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Funky Sly peaked way too early, then sank into obscurity. Now he surfaces for a tribute album

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I WAS BORN TOO late. Most of the artists I practically worship either peaked or died long before my birth in the summer of '77. I have a mile-long list of legends I wish I could have seen perform back in the day: Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Laura Nyro, Minnie Riperton. I could go on and on.

As for bands, there's only one I would climb into a time machine to see: Sly & the Family Stone. I love crazy Sly. I've seen grainy performance footage of the man and his group in action. The energy was unrelenting -- the costumes, the Afros grand and spectacular. In the studio and on stage, Sly and his band mates, which included master bassist Larry Graham, summoned the Holy Ghost and baptized it in hot, funky waters.

James Brown may have been the first to bring the funk, but Sly took it to another level. He stretched it here, blazed it there. However, cocaine ultimately got the best of the genius. By the mid-'70s, the Dallas native had slipped into darkness. The group dissolved. Sly was busted for coke. Personally, professionally, he was as raggedy as a bowl of sauerkraut. Though the singer-songwriter-musician is still alive, Sly isn't kickin' up the funk like he used to. The man who gave us classics such as "Everyday People," "Family Affair" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" is a total recluse who hasn't been seen in public since 1993. That was the year he and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But Sly's music hasn't gone anywhere. Over the years, his grooves have been used in TV commercials, sampled and looped by hip-hop producers. Threads of his musical ideas are woven throughout the works of Prince, D'Angelo, OutKast, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Van Hunt and many others. Although Sly & the Family Stone's sound is as vibrant and urgent today as it was more than 30 years ago, Different Strokes By Different Folks tries to make it even more relevant for the modern pop crowd. The album, which drops in stores this week, is an all-star "tribute" to the band that revolutionized pop and funk. The performers paying homage, so to speak, include John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Joss Stone, John Legend, Janet Jackson, the Roots, Moby, Steven Tyler and Isaac Hayes.

Such tribute projects tend to be shady affairs, like the recent one on Luther Vandross, which features more blah performances than inspired ones. Overseen by Sly himself, Different Strokes is a little different. The artists and producers actually used the original master tapes for their new recordings. Think of it as reverse sampling: The classics were augmented and altered for something altogether new. For those of us who have worn out copies of Dance to the Music, There's a Riot Goin' On and Fresh, the idea of messing with the original tunes seems potentially disastrous.

Though the result isn't as bad as it could have been, Different Strokes is still spotty. Strong re-imagined cuts pepper the set. Some of them will get your head nodding right away. But in the end, you're left wondering, "Um, so what's the point?"

The album doesn't exactly start with a bang. The ubiquitous will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who's beginning to work my nerves these days, kicks off the set with a go-nowhere interpretation of "Dance to the Music." Next up is Maroon 5's labored version of "Everyday People." You can just skip right past those two cuts and start with "Star," the Roots' groove-dominated take on "Everybody is a Star." Spiced with chunky guitar licks, hand claps and Black Thought's fluidly delivered rhymes, the track originally appeared on the hip-hop band's 2004 album, The Tipping Point. It was one of the hottest joints on that set.

Next up is Big Boi of OutKast, featuring rapper Killer Mike and Ray Parker Jr. sound-alike Sleepy Brown. They collaborate on a smoothed-out, jazzed-up version of "Runnin' Away." Big Boi, who also produced the track, peps up the horns on the new take. The serpentine lines ebb, flow and curl around the beat before zipping out at the end. "Family Affair" with Joss Stone, John Legend and Van Hunt is surprisingly dull given the talent involved. But Big Boi saves the groove again. He produces and appears on the next song, a bright revision of "(You Caught Me) Smilin'," with Scar, Ceelo and DJ Swiff. This time, the horns aren't as prominent. Scratches and tinkling electric keyboard runs accent the beat.

Other highlights include a chugging take on "I Get High On You" by the Wylde Bunch and a revelatory version of "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" by the Nappy Roots and Martin Luther. Pumped up with drum machines, the new Sly cuts are polished and heavy on the groove. You miss the wildness, the freedom, the sheer exuberance of the original recordings. It's a feeling that's impossible to recapture. The culture that informed Sly nearly 40 years ago has morphed into something entirely different.

With its pronounced hip-hop leanings, Different Strokes By Different Folks may be the legend's way of keeping up with the times he has missed out on. Funny thing is that we're still trying to catch up with Sly.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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