In October the Wire published a primer on what it pronounced "the moment when Black music grew its Afro and took a lesson from hippy-rock, exploding into the Technicolor dream funk and proto-disco of psychedelic soul." On the British magazine's list of essential recordings from the era, alongside the expected goods from Parliament, the Temptations, and Rare Earth, was an obscure compilation called Chains & Black Exhaust: 18 tracks of some of the heaviest, spazziest guitar funk ever laid to wax, including some amazing paeans to mind-altering substances like Gran Am's woozy "Get High" and Iron Knowledge's lacerating "Showstopper," which extols the virtues of coke.
The CD's inclusion on the list remains a source of amusement for Chicagoan Dante Carfagna, who made the "mix tape of funky black rock" for "some stoner buddies in Memphis" in 2002. Blown away by the contents, his friends insisted that they make a CD out of it. "I went around and took pictures of black motorcycle clubs in Chicago and we put it out," Carfagna says. The unauthorized CD was released in an edition of 2,000 on the one-off Jones Records with absolutely no track information. It sold out in a month. Now the CD is more famous than any of the bands on it.
Carfagna, who's 30, is often referred to as a "funk archaeologist." In the last few years his encyclopedic knowledge and deep collection of 45s have been the source for a number of superb reissues--all properly licensed. Last year Jazzman Records issued Midwest Funk: Funk 45s From Tornado Alley, a collection of 23 rare tracks, and the local Chocolate Industries imprint reissued Thrust, an album by a little-known Akron group called McNeal & Niles that delivers an unlikely jazz-funk-new-wave fusion. By the end of the year Carfagna hopes to have completed a massive annotated discography of every funk, funky jazz, and funky soul record released between 1966 and '77. He's been working on it for six years with his record-hunting pal Josh Davis, better known as DJ Shadow.
For most people funk begins and ends with James Brown, George Clinton, and Rick James. Not for Carfagna, whose collection of 45s numbers around 4,500. But even he admits it's a tough specialty. Earlier collectible genres, specifically prewar blues and jazz, are much easier to track: since recording technology was relatively new, record production was relatively limited. "But once the 45s came into vogue--forget about it," Carfagna says. "There were independent entrepreneurs in every city."
It took about three decades for prewar jazz and blues to be recognized for their historical value, so Carfagna figures funk is next. "Soul and funk is now 30 years old, so the canonization window is closing and you can posit that as a movement it has a semidefinitive beginning and end, before it evolved into disco and hip-hop. We're talking about the lineage of black music, and I think people are beginning to understand that the music needs to be preserved."
Carfagna was just seven years old when a radio station in Columbus, Ohio, began broadcasting a weekly hip-hop show called Sunday Night at the Raps. He was immediately drawn to the music. His parents, who owned a grocery store in Columbus, were devout soul fans. "My parents were heads," he says, "but they were suburban heads-that-had-a-bag-of-grass-in-the-end-table kind of folks."
When sampling became common currency in hip-hop, Carfagna recognized many of the sources from his parents' music collection. "It became a trivia game for me," he says. "In the early days they were all using the same stuff, so when you heard something that used a different sample, like when Public Enemy first came out, it was a mind melter." By the time he was a teenager he was scouring local record shops for sample-worthy funk and soul 45s. At the time most record collectors dismissed the seven-inch, preferring albums.
"I think I was a little protosavvy, because somehow I already understood it was about the unknown, not the known," Carfagna says. "If I saw something I'd never seen before as well as a James Brown record, I'd take the chance on the thing I'd never seen before. I knew the guys I was going to play it for weren't going to know what it was, and at 15 you're trying to puff your chest out as often as possible, so you played some monster break that no one had used before."
