Soul, Funk and Disco

The Lafayette Afro Rock Band “Malik” (America, 1975)

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You’ve probably heard Lafayette Afro Rock Band without even realizing it. Their song “Darkest Light” has been sampled by Public Enemy (“Show ‘Em Watcha Got”), Wreckx-N-Effect (“Rump Shaker”), and Jay Z (“Show Me What You Got”). Other snippets of LARB tracks also have appeared in cuts by LL Cool J, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, Gorillaz, and Pizzicato Five. And it’s easy to hear why: LARB brought the funk with pizzazz. Through these stealth methods, they’ve become integral to club culture. But they created plenty of riveting music that’s worthy on its own merits, not merely as fodder for other artists’ output.

The Lafayette Afro Rock Band consisted of seven musicians from Long Island, New York who cut two albums in Paris after deciding they’d have a better chance of breaking out in Europe instead of in the funk-saturated United States. Things didn’t quite pan out for LARB commercially, but 1974’s Soul Makossa and 1975’s Malik have emerged as underground funk classics. Aided by French producer Pierre Joubert, LARB created a flamboyant brand of funk that soared with buoyant horn charts and grooved with intricate bass/drum interplay. Ultimate party jam “Conga” predates the stark, percussion-heavy Latino funk of ESG and Konk by about six years. The title track is a laid-back, summertime-cruise joint whose loping rhythms, organ swells, and Kool & The Gang-like soul-jazz horn swoops evaporate your worries and LARB dabble compellingly with Afrobeat on “Raff.” The notorious “Darkest Light” is a paradoxical classic: It rolls sublimely on an utterly seductive rhythmic undercarriage, but above it there ululates a deeply melancholic sax motif, all of it filigreed with rococo guitar and some weirdly distorted organ (or electronically muted trumpet?). Whatever the case, the song endures as a moving (in all senses of the word) tribute to LARB’s phenomenal chemistry and arranging skills. They conclusively proved that a funk band didn’t need vocals to keep you interested. Every instrument on Malik sings with great eloquence and vibrant litheness.

(In 2007, As The Record Turns reissued Malik on vinyl. That may be the easiest way to score it on wax right now.) -Buckley Mayfield

Patrick Cowley “Muscle Up” (Dark Entries, 2015)

pcPerhaps you don’t spend much time thinking about gay porn soundtrack music. No worries—it is a fairly niche subgenre. But if you happen to be curious about this stuff, you could hardly do better than to explore the output of Patrick Cowley. Luckily for us, the Dark Entries label has reissued two collections of Cowley’s ’70s and ’80s work, School Daze (2013) and, most recently, the double LP Muscle Up. Whatever clichéd vision you have of gay porn soundtrackage, Cowley will make you readjust your expectations.

Cowley’s music is often eerily atmospheric and, yes, funky, but not in any cheesy, hamfisted way. Some tracks—like “Cat’s Eye,” “The Jungle Dream,” “Uhura,” “Mockingbird Dream 2,” and “Deep Inside You”—sound more like scores for space travel or nature documentaries than they do of cinematic sex. Beatier numbers like “Somebody To Love Tonight” and “Pigfoot” pump with a sexy thrust, but are also adorned with the sort of astral synthesizer dust that will enrapture Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Heldon fans. “5 Oz. Of Funk” is the most lubricious/tumescent piece here, and it is sure enough filthy to the core. But then you get something like “Timelink,” which sounds like a didgeridoo hyperventilating in the ozone layer. It’s kind of funny and ludicrous to think that this tune thrummed in the background of some dudes’ orgasmic experiences.

But credit to Cowley for landing this sort of utilitarian job and creating something extraordinary and subversive; what was probably a low-rent gig resulted in high art. [Muscle Up comes with informative liner notes and an XXX-rated poster.] -Buckley Mayfield

The Equals “Hit Collection” (President, 1971)

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It says something that I’ve only seen two Equals albums in all my years of record shopping—and one of ’em is this double LP of chart-dwellers by the multi-racial British R&B/pop-soul group. What it says is that some enterprising label really ought to do the legal legwork and reissue a grip of the Equals’ best material. Until that happens, you might have to make due with Hit Collection or the other Equals release I see most often, Baby, Come Back (1968, RCA). To understate things, they’re better than nothing.

