy’s daughter introduced the proceedings with a heartfelt tribute that also showed her Brooklyn accent, and a street sense that many of us had come to know through Jimmy’s body of work.

Jimmy’s son Jayson Castor starting things off with a wild rendition of “E Man Boogie” that showed that the fruit didn’t fall to far from the tree. Jayson had many of the mannerisms and the wickedly sassy style of his dad. Then one by one a series of performers came on stage to sing selections of Jimmy’s catalog. Avis Harrell sang “Everything is Beautiful to Me” one of Jimmy’s overlooked midtempo tunes from his funk days. Then the surprises really began to take off: Jimmy’s bandleader “Marinaro,” who handled the entire showcase brilliantly, introduced Louis Lymon, who’s name didn’t ring a bell, until he got on stage in a super snazzy white 3 piece suit, and started singing in perfect pitch like his brother Frankie Lymon! Louis Lymon then did some of those super smooth do wop dance steps that let everyone know how much STYLE there was back in the day, and where a lot of break dancing came from. I was transfixed by Louis Lymon, and how fresh he was after 50 years. I also realized that there was a contingent of extremely snappily dressed soul brothas and sistas in the house, wearing loud colors that bounced off the multicolored lights of The Bootlegger bistro that nite.

As a string of artists took the stage to do renditions of doo wop; of Jimi’s jazzy instrumentals; of Jimmy’s blistering Latin percussion driven music, and of his killer funk jams, an unmistakable sensation overcame me: that it takes a dozen people to put together the musical catalog of this one man. The Everything Man, Jimmy Castor! It was both exhilarating and so bittersweet.

Little Anthony of Little Anthony and the Imperials came up, fresh of a cross country flight, to describe life growing up with Jimmy Castor. And two of his original Jimmy Castor Bunch band members were there, including bass player Paul Forney, and Elwood Henderson, the one mentioned in one of Jimmy’s wildest funk masterpieces of soul rap, “Potential!” Elwood and Forney got on stage and represented that funk exquisitely.

During the break, a musician I didn’t recognize sitting in front of me said “I wish I could get a tribute like this when I go.” Something this diverse, where a singer could be doing a Dean Martin standard, following the “Bertha Butt Boogie,” well, only The E Man could make this happen.

By the time bandleader Mariano Longo brought up Las Vegas singer Sonny Charles to belt out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” it was clear that this event was one for the ages. But there was still some of Jimmy’s biggest 70’s hits to be reprised. I had begun to wonder, how was this to be done at the level of the rest of the evenings proceedings? After Sonny Charles, the polish and elegance of the band, of the event, of the properly honored legacy was just overwhelming. But how do take it home?

Didn’t have to wait long to find out. The next artist to be announced was none other than FLAVA FLAV! Flava came out on stage to give some love, complete with his clock and sideways cap, and gave it up for Jimmy as only he could: “Yo G, I just want to say that Jimmy Castor is one of my musical heroes G, and his music is what the deejays all used at the start of hip hop” Flava then ran down a list of his favorite Jimmy Castor Bunch jams, and described a hilarious chance meeting with Jimmy Castor in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Then Flav announced that his jam – his all time jam - started with, “What we gonna do now is go back, way back, back into time!” The band got the signal and kicked into a rendition of “Troglodyte” and Flava Flave performed the entire song: “Cave men! Cave Women” "Her name was Bertha1 Berthat Butt! One of the Butt Sisters!” Tha whole 9. Flava Flav broght the house down – doo wop singers, Vegas band regulars, everyone got a taste of the attitude that is needed to bring Jimmy castor’s funk to life!

And if that wasn’t enough, Jayson Castor followed up, leading the band in a rendition of “It’s Just Begun,” while the Rock Steady Crew did their moves in the center of the dancefloor!

Jimmy Castor was given a fitting tribute. I was honored to be a part of it. Thanks to Jimmy Castor Jr for making sure this ole funkateer got to the spot and checked out what a tribute to a giant is all about.