Let's Get a Groove On
By Douglas Wolk
What's an insatiable record collector to do when there's nothing left to collect? When the first-rate stuff has been canonized, the stars' lesser efforts reissued, the ephemera and one-hit wonders compiled? When even the dreggiest rip-offs have been dredged up for some DJ bootleg or another, but you still want more? You make more, from scratch--and if you can convince other insatiable record collectors that it's the genuine article, all the better.
Like any number of independent labels, New York's Desco Records is built on a fetish. But unlike, say, Estrus or Crypt, which obsess over the whole of garage rock, Desco believes that the alpha and omega of music are the records James Brown made and produced between 1965 and 1975. Over the last three years, Desco has cranked out a series of seven-inch singles, LPs, and (upon realizing it was inevitable) CDs whose labels use the same black and orange color scheme as Brown's late-60s singles on King. These generally feature a band variously known as the the Soul Providers, the Other Side Bosco's Billionaires, and the Knights of Forty First Street, with or without assorted raspy soul shouters, and the sound is almost always straight up James Brown, from the light-fingered appropriation of guitarist Jimmy Nolen's "chicken scratch" to the way the drums are recorded. In case you still don't get it, the label's mission is explicitly stated in a note on the back of the booklet for the Other Side's (Don't Look Back) Behind the Shack: "DESCO is seeking bands and musicians who are interested in recording HEAVY, HEAVY funk or Boogaloo. If your influences include Parliament, Stevie Wonder, or be-bop, you need not apply. When it comes to gettin' down, James Brown is the ground."
But Desco's best records are not merely tributes to Brown--they're great funk in their own right, extensions of his achievements. The label's most ingenious stroke so far is Soul Explosion, a mild departure from strict JB orthodoxy that's designed to look like a reissue of an early-70s funk album from Nigeria--in other words, it fetishizes the replica that's part of collector culture rather than the unaffordable original artifact. It sounds like it, too, with its African polyrhythms, sour horns, and appropriate covers: "Musicawi Silt," a mid-70s piece by Ethiopia's Wallias Band (misidentified as "Musicawa Silt" by the Wallais Band), with an arrangement influenced as much by Fela and (of course) James Brown as by the original, as well as idiomatic versions of Fela's "Up Side Down" and Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose."
Soul Explosion is at best a clever genre exercise, but it's executed with so much love and enthusiasm that even expert listeners and at least one reviewer (in CMJ) have been convinced that it's the real thing. (The giveaway is "Eltsuhg Ibal Lasiti," the strongest original composition on the album--read the title backward.) The Daktaris recently released a follow-up single, a high-concept cover of a 1968 instrumental James Brown saxophonist Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis called "In the Middle." The mono mix translates it straight into Afro-funk; the stereo version on the other side updates it with a slick riff borrowed from "(It's Not the Express) It's the J.B.'s Monaurail," by Brown affiliates Fred & the New J.B.'s.
Like the Soul Providers and their various other alter egos, the Daktaris are the work of an ensemble put together by drummer and Desco label head Phillipe Lehman and bassist and producer Gabriel Roth. Their first collaboration was The Revenge of Mister Mopoji, released in 1996 but designed to look like the bootlegged sound track of an obscure early-70s blaxploitation-kung fu movie. The sound of Mister Mopoji was a little glossier than necessary, the borrowings a little too obvious, but it was clear where Lehman and Roth were going. They got it exactly right a few months later with the Other Side's single "Diggin' Up the Yard," three minutes of perfect head-nodding 1971 groove, and nearly every Desco release since then has hit the mark too. Lehman and Roth understand that the key to Brown's music was reserve and indirection--making you chase the beat rather than tossing it in your face. They've pinned down the essential mystery of the heavy funk they love.
They're not the only ones who've tried to do this lately, but they're the only ones who've wholly succeeded. Desco's kindred spirits at the Instinct label have issued three interesting but flawed compilations in recent years under the "Original Raw Soul" heading. Original Raw Soul, from 1996, and More Original Raw Soul, from 1997, are packaged to look like rare-groove bootleg compilations. They purport to collect singles from a fictional 70s label called Hotpie & Candy Records and its subsidiaries Sloppy Joe and B.M.I. But in fact all the bands on them--the Dynamic Soundmakers, the Soul Sliders, the Mighty Continentals--are permutations of the Poets of Rhythm, who, like the Soul Providers, are a modern group with a serious James Brown jones. The Poets' 1993 album, Practice What You Preach, starts with a record-collector in-joke, a tune called "More Mess on My Thing," a "Pass the Peas"-style instrumental named after a never-issued single by the New Dapps, whose members went on to be Brown's 1970 backing band. "More Mess on My Thing Pt. II," on More Original Raw Soul, is a remake billed to the New Process.
The Poets even have their own Afro-funk alter ego: the Pan-Atlantics, credited on "Serengeti Stroke" and "Rhodesian Girl," from More Original Raw Soul. But they're somewhat less convincing than the Daktaris; the rhythms are there but the tunes aren't, and neither is the Daktaris' exuberance. That's a problem with a lot of the "Original Raw Soul" material, actually. It's impressive as a pastiche, and it's got all the right sounds, but without sufficiently interesting material, those perfect Hammond B-3 vamps and bass drum tones and horn charts sound like museum reproductions.
A third volume, Even More Original Raw Soul, came out last year. It dropped the Hotpie & Candy routine and passed over the Poets of Rhythm collective in favor of other contemporary funk types. But even though some of the musicians (singer Bobby Byrd, saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney) actually played with Brown 30 years ago, Even More sounds slicker, newer, and even less effective than its predecessors. The difference is partly in how it was recorded, but mostly it's in the musicians' timing--it just doesn't have the sucker-punch rhythmic microengineering of Brown and his better imitators.
Of course, the records whose sound the Poets of Rhythm and the Soul Providers try so hard to reconstruct now were tossed off in a hurry by musicians who treated them as a way to promote their real moneymaker: the stage show. Exclusively a studio group at first, the Lehman-Roth crew has been figuring out how to make its act work live. About a year ago, they started booking "Desco Super Soul Revue" nights in New York clubs and lofts, usually featuring the Soul Providers with one singer or another, as well as a couple of other Desco bands: the boogaloo project Sugarman Three (modeled on Brown's mid-60s organ-instrumental albums), and the Mighty Imperials, a quartet of teenagers itching to be the Meters. At one early performance I saw, singer Sharon Jones--a 50ish matron who'd sung exclusively gospel before she met Roth and Lehman--started into her let's-do-the-new-dance single "Bump N Touch," then realized that she was obligated to invent the Bump N Touch itself on the spot.
The last few months have seen the Desco debuts of more vocalists: Naomi Davis, a sore-voiced, gospel-trained barker whose "Forty First Street Breakdowne" is more of a vamp-plus-rant than an actual song, and sometime Coasters singer Joseph Henry, whose single "Who's the King? (You Know That's Me)" is a fleet, muscular Bobby Byrd-style bounce. But the first Soul Providers singer to get his own Desco full-length is Lee Fields, whose Let's Get a Groove On was released about a week ago. Fields first recorded about 30 years ago--his single "The Bull Is Coming" and album Let's Talk It Over are funk collectors' desiderata (though the latter was recently reissued on CD with the former as a bonus track). He stomps around the stage in a glittery bodysuit that he'd never be able to get away with if he weren't an unflaggingly rough, emphatic belter, and he sings every song on the new album like he's trying to top the last one.
As you might expect, pretty much every vocal inflection he's got comes straight from James Brown records; "Watch That Man," in fact, ends with him chanting "JB for president!" The Brown-produced 60s albums by Marva Whitney, Hank Ballard, and JB himself that Let's Get a Groove On is modeled after were assembled posthaste by label execs who barely cared about the music, and Roth and Lehman lovingly re-create their haphazard vibe, riddling the album with abrupt fade-ins and fade-outs, previously released tracks, filler instrumentals by the Providers, awkwardly imbalanced mixes, and a ridiculous spoken introduction.
But while the album scores innumerable geek points for this faithful reproduction of the original commodity's flaws, a good part of the charm of the original was in how the funk erupted through the chaotic presentation, turning the chaos into part of the excitement. The Soul Providers make historical accuracy work for them because they have the instrumental fire to back it up, and vice versa--they reproduce the quirks of old funk not because they're kitschy cool but because they feed that fire.