He and some of his friends put together a hip-hop group, but samplers didn't come cheap back then, so Carfagna mostly stockpiled his records. That changed in 1990, when he moved to Miami to live with his father and stepmother for the last two years of high school. "One day I was playing the Ruth Copeland record I Am What I Am, playing the break over and over, really loud," he says. Deep in the spell of the music, Carfagna didn't notice a knock at the front door. His stepmother answered and let in former Public Enemy "minister of information" Professor Griff. He'd been charmed by the beats pouring out of Carfagna's bedroom as he walked by. "I almost had cardiac arrest," Carfagna says. "I never shook that bad in my life. It's like if you're a teenager, Mr. Blueballs, sitting at the house and you just pray some girl will knock at the door and straddle your shit." Griff had recently moved to Miami and was living a few doors away.
Impressed with Carfagna's stash of rare records, he agreed to loan him a sampler. Before long he was bringing him into Skywalker Studios, ground zero for classic Miami bass music. Carfagna ended up providing countless samples and producing a handful of tracks on two of Griff's albums in the early 90s. "I never really saw any money," he says. Griff "gave me like 500 bucks once, which seemed like a lot of money to someone in high school."
As much as he enjoyed the experience, Carfagna never seriously entertained the idea of trying to break into the music business, and after graduating from high school he left Miami to study painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. Short on cash, he sold all his hip-hop records not long after arriving, an act he now calls "the stupidest thing I ever did. I thought I could get them all back." He scored a morning job working in the school library and after class worked at the Music Exchange, a huge Kansas City record shop. There his interests grew to include psychedelia, folk, ethnic music, 20th-century classical, and free jazz as well as funk and soul. "I just became obsessed with hearing sounds that I'd never heard before," he says.
The record shop became a second school for Carfagna. He says that at a certain point he was bringing home 150 records every week, and even at cost the purchases outweighed his income. "Eventually I had to find a way to liquidate stuff so I could make some extra bread," he says. "We'd get collectors that would come through, and I made sure that they'd come to my house afterward to see what I had." He started placing classified ads offering cash for records in the black newspapers: "I'd keep the good shit and sell the rest to the shop," he says. He began tracking down local funk and soul entrepreneurs, doing detective work to locate people who'd released specific records he was after. He started out with Kansas City labels, but before long he was taking short trips to places like Omaha and Oklahoma City. He began conducting interviews with the performers and label owners for his own edification.
Word of Carfagna's efforts eventually reached Josh Davis, one of the country's best-known collectors of rare funk. Davis elevated sample-based music making to an art form with the classic 1996 DJ Shadow album Endtroducing. A Bay Area collector named Chris Veltri suggested that he might be able to exchange some info with Carfagna, and in early 1998 he gave him a call. "At this time the funk 45 thing was still underground, especially in the States," Davis says. "Pretty much nobody was [collecting] it, so when someone would tell me that someone my age or younger was into the stuff I took notice because we were few and far between. We hit it off immediately--I probably mentioned a bunch of stuff he didn't know, and I'm sure he mentioned a bunch of stuff I didn't know."
They began a regular phone correspondence, and that summer the pair went on a two-week record-finding trip, the first of many. Davis says he and Carfagna share a taste for uncovering the mysteries behind the records: "It's like archaeology, the lengths you go to track this stuff down and right its place in history. If there's a record that nobody in the world knows about, especially if there's a huge, long-standing mystery to it, we try to go the extra mile to put it to bed. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of time, and often it yields absolutely nothing."
This desire to get to the bottom of things led the pair to start their book, designed to be the last word on funk 45s. The volume has come together in fits and starts, due largely to Davis's busy recording and touring schedule, but Carfagna, eagerly showing off the label art, band photos, and advertisements he's collected from black newspapers around the country, says the project is now in the homestretch. He's also set up an exhaustive Web site on Ohio soul, www.ohiosoulrecordings.com.
In early 1999 Carfagna moved to Chicago. At first his MO changed little. But soon he was forced to adapt to changes that occurred in record collecting: the Internet and eBay were transforming the game, and information that once had to be uncovered by sleuthing could now be accessed with just a few keystrokes. Records that Carfagna could once find for about five bucks were going for $1,000, and as interest in funk 45s exploded, so did interest in reissues of the music. In 2001 an LA collector and DJ named Eothen Alapatt (aka DJ Egon) produced The Funky 16 Corners (Stones Throw), a compilation of some rare and heavy funk 45s that attracted lots of attention. Carfagna provided Alapatt with leads and helped with licensing.
