Cure your pandemic blues with rare grooves
Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer?
An endless January has given way to what promises to be the longest shortest month. With any luck, March will come in like a lion and go out like a fully vaccinated lamb.
But we still have a way to go, so what do we need to make it through? More wine? More edibles? More caves to hibernate in?
We need more funk.
Not funk as in a strong offensive smell, a state of paralyzing fear, or a depressed state of mind. We have that covered. I mean music.
I started thinking about the restorative qualities of funk after I heard Bootsy Collins interviewed on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF.
William Earl “Bootsy” Collins, ranked fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 greatest bassists of all-time, joined James Brown’s backup group, the J.B.’s, in 1970, and later became part of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective. Known for his star-shaped sunglasses, mad hatter style top hat, and interplanetary funkmanship, Collins was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
The Hall of Fame describes P-Funk as “Vivid. Surreal. Psychedelic. Unpredictable… The mind-blowing, soul-expanding musical equivalent of an acid trip.”
But those trips didn’t always go somewhere good. Some former P-Funk members claim the band’s founder, George Clinton, turned them into drug addicts and stole money they received from royalties and live performances. The estate of the late keyboardist George “Bernie” Worrell, Jr., is reportedly suing Clinton for an unspecified amount of damages.
According to an interview with The Wall Street Journal, nine years ago at age 70, Clinton had his own reckoning with drug abuse and got sober. He planned to complete his farewell tour last year, but the pandemic put a stop to that.
His sound, however, is everywhere.
According to The Observer, Clinton is one of the most sampled artists of all time, “with the likes of Nas, 2 Pac, Wu Tang, Madlib, and Rakim all bringing his funk to a new generation of hip-hop fans. Most famously, in 1993, Snoop Dogg’s sample of ‘Atomic Dog’ in ‘’Who am I (What’s My Name?)’ introduced the young West Coast rapper to the world.”
It’s hard to find an artist who hasn’t sampled Clinton. The list is impressive, and ranges from Public Enemy to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Listen to “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” originally recorded in 1976, and you’ll hear the prefiguration of everyone from Prince to Bruno Mars.
Collins praises Clinton for the freedom he gave musicians to experiment and create, and doesn’t deny that a lot of that creativity was fueled by drug use. But Collins doesn’t dwell in darkness. In his interview with Maron, he’s funny and warm, a terrific storyteller, who talks about funk as a unifying force.
In a June interview with The Guardian’s Ammar Kalia, Collins says, “Funk just brings people together.”
People can’t be together now. But they can be funky.
So in the name of freeing my mind and hoping my ass will follow, I dug into the collection of CDs I refuse to throw away and found a four-disc set that Charles, my brother from another mother, gave me 15 years ago. It’s called “What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves.”
Since I no longer own a device that can play a CD, I went to iTunes to download the compilation. To my dismay, I found that it’s no longer available. I was, however, able to find it on Spotify. Well, most of it. The creator of the Spotify page writes there that he was unable to find 13 of the 91 songs that appeared on the set released by Rhino Entertainment in 2006.
That’s a shame because these are not just any songs, they are, as the liner notes say, “The shadow story of funk.”
The notes continue: “The kind of funk these groups were putting out wasn’t the blaring wall of sound that James Brown and his massive horn and rhythm sections were throwing down. Nor was it the thick, stank stew that the Parliament-Funkadelic artists would churn up. This was gritty, gut-bucket funk — the kind recorded not with an array of synthesizers and orchestral arrangement, but taped in a ramshackle studio with chicken-scratch guitars, a beat-up B3, and a poorly mic-ed drum kit.”
It had been a while since I’d had an infusion of funk, so I borrowed my daughter’s Beats headphones (way better than my lame earbuds) and dove in.
From Titus Turner’s “Do You Dig It” to Jimmy Norman’s “Gangster of Love,” Claudia Lennear’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” to Tami Lynn’s “Mo Jo Hanna” — it’s a head-wagging, soul-stirring, rump-shaking joy.
There are deep cuts from Wilson Pickett, Allen Toussaint, Little Richard, Dr. John, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
There’s a previously unreleased take of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and a funkified take on Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow.” Ananda Shankar’s sitar version of “Jumping Jack Flash” will blow your mind.
Next time the Covid winter has you run down, fed up, or bummed out, put on your shades and boogie on board the Mothership Connection.
As George Clinton said, “Once you’ve done the best you can, funk it.”