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Shadow History of Funk

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What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967-1977)
“What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967-1977)” (Various Artists)

Good funk never gets old. Start playing the Meters, or Curtis Mayfield, or Sly and the Family Stone at your next party, and watch the mood change to ebullience. Funk also has the side benefit of being ‘acceptable’ driving music for D and myself.

Various Artists: What It Is!: Pitchfork Record Review
It’s rather nice to have one, well-documented place to go for such a huge range of funk and soul tracks, and Rhino has taken advantage of it, consolidating things even further to compile what amounts to, as Oliver Wang says in his lead-in essay, a “shadow history of funk.” These aren’t the songs that blew up the charts, though you may have heard a few of them– Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go” or Wilson Pickett’s “Engine Number 9”, for instance.

There are names that pop up throughout the generous track notes, and two of the most common are the twin giants of New Orleans r&b: Allen Toussaint and the Meters, who often worked as Toussaint’s house band. Both are represented with their own tracks, but Toussaint penned a further seven, and at least a couple of Meters turn up on six tracks credited to other artist. The best of these is a full-on Meters romp, Cyrille Neville’s 1970 killer “Gossip”, The song opens with a towering “coral sitar” guitar riff from Leo Nocentelli that injects a heavy does of psychedelia to accent the rock-hard beat.

A few tracks later, you get a real sitar, courtesy of Ananda Shankar’s cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Shankar was nephew to Ravi, and sold a truckload of LPs grafting virtuoso sitar playing onto psychedelic pop; “Metamorphosis” is the funkiest track from his self-titled LP, but “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is more immediate. On the less frivolous end of things is “Headless Heroes” by Eugene McDaniels, from his political funk opus Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, a record Spiro Agnew personally requested be withdrawn in spite of the fact that almost nobody heard it. When McDaniels refers to us all as “racial pawns in the master game” and asserts that “the player who controls the board sees them all as the same/ Basically cannon fodder,” you know he means it.

Paranoia rears its head on the dark funk of Baby Huey & the Babysitters’ “Hard Times”, an icy ghetto soul track with a chilling, guitar-soaked intro and lyrics about being held up by someone you thought you trusted. Baby Huey is one of many artists here worth investigating further– including the Meters, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Harlem River Drive, Mongo Santamaria, Fred Wesley, King Curtis, and Bobby Byrd. There are, however, a number of artists for whom further investigation is damn near impossible. More than a quarter of the bands included here never released a full-length album, so the Houseguests’ “What So Never the Dance” is pretty much it. This is where the value of a set like this really comes into sharp relief– Tony Alvon & the Belairs’ groover “Sexy Coffee Pot” has never been easier to come by than it is with this on the shelves.

and from the Amazon listing:

Too many reissue compilations are content to merely slice ‘n’ dice familiar catalog choices in not particularly original ways. But this four-disc, 91-track trove of obscure ’70s R&B and funk from Warner-distributed labels great and small argues there’s still treasure to be gleaned from studio vaults–a five-hour groove-fest that’s as interested in shaking booty as in opening ears. Even the genre’s groundbreaking usual suspects (Wilson Pickett, the Bar-Kays, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, et al) are represented by selections that aren’t immediately familiar, while Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin serves up a radically different, previously unreleased take of “Rock Steady.” Still other stars contribute their sonic touches to some of the lesser-known cuts, as witnessed by the patent trippiness of Sly Stone alter-egos 6ix and Stanga on “I’m Just Like You” and “Little Sister,” respectively; the stark, party-not-so-hearty contrast of the Mayfield-written-and-produced “Hard Times” by Baby Huey & Baby Sisters; and the Meters’ version of “Tampin’,” released under the moniker of the Rhine Oaks.

Sequenced in rough chronological order, it’s a savvy window into a musical evolution as well, with the rhythmic guitars, organ swells, and horn flourishes of traditional ’60s R&B giving way to sinewy synths and increasingly chunky bass lines as the decade grooves on. While savvy hip-hoppers will note that many of the rarities here have already been repurposed by shrewd mixers, it’s a revelation to hear them in their original form. A compelling deconstruction of an often clichéd and too-narrowly-defined genre, this is an anthology that showcases music that has influenced such contemporary artists as Tupac, the Beastie Boys, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West, annotated by many of the original musicians who set the dance floor in motion.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 31st, 2008 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Music,Suggestions

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