PopMatters.com 13 February 2002 | Previous Page
Low End Theories
Finally, someone's gotten it right. The modern funk compilation has been a curious phenomenon in the music world for the better part of a decade now, popular enough to have spawned its own cottage industry, yet frustratingly rife with shortcomings, inaccuracies and questionable ethics.
The fact that it's taken until now for there to be a truly worthy compilation(after countless predecessors) says a lot about how bad things have been and one can only hope that Stones Throw's impressive The Funky 16 Corners will help launch a new era of respectable anthologies.
The problem has been that funk collecting is such an ego-driven endeavour that most compilers put themselves ahead of the music. Because so many of the greatest funk songs were only released on 7" in the thousands, if not hundreds, knowledge about certain funk 45s translates into a power that collectors and compilers jealously hoard. Just as old school DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc used to steam the labels off their 12"s so no one else could trainspot off them, many of today's funk compilers practice similar strategies to prevent people from knowing too much about the music they're enjoying. They're effectively protecting their investment -- which is understandable -- but often times the music and its rich history suffers as a consequence.
For example, the vast majority of today's funk compilations are bereft of any history behind the songs included. All we get -- if even this much -- is an artist and a title, and some of the time, the information isn't even correct. For example, the popular Dusty Fingers series, the more modern version of the UBB sometimes credits the wrong artists whether accidentally (which would be just plain sloppy) or intentionally (to throw off collectors). The idea of actual liner notes seem alien to most compilers, either because they don't want to share their information or simply because they never bothered to learn it. As one might imagine, this choice between listening to music assembled by either misers or loafers isn't that inspired.
In their partial defense, it is true that the very first funk-oriented compilations didn't supply much information either. The early comps date back to the early '80s led by folks like New York's Paul Winley and his lo-fi Super Disco Brakes series and the now ubiquitous Ultimate Beats and Breaks series started in 1986 by Lenny Roberts. They were initially designed to make popular -- but rare -- funky classics available to a wider DJ audience -- songs like the Incredible Bongo Band's frenetic "Apache" or Bobby Byrd's swinging "I Know You Got Soul".
The difference though is that the vast majority of the songs featured in the 25 volume UBB series were "known", i.e. they had made their way through the post-disco club circuit during the '70s and '80s and while many may never have owned an original copy of Ralph MacDonald's "Jam On the Groove", they probably danced to it a dozen times. The new generation of funk comps have focused specifically on the obscure, small-label 45s or forgotten LPs that few, if any, had heard. What distinguished one record from another was the quality of your selections and their rarity. Many of these compilers -- especially early ones such as the French Soul Power and Pure volumes for example -- weren't trying to hip you to James Brown, despite the undeniable strength of his funk work. They were more interested in breaking listeners off with a taste of Salt's mega-rare "Hung Up" or the equally obscure "JB's Latin" by Spitting Image.
Without question, they were providing a valuable service -- putting lost and forgotten music back into circulation and with the resurgence of funk interest led by post-hip-hop Djs, collectors and aficianados, there was a welcoming market for these items. The problem was that while the music was being hawked, the artists behind them languished in continued obscurity (not to mention, poverty) while a handful of savvy compilers were making good money off their work without paying back a single dime. The music industry has never been known for its compassionate ethics, but given that many of the original artists were still living, this sheer flaunting of any copyright obligations could hardly have been a badge of honor.
There were a few exceptions to this. San Francico's Luv N' Haight Records acquired access to the extensive catalog of Fantasy Records in Berkeley, California and released over a dozen excellent rare groove compilations that provided well-written, informative liner notes on all the songs included. Their total catalog is too long to mention, but of particular note was their outstanding, four volume Jazz Dance Classics series which made available such previously out-of-reach songs like Rusty Bryant's blistering "Fireeater" and Gary Bartz's soulful masterpiece, "Celestial Blues".
On the other hand, Keb Darge's well-received Funk Spectrum series (on BBE) has been a mixed blessing. He, along with co-compilers such as DJ Shadow, Pete Rock and Kenny Dope include a fair amount of song history in their liner notes, but Darge in particular has a tendency to spend far more time riffing about how he acquired these songs rather than writing about the songs themselves. His taste is impeccable so it's easier to forgive his self-aggrandizing comments, but his "I found this 45 underneath a drunk bum in Bristol" stories lay bare how many other funk compilers see themselves: treasure hunters rather than archaelogists.
That's why The Funky 16 Corners is such an important -- and necessary -- intervention. Largely the work of Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, a 23-year-old walking encyclopedia of funk lore and knowledge, The Funky 16 Corners boasts everything that its forefathers should have offered and more. Let's just get it right out of the way -- the music is outstanding, 17 of the most explosive soul and funk songs ever recorded (plus the CD sports two excellent bonus tracks). There's an impressive diversity to choose from, whether it's the heavy, soulful jazz of Billy Wooten's "In the Rain" or thefirecracker pep of the Kashmere Stage Band's anthem "Kashmere" or the simply irrestible rhythms of Ernie and the Top Notes' "Dap Walk". My personal favorites include the Co-Real Artists' "What About You?", an incisive call to social action underpinned by an ever-chattering bongo break and "Go to Work" by Revolution Compared to What, a wonderfully weighty, mid-tempo groover.
Beyond the music though, Alapatt goes all out in making sure that all the artists included are properly represented. This means full liner notes that include extensive information on each song, even down to the date of recording and the studio engineer. Alapatt also interviewed many of the surviving musicians and includes their comments and anecdotes. Just as entertaining are the many group photos that Alapatt intersperses throughout the booklet, including a priceless picture of Indianapolis' Rhythm Machine posing in front of an airport, arms outstretched and pointing towards the camera. (Importantly too, all songs are licensed -- a complete rarity in the field though it seems like such an obvious gesture.)
One can only hope that The Funky 16 Corners marks a turning point for future funk compilations. It is, far and away, the new standard-bearer. Its unselfish devotion to honoring the music and the musicians behind it can't correct the years of plundering that preceeded it but at least it starts to push the field in the right direction. At the very least, you're in store for a funk good time.