Friday Five: I got the funk

Let’s take a journey through some of the funky sounds of the 60s and 70s. The dynamism of African American politics, the consciousness shaped by the Black Freedom Struggle and a heightened awareness of the injustices the movement targeted, all fed an equally dynamic culture.

Let’s visit some expansive jams that captured the times, and served as the roots for so many more times to come.

5. “Darkest Light” by Lafayette Afro Rock Band (1975)
They were from Long Island but they came together as a band in France. This song is from their third album, 1975’s Malik, and features saxophonist Leon Gomez. It’s a famously and frequently sampled piece of music, ranging from Public Enemy to Jay-Z.

4. “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band (1974)
This is a cover, but it’s really so much more than the original. The band is a makeshift rhythm band put together to score a B-movie in the 70s. What they produce here has been called the national anthem of hip hop.

3. “Let A Woman Be A Woman – Let A Man Be A Man” by Dyke and the Blazers (1969)
A short-lived band that ended with the 1971 murder of founder and leader Arlester Christian.

2. “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin (1971)
From one of my favorite albums by the First Lady of Soul (Young, Gifted and Black), this is a funk masterpiece. While I’m only projecting (since I wasn’t born until the year after), I’ve always felt like it was one of those songs that captured the feeling of the times.

1. “Funky Drummer” by James Brown (1970)
It don’t get much more funky than this, James Brown directing the great Clyde Stubblefield on the drums as he produces a back beat that is the groove of so much later hip hop.

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…