Funk is flying high, 20 years later Roots: The slippery synths, fatback drums and heavy bass are as hip now as they were in the 1970s, when they were considered revolutionary.


As historians will attest, people tend to view the past in terms of the present. What we see as important historical events -- major discoveries, landmark decisions, social breakthroughs -- are significant only to the extent they have impact on our current situation. As a result, our notions of greatness change with dizzying rapidity, as that which seemed significant a decade ago turns out to have been merely incidental to life as we currently know it.

And nowhere is that turnover more rapid than in popular music. Twenty years ago, punk rock seemed such an assault on mainstream sensibilities that it was considered a serious threat to civilization as we knew it; now, that same three-chords-and-a-Mohawk aesthetic is so accepted that suburban parents think nothing of taking their teens to see latter-day punks like Green Day and Rancid. In the process, once-marginal acts like the Stooges, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks become considered part of the music's bedrock.

Perhaps the most curious re-think of all is the current attitude toward R&B.; Where '60s soul was once the ne plus ultra of cool, now any insistence on the musical superiority of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or "Respect"-era Aretha Franklin virtually dooms a pop fan to fogeyhood. Although '60s soul seemed pretty vital when Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and the Blues Brothers were on the cutting edge, that sound seems pretty passe now.

What today's listeners prefer is more of a Carter-era sound. Between retro soul stars like D'Angelo, Tony Rich and the Brand New Heavies and hip-hop auteurs like Dr. Dre, DJ Pooh and Warren G, the slippery synths, fatback drums and heavy bass of '70s funk haven't seemed so hip since well, since the '70s.

But is this sound really representative of what funk was in the '70s?

It's not an idle question. From Madonna to Snoop Doggy Dogg to the Beastie Boys, plenty of pop stars are happy to play off the platforms-and-Afros vibe of '70s soul. But as avidly as these acts appropriate the wah-wah guitar and clavinet clatter of pre-disco R&B;, there's a lot that gets left behind, from the Afro-centric soul of Earth, Wind & Fire, Mandrill and Osibisa to the sweet, pop-oriented soul of groups like Graham Central Station and Heatwave.

Moreover, the guts of what we consider to be '70s funk were actually recorded in the '60s. Sure, all the landmark singles fall safely within the appropriate decade's boundaries -- Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You Falletin Me (Be Mice Elf Agin)" entered the Top-40 in January 1970, and was followed by such classics as Isaac Hayes' "Theme from 'Shaft' " (1971), Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (1972) and the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" (1974) -- but the roots of this revolution run deep into the 1960s.

Need proof? Then look no further than the James Brown collection "Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag 1964-69" (Polydor 314 531 165). As the title makes plain, the 27 tracks included on these two CDs are all examples of pre-'70s recordings. Yet the sound and feel of these tracks is as modern as anything sampled by a gangsta rap act.

Visionary art

A lot of that has to do with the fact that Brown was one of the era's most visionary artists, making music that was years ahead of its time. Compare the churning pulse Clyde Stubblefield or John "Jabbo" Starks laid down behind Brown to the lean backbeat Al Jackson applied to singles by Sam & Dave or Booker T. & the MGs, and the difference seems almost generational. Where Jackson delivered the beat as a basic one-two-three-four, Brown's drummers feinted and dodged, shifting the emphasis from straight four to an implied eight, doubling the rhythm without increasing the pace.

What Brown's band did was open the door for the one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and feel of modern hip-hop. By changing the accents from alternate quarters to eighth-note afterbeats, Brown and his crew changed the feel of R&B; as completely as the bebop movement transformed swing.

Like the beboppers', Brown's breakthroughs were not met with much commercial enthusiasm at the time. Although he had enormous success on the R&B; charts, Brown only cracked the pop Top-10 six times during the period "Foundations of Funk" documents -- and one of those hits was with the decidedly unfunky "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

But that's not too surprising, for the greatest strengths the Brown band manifested didn't easily translate into three-minute pop tidbits. Brown's genius lay with being able to work a groove, and the best of these recordings not only stretch two-bar vamps into eight-minute marathons, but manage to make every second of that workout seem essential.

That may have been simply a matter of rhythmic precision, for Brown's bands were nothing if not masters at turning repetition into rhythmic urgency. But there was more to it than mere time-keeping, as Brown approached each groove as if it were a work in progress. Cue up "Get It Together," and as the band works its way through the almost nine-minute performance, you'll hear Brown calling out instructions as if he were assembling his arrangement on the fly. This is no rehearsal, though -- the band is sharp and responsive, and his jam-on approach only heightens the music's energy level.

"Foundations of Funk" certainly shows Brown's experimental side, both in the extended workouts offered on "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" and "Ain't It Funky Now" as well as previously unreleased tracks like the faster, looser alternate take of "Cold Sweat." But the stop-on-a-dime precision of the Brown band also speaks to the discipline that went into his music -- an intensity of focus that was often lost in '70s funk.

Bootsy's Rubber Band

To that end, compare "Foundations of Funk" to Bootsy Collins' recently reissued second album, "Ahh The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!" (Warner Bros. 22972). Like Brown's group -- of which he was once a member -- Bootsy's Rubber Band relied heavily on loping, vamp-like rhythms and freewheeling, improvised arrangements. But where Brown made sure to keep each element of his band's sound in check, Collins allowed his band to let it all hang out.

Unfortunately, that strategy didn't always pay dividends. Though there's a certain cheerful anarchy to tracks like "Rubber Duckie" and "The Pinocchio Theory," on the whole the Rubber Band seems overextended, crowding the tracks with unnecessary amounts of instrumental clutter. Collins was far from the only '70s funkateer guilty of that sin; George Clinton, Bootsy's mentor and collaborator for "Ahh The Name Is," was notorious for fleshing out his productions with self-indulgent twaddle. Luckily for him, the hits are all most listeners remember.

Maurice White, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Even though his group, Earth, Wind & Fire, was track-for-track more consistent than Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, it's Clinton whose loose-limbed grooves are copped today. EWF hits like "Shining Star" and "Serpentine Fire" may still sound great, but they aren't as eagerly imitated by today's R&B; and hip-hop artists.

Some of that may have to do with the fact that Clinton's easy amiability fits more closely with the personal style of the younger generation than White's carefully choreographed sincerity. But there's a musical element as well, as the jazzy complexity of Earth, Wind & Fire's up-tempo numbers doesn't conform to current taste as well as the earthy simplicity of Clinton's P-Funk hits.

A model of harmony

But the slow songs are another matter. "Elements of Love: The Ballads" (Columbia/Legacy 64899), a collection emphasizing Earth, Wind & Fire's mellow side, suggests that even if the group didn't much affect the future of funk, it did provide a useful model for soul harmony acts.

Although EWF didn't have the obvious vocal focus of contemporaries like the O'Jays, the Spinners or the Stylistics, it did have two strong lead vocalists -- leader Maurice White and falsetto Philip Bailey -- and a genius for vocal arrangements. Indeed, the group's greatest genius lay with its understanding of just how much melodic structure is needed to let a soloist stand out, and the most memorable selections -- "Devotion," "All About Love," "Can't Hide Love" and "After the Love Is Gone" -- sound as fresh today as they did when they were new. Perhaps the only complaint that could be made about the album is that it would have been nice to have had the studio version of "Reasons" (from "That's the Way of the World") in addition to the live rendition (from "Gratitude") included here.

Structure isn't everything, though. Too much compositional cleverness can undercut a recording as effectively as a lack of musical discipline, a lesson made quite clear by the Heatwave anthology "Always and Forever" (Epic/Legacy 64914).

Although there's no denying the pop appeal of these tunes, it's easy to come away from the collection thinking that these singles are perhaps a little too well put together. Heatwave mastermind Rod Temperton is one of the few R&B; writers with a strong sense of counterpoint, and hits like "Boogie Nights," "The Groove Line" and "Ain't No Half-Steppin' " remain remarkable exercises in thematic structure and melodic ingenuity. But that's all they offer, and after a while, all that structure makes the music seem calculated and stiff. Temperton wouldn't come into his own until he hooked up with Michael Jackson, whose improvisational flair breathed life into the compositional architecture of works like "Off the Wall" and "Thriller."

But it will probably be a few years before we get to that revival.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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