He also helped Stones Throw produce a full-length reissue of music by LA Carnival, a late-60s funk band from Omaha, Nebraska. And after Thrust and the Midwest Funk compilation last year, Carfagna began doing A and R for Cali-Tex Records, a division of Davis's Quannum label established to reissue old funk. Due out next week is a vinyl-only release by saxophonist J.C. Davis, an early member of the James Brown Band who later toured with Etta James and Jackie Wilson. He recorded three singles for Chess Records before settling down in Columbus, where he cut two killer singles of horn-stoked funk, releasing them on his own Mus-I-Col label in 1969. In addition to those sides the reissue includes three unreleased tracks from the same era. "I was very surprised to get the chance to put it out there," says J.C. Davis. "I hope it does OK. I'm just thrilled about it."
"If you meet someone who made a record, odds are that they have other music that they couldn't afford to put out," says Carfagna. Reissues "give these people an additional opportunity. In addition to me buying the record that you have, I can also give you money to put your music out again for this entirely new audience. We gave J.C. what he wanted, and he's elated. He said he was doing nothing with it, and now he has some money in his pocket and some records to give to his buddies."
There's another Cali-Tex reissue slated for later this year, and Carfagna has other projects in the planning stages. It can be tedious. "Most of the time is spent on the phone talking to people that aren't who you're looking for," he says. "It's always when you give up and have decided to make one last call--that's almost always when it works." Sometimes, however, telephone conversations don't get the job done, which is why he takes trips. "When you meet someone face-to-face it's a form of improvisation," he says. "It's one of those things where you have to convince someone that (a) you're trustworthy, (b) you're interested, and (c) that they could get something out of it, whether it's money or something else. It can be really hard to gauge that. Some guys will give you stuff because they don't care anymore, while others think that what they have is worth a million dollars."
While collecting records and the information surrounding them has become Carfagna's main gig, in the last few years he's begun making music again. Early last year he released Express Rising, an album on the low-key Memphix imprint, which he runs with the pals responsible for Chains & Black Exhaust. It's mostly down-tempo instrumentals featuring gauzy piano and guitar samples drifting over funky breakbeats, and all of the samples come from obscure and for the most part terrible albums Carfagna's come across. "It's kind of an outlet for the record buying, in a weird way," he says. "As I scan through 80 million records there might be a crappy one that might have one really cool element." To make his point he showed me a handful of records, among them a schlocky 1980 pop-rock album by a brother group called New Relations that played "mufftars," custom-made guitars made from automobile mufflers. More recently Carfagna contributed a remix to a Prefuse 73 EP, and a new Express Rising single is due out next month.
Carfagna's also a writer and editor for Wax Poetics, a Brooklyn-based journal devoted to vinyl, record collecting, and hip-hop, and with his friends Courtland Green and Shaun Pauling he presents a wildly popular funk night at Danny's on the first Wednesday of every month. But he gets by selling records. His funk 45s, meticulously arranged by label and state of origin, are generally off-limits--he prefers to profit on valuable records he finds for cheap--but lean times can force him to dip into the stash. Recently he sold a copy of a West Coast Connection single to a Japanese collector for a cool grand. "It's a great record and I didn't particularly want to sell it," he says. "But it's one record. For me that's three months' rent.
"At a certain point records are just paper and plastic," he adds. "I've made a book out of them, I've compiled some of them, and I've talked to some of the artists. I've done all I could do through the records. I can still enjoy them--put them on CD and have a picture of them by scanning them. But at a certain point the object is worth too much to fetishize."
Carfagna says that once the book is finished he plans to unload most of his singles collection. "Even though the 45s are my serious passion, there needs to be a point where you cut it off. I don't want to be the 65-year-old dude with all of these records. I'd rather cash them in and buy something really incredible, like a home. So it may seem like I haven't had a job in five years, but when I cash those in that's the 401K that I would've been storing away otherwise. It's like having a bunch of Hummels or something--eventually you just sell the shit."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.