Rickey Vincent literally wrote the book on funk. The college professor, writer, and radio DJ, who resides in Berkeley CA with his wife and two sons, is the author of the acclaimed music history book Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One (St. Martin's Press) which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. If you don't already have this book, with a forward by George Clinton, I highly recommended it since it is the most comprehensive study on funk.
In addition to being an author & journalist, Vincent has taught at City College of San Francisco and SF State University where he taught a course entitled Protest Music Since 1965: Funk, Rap and the Black Revolution. Rickey is also a longtime Bay Area radio DJ at stations KALX and KPFA, where he still hosts his popular weekly funk show The History of Funk, Fridays at 10PM on 94.1FM.
The widely respected funkateer's musical knowledge (and music collection) is unmatched. I recently caught up with Vincent to talk about the funk/hip-hop connection and the impact of funk and black music in general on both American and global cultures, among other things. The conversation inevitably turned to godfather of soul / funk pioneer James Brown a few times during the interview.
Vincent is currently finishing up last minute details on his next book Party Music -- a fascinating historical account of the Black Panther Party's own funk band, Oakland's The Lumpen, who took popular funk songs and rhythms but substituted more revolutionary lyrics. (Look for a future interview with him about this upon its publication.) For more information on the author, you can visit Rickey Vincent's website or his MySpace. You can also read his book or check out his show on KPFA.
AMOEBLOG: For those who don't know, what is your history, when did you first start doing music stuff?
RICKEY VINCENT: Well, I was going to Berkeley High School in the late 70's and that was when the big Oakland Coliseum funk band concerts were happening on a regular basis. For example, I think I remember seeing Rose Royce, The Brothers Johnson, and Brass Construction. I saw the Isley Brothers, Grand Central Station, and L.T.D., I think. So these are like these line-ups of massive bands that kept coming. The Commodores and Heatwave came one night. I thought Heatwave actually was the strongest show [or the two] and of course I saw Earth, Wind & Fire maybe 4 or 5 times.
My dad took us to see my first real concert in 1975-- Earth, Wind & Fire's Gratitude Tour where they had a lot of big show stopping effects and I remember when they would do their jazz interludes, that's when I would go and get a soda at the snack bar. I didn't think much about the jazz part, the musical part, I just wanted the hits. I just wanted the jams basically. A few years after that of course I was into the Parliament Funkadelic, P-Funk and they came in 1977 and landed the spaceship, they came twice that year.
AMOEBLOG: So you were at those legendary Oakland shows?
RICKEY VINCENT: I was at the second one, the Flashlight tour that landed the spaceship and basically changed my whole existance at that point. I had witnessed the landing of the mothership and you'll find a lot of the west coast hip-hop people like Dr. Dre, Too Short and these folks, they all went through that experience also. That's why that big crazy beat is so much a part of that G-Funk sound. All those guys were kind of, had come out of the heavy, heavy, it's space funk but it was also George Clinton gangster funk at the same time. I took that as a lesson that said you can come from the street and still have a real intelligent vision for yourself and for the world. It was cool to be smart and street at the same time with P-Funk. How many records are called Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome? That's a lot of syllables! (laughs) That's a lot of ideas and yet "Flashlight" was on that album.
So we're talking about some of the hardest hitting street funk in the world and with a lot of concepts to work with. Only now, you know, with the election of Barack Obama, is it cool to be kind of smart and street at the same time cause you can try to be more than just gangster. You can be president and still be cool. So at that time, you know, P-Funk was more than just a musical group. They were bringing together all of these other traditions of music and jazz and the soul singing and the hard rock funkadelic elements of it. And so I looked at that as bringing all that stuff together. And of course every teenager thinks their music is the hottest stuff in the world but then when I wound up at UC Berkeley in the 80's I volunteered at KALX starting in 1983 and that was when all the independent label rap records 12" singles were coming through the new records bin. And so the KALX DJ's were basically the first people on the west coast to get their hands on some of the edgier, coming up, bubbling up beats and rhymes coming out of the North East-- coming out of primarily New York City but by '84, '85 you know, it was starting to branch out and by '86 and even later in '88 we would get Schoolly D and Audio Two. I mean, these are some off the beaten path [groups] but yet central to the narrative of hip-hop overall. But we were getting the indie labels at KALX and learning, you know, how broad the idea of the funky beat is, how raw the idea of the rhyme is and of course I was getting a clear sense of how relevant the funk was to these beats.
All of the early music was still either recorded in a studio with a band that was a funk band or there were samples. You know, a loop of classic funk records, and it was kind of a no brainer to me to see this going and so it was sort of an untold story within a story and it was something that DJs initally were very protective of that legacy. You can hear Afrika Bambaataa telling people that he would wash the labels off of his records so that competing DJs wouldn't know who it is he is playing when he would get into an eclectic mix and people wanted to know what he was playing. So it was part of this secret society of groove masters, the DJs. But I looked at it as a continuation of that legacy of the funk and a new generation had picked it up and really only in a span of five or six years. The funk had gotten crushed down thanks to disco and a lot of other commercial forces but then youngsters were picking it up, remixing it, putting new beats on it and putting rhymes on it and putting records out with it.
And by the later '80's the [funk] bands enjoyed a resurgence, so they were coming back. You heard P-Funk, you heard Cameo, you heard Lakeside, you heard the Ohio Players and so on -- all renewed interest based on people sampling their music. So I found myself in a natural place of telling the history of this music when everyone was enjoying the remaking of it. They were returning to a sense of history with the music that really only went back to the late 60's with James Brown. So the hip-hop beats were based around these rhythms basically invented by the James Brown band. So for a while, [for] the people who were into hip-hop, music began with the James Brown funk beat. While there were exceptions to that, for the most part, certainly on the whole, 80's hip-hop was based on the James Brown funk beat. So I organically or naturally found myself telling this story of the funk, the funk that was coming out at that time and then the history of where it came from. So I fell into telling the history of funk just as a DJ.
AMOEBLOG: RIght, so your comprehensive book on the history of funk was also then a natural next step. But I wanted to ask you about the correlation between funk and African music, especially Afropop artists like Nigeria's Fela Kuti, whose music when I first heard it reminded me very much of funk in structure-- these rhythm-driven long extended trance like jams that went on and on.
RICKEY VINCENT: Yeah, there absolutely is a correlation. If you asked James Brown what people did, he would say he didn't know that there was anything [that] was African about it. He just played it and told his band, we don't need the three and a half minute version -- play it for six minutes, play it for nine minutes. He told his band that, just for the sake of making a satisfying show, if these people want this groove you just stay right there. You lock in this pocket and you do what you do; if you are on rhythm guitar you play this rhythm for six, eight, ten minutes. So he sees himself as the inventor of the extended play. But you also must remember that what was happening in the late 60's/early 70's was, you had this kind of whole cultural move away from these Western kind of approaches to music. And one of those approaches to music was the songwriting of songs that lasted 3 or 4 minutes. And the part of this rebellion, if you will, of the late 60's and the black revolution was this absorption and celebration of -- maybe not all things African -- but certainly a lot of cultural artifacts from Africa. And part of it was the popularity of African drummers and musicians like Hugh Masekela and Babatunde Olatunji and people like that who would be on tour and playing jazz clubs and places where hip people would hear about African music and move it into their repertoire.
Now, James Brown discovered, when he went to Africa in 1970, and also in 1968 he went, that soul music was incredibly popular and so their trips and a lot of R&B groups that went on tours to Africa, they found that West Africa was completely overrun by soul music and James Brown was the king of West African popular music in that same period. And they got an influence and brought it back and people like Manu Dibango with his "Soul Makossa" and coming I think from Cameroon and he brought it back. And that [1972 single that would influence Michael Jackson's 1983 song "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'] influenced many, including Kool & The Gang and their "Jungle Boogie."
So you had this cross-polination between African popular music, High Life, and you had Fela Kuti, who did the same thing. He got politicized and he came to America during the black power movement in 1969. And he went back to Africa and made this lengthy political manifestos over Afrobeats. So the cross-polination was very strong, particularly among the artists. So you would find that by 1970, 1971, 1972 these rhythm and blues groups would all have a congo player in the band. So you had the bringing in of the African approach to music making, which was heavily rhythm driven...Of course, this had been happening in Latin America, in the Caribbean, all around the African diaspora -- the extended jam session as a part of life. And of course American music in the 70's and 80's picked up on that with the Go-Go and the hip-hop and with DJs, it would keep a party going all night long.
MANU DIBANGO "Soul Makossa" (1972)
AMOEBLOG: So James Brown should be credited as being more than just a musician -- as a black power leader as well as being the pioneer of the extended funk jams?
RICKEY VINCENT: James Brown was given credit for it, deservedly so, because his leadership, his sound and style authenticated it. This was the music of the street. This was the black street music: "Soul Power," "Sex Machine," and "Mother Popcorn." These songs weren't novelties: they were emanating from the street. Young black kids were coming of age during the rebellion and wrapping their soul style around all of those things that were coming up. In the early 60's Martin Luther King had led black people, particularly black people, to come up with a sense of worth and a sense of we-can-affect-some-change in our own situation. You know "A Change Is Gonna Come" [by Sam Cooke], that was written in 1964 but by 1968 all hell was breaking loose. And so James Brown was in the midst of the death of Martin Luther King, in the midst of all the riots, in the midst of the black militants and James Brown stood up and said: "Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud" and he gave young kids something to help identify with that message.
And then with that groove, that was something that you just naturally fell in with and it defined you. It didn't just entertain you. It defined you. So James Brown was an essential player in helping black folks define who they are and then helping create this new palate, new foundation of music that was groove based. It was beat based. And so when the young people that came up in the music, like I came up as an early teenager in the early 70's listening to soul radio, listening to KDIA out here in Oakland and KSOL, and at 10,11,12 I didn't really care much for the ballads. I just wanted the beats. I just wanted those funk beats...So I was one of millions of a generation in the 70's that came up in a post blues sensibility in terms of black music. Yeah, the soul music is nice, the ballads are fine, but give me that beat. And that was happening all over the States in urban areas where people wanted that funk beat and something to do with it. And of course the Bronx is where they figured out exactly what to do with it and hip-hop happened.
AMOEBLOG: How indebted is pop music around the world to black American music?
RICKEY VINCENT: As I study the music as far back as the technology allows, there was the huge appeal of swing jazz in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's. That was one of the narratives of resistance against the Nazis-- people that had jazz music in their house and played it. So there has been this tradition of sort of insurrectionary musical lifeblood that was coming out of particularly American music, African American music has for a few generations has this, I don't know if you want to call it a magical combination, but it has this very compelling combination of structure that is familiar to people in the West and yet this groove that can't be mapped out...that just grooves people and takes them away and it's an insatiable thing.
So from the sixties on there have been rock groups and R&B groups all around the world coming up that are directly influenced. And we are getting more of it now with the technology. We are discovering that there were Turkish R&B bands or bands decades ago or bands in Japan or Indonesia and all around the world playing black American music. They didn't call it R&B, maybe called themselves 'dance bands,' but we are continually finding that people were directly influenced by American soul and particularly American funk, and most certainly James Brown. So you can find a lot of compilations of international dance music from the 70's onwards [where] basically if you had to credit one person even for the existence of this sound it would be James Brown.
But it was heavily influenced by American soul and pop music, which is influenced by the street music in the black communities, which is the funk. And it helps people [overseas] identify with a sort of culture of resistance of their own that resonates with what is happening with the resistance movements in the United States in the belly of the beast, in the big country. People were able to define themselves as a part of something Western but yet find a groove that was anti-Western at the same time. That's how I look at it in the social context.