Hit Collection gathers 24 songs from the Equals’ hugely popular (in Europe and England) early phase, and if you dig instantly catchy ’60s R&B sung with gutsy gusto by Derv Gordon and accentuated by the attractive, clipped guitar riffs of Eddy Grant (yes, the bloke who sang “Electric Avenue”), you’ll want to nab this comp… or the 7-inches of which it’s composed, if you’re a very patient and affluent collector.

Highlights here include the Northern soul stomper “Softly, Softly,” the enchanting chugger “Baby, Come Back,” the bubblegummy “Green Light” (which the Detroit Cobras have covered), the marauding “I Can See, But You Don’t Know,” and the exuberant outlaw anthem “Police On My Back,” made famous by the Clash on their 1980 LP Sandinista!

There are a few sappy moments on Hit Collection, but overall the songwriting quality is brilliant. We repeat: Let’s hope some savvy record company is planning to get the Equals’ music back into circulation. It’s way too good to languish in obscurity. -Buckley Mayfield

Gino Soccio “Outline” (Celebration, 1979)

R-610679-1226275879.jpegItalians certainty do it better… Disco so cold and spacious you won’t know when one track ends and the other begins. Bass bloops, bass lines, high hat, hand claps… All sterile, airtight and sealed in grooves ready for play.

Gino was the producer behind this listenable longplayer and he actually came by way of Canada… Montreal. Apparently the disco backlash that occurred in the States didn’t echo up North and they welcomed changes in the dance form, like most of Europe. Opener “Dancer” is a classic that would be played out often in America’s remaining discotheque strongholds, with folks like Larry Levan playing two copies of the track in excess of twenty minutes. That’s a groove that can hold a crowd.

“So Lonely” is a piano/seagull/tone generator sketch, then we get to the other dance floor heavy hitters, “The Visitors” (Donna Summer/Kraftwerk) and “Dance To Dance” (Philly-esque). Five tracks in total, three long players that show icy kinship with Italo, the future of dance music production, and the hidden years of North American disco. Throw it on the table! -Wade

Armando “One World One Future” (Radikal Fear, 1996)

CS2580024-02A-BIGIn the shifting world between Chicago and Acid, House was changing. Classics like “On and On,” “Your Love” and “Acid Tracks” seemed to come from other worlds and were made in totally different ways, but they all culminated into Warehouse music. Recognizable names to those merely interested in House may have heard of Jackmaster Farley, Marshall Jefferson, Mr. Lee, Mr. Fingers (“Washing Machine”), Phuture… Across the water the early converts were 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Sweet Exorcist.

But when it comes to a true original hailed by House Heads and the first wave of House pioneers alike, Armando was the one true treasure. While acting as a coveted resident DJ in Chicago, Armando Gallup also operated as a producer, prolifically creating singles that would eventually be collected by TRAX for many posthumous compilations… he passed after a battle with leukemia in the mid-nineties.

While many interviews with larger House artists show fanaticism over his work, the only official album release by Armando is “One World One Future.” This double LP shows the square-root of House: an infectious beat that keeps pumping, stark soundscapes, trippy loops. Not every track is a classic in the home listening sense, but each shows what you can be done on the floor with minimum/maximum production. Dancefloor optimal. -Wade

Double Exposure “Ten Percent” (Salsoul, 1976)

CS1910491-02A-BIGIt’s soul, it’s disco, but “Ten Percent” wasn’t on the radio for more than a blip in ’76. It was in clubs where Double Exposure, a quartet with a soulful Philly sound by way of New York, would find success. What made the record a hit in the clubs, though, was the ever-present high-hat cast over extended grooves…

Early DJs in New York like Nicky Siano were really playing longer cuts of soul records, sometimes going between two copies to hold the rhythms longer, and the featured single of “My Love Is Free” is a perfect example of what was pumping through the P.A. around The Loft or The Gallery. Plinking guitar notes, walking bass lines and subtle metronomic drumming backed with lush strings isn’t a bad thing to have playing with beautiful people dancing all around you.

This is really one of the first record releases to define Salsoul as dance label. Double Exposure released their first 12” dance single on Salsoul as well, the first of it’s kind. It was so successful, in clubs and financially, that other labels soon took notice, and that was the birth of the commercial remix. Dance culture now had a format. -Wade

Earth, Wind And Fire “That’s The Way Of The World” (Columbia, 1974)

Whiskeytown-Stranger's_Almanac_(album_cover) Actually a soundtrack accompanying the film of the same name, “That’s The Way Of The World” set the scene for the world of hit music and record executives. In this perfect world, Harvey Keitel is a successful high-level businessman working with Earth, Wind And Fire as well as The Pages, a newly signed band that represents pastiche and conformity in popular music. Obviously his ties are with the group known later for “Shining Star.”

That single opens up the album and alone is worth the price of admission really, but many other numbers produce the feel-good-get-down hits that Keitel’s character cares about so deeply in the industry… “Happy Feelin” and “Africano” are huge funk grooves with beautiful production.

No matter who you are, the warmth and care from Earth Wind and Fire is infectious. If only for a minute, you can leave your troubles behind and “See The Light.” -Wade

Dazz Band “Joystick” (Motown, 1983)

Dazz_Band_-_JoystickIf you are into mid-Eighties Prince, Gap Band or their closest kin, Midnight Star, then the electro-funk of Dazz Band may be for you. Right out of the gate, super crisp drum machines and thick synth lines wreck dance-floor havoc on “To The Roof” and hardly let up for the next thirty some minutes.

Inclusion of the self-titled single “Joystick” is a no brainer, but it’s also a strange one, making full use of vocoder and sequencers that must have been pretty foreign to folks being blasted with it over the air across the country. While the album does have some old-school slow-jams attached (“Until You,” “Now That I Have You”), Dazz Band mostly encapsulates what was the future of funk and a whole lot of Motown right here.

Swoop, I’m Yours! – Wade

Scritti Politti “Cupid and Psyche 85” (Virgin, 1985)

Scritti_Politti_-_Cupid_&_Psyche_85A change of attack was needed for Scritti Politti when pop form went back into vogue. Green Gartside ditched the first version of his group to work with session musicians, crafting perfect pop on top-of-the-line equipment. No longer presenting the jumble of styles heard on earlier singles, Scritti 2.0 would be crisp, clean, and pristine beyond recognition.

Green’s own living habits changed to reflect his new music as well. Originally a squat-dwelling punk with circles under his eyes, Green had kicked speed, started a workout routine and took much better care of his hair. He made the switch from ripped up blazers to sweaters and track suits. He still waxed lyrical of far-left ideals, but these statements are much more esoteric in this new pop format… It’s easier to focus on his vocal ability now, all saccharine-sweet in the mix next to sleek and dizzying sequencer beats.

All across the country, the U.S.A. played “Perfect Way” and “Wood Beez” on the air? It’s strange messages were pressed overseas by someone who once thought of himself as a Marxist, but the singles pressed beforehand with his first group were much harder for the average listener to swallow. Half listening, Scritti here sound like a rather innocuous pop act… but what were they subjecting us too beneath this shiny new surface? Hearing the contrast between the Rough Trade material and this monolith of a hit album is startling, but it’s similarities even more so. -Wade

The Rolling Stones “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones, 1980)

51H8tGhuOkL._SY300_Along with The Who pulling an “Eminence Front,” the Stones made some undeniably catchy tracks for more straight-ahead dancing. “Emotional Rescue” is the most blatant album example of this, and if you aren’t such a rock purist, it’ll sound pretty good to hear them put four on the floor in their opening tracks.

It’s all still The Stones though, even with their great chicken scratch rhythms and drum patterns squared off for tracks like “Dance” and “Send It To Me.” With less solos and almost no psychedelic intrusion, they still come off as an organic group, not sterile studio sessioners making a few bucks from Studio 54. Not all of the numbers are for the dance floor obviously, but then again “Indian Girl” doesn’t really scream for repeated listens the way their tackling of dance tunes do.

For Stones devotees, “Emotional Rescue” isn’t too bad to see them moving further sideways after the “Some Girls” punk reaction, into dance territory… and they avoid rubbing shoulders too much (ahem, title track) with white-soul New Wave, which is a blessing here. “Down In The Hole” helps confirm that they were exploring, and not drifting too far from their roots. -Wade

Tim Buckley “Greetings From L.A.” (Straight, 1972)

51jJnF-3yOLTim Buckley’s seventh album effort left quite an impression on me after I heard it’s centerpiece “Sweet Surrender” on the Johnny Rotten Capital Radio show from 1977. The whole show was great, mixing Celtic folk songs into Dