Funk is flying high, 20 years later Roots: The slippery synths, fatback drums and heavy bass are as hip now as they were in the 1970s, when they were considered revolutionary.

June 23, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

As historians will attest, people tend to view the past in terms of the present. What we see as important historical events -- major discoveries, landmark decisions, social breakthroughs -- are significant only to the extent they have impact on our current situation. As a result, our notions of greatness change with dizzying rapidity, as that which seemed significant a decade ago turns out to have been merely incidental to life as we currently know it.

And nowhere is that turnover more rapid than in popular music. Twenty years ago, punk rock seemed such an assault on mainstream sensibilities that it was considered a serious threat to civilization as we knew it; now, that same three-chords-and-a-Mohawk aesthetic is so accepted that suburban parents think nothing of taking their teens to see latter-day punks like Green Day and Rancid. In the process, once-marginal acts like the Stooges, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks become considered part of the music's bedrock.

Perhaps the most curious re-think of all is the current attitude toward R&B. Where '60s soul was once the ne plus ultra of cool, now any insistence on the musical superiority of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or "Respect"-era Aretha Franklin virtually dooms a pop fan to fogeyhood. Although '60s soul seemed pretty vital when Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and the Blues Brothers were on the cutting edge, that sound seems pretty passe now.

What today's listeners prefer is more of a Carter-era sound. Between retro soul stars like D'Angelo, Tony Rich and the Brand New Heavies and hip-hop auteurs like Dr. Dre, DJ Pooh and Warren G, the slippery synths, fatback drums and heavy bass of '70s funk haven't seemed so hip since well, since the '70s.

But is this sound really representative of what funk was in the '70s?

It's not an idle question. From Madonna to Snoop Doggy Dogg to the Beastie Boys, plenty of pop stars are happy to play off the platforms-and-Afros vibe of '70s soul. But as avidly as these acts appropriate the wah-wah guitar and clavinet clatter of pre-disco R&B, there's a lot that gets left behind, from the Afro-centric soul of Earth, Wind & Fire, Mandrill and Osibisa to the sweet, pop-oriented soul of groups like Graham Central Station and Heatwave.

Moreover, the guts of what we consider to be '70s funk were actually recorded in the '60s. Sure, all the landmark singles fall safely within the appropriate decade's boundaries -- Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You Falletin Me (Be Mice Elf Agin)" entered the Top-40 in January 1970, and was followed by such classics as Isaac Hayes' "Theme from 'Shaft' " (1971), Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (1972) and the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" (1974) -- but the roots of this revolution run deep into the 1960s.

Need proof? Then look no further than the James Brown collection "Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag 1964-69" (Polydor 314 531 165). As the title makes plain, the 27 tracks included on these two CDs are all examples of pre-'70s recordings. Yet the sound and feel of these tracks is as modern as anything sampled by a gangsta rap act.

Visionary art

A lot of that has to do with the fact that Brown was one of the era's most visionary artists, making music that was years ahead of its time. Compare the churning pulse Clyde Stubblefield or John "Jabbo" Starks laid down behind Brown to the lean backbeat Al Jackson applied to singles by Sam & Dave or Booker T. & the MGs, and the difference seems almost generational. Where Jackson delivered the beat as a basic one-two-three-four, Brown's drummers feinted and dodged, shifting the emphasis from straight four to an implied eight, doubling the rhythm without increasing the pace.

What Brown's band did was open the door for the one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and feel of modern hip-hop. By changing the accents from alternate quarters to eighth-note afterbeats, Brown and his crew changed the feel of R&B as completely as the bebop movement transformed swing.

Like the beboppers', Brown's breakthroughs were not met with much commercial enthusiasm at the time. Although he had enormous success on the R&B charts, Brown only cracked the pop Top-10 six times during the period "Foundations of Funk" documents -- and one of those hits was with the decidedly unfunky "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

But that's not too surprising, for the greatest strengths the Brown band manifested didn't easily translate into three-minute pop tidbits. Brown's genius lay with being able to work a groove, and the best of these recordings not only stretch two-bar vamps into eight-minute marathons, but manage to make every second of that workout seem essential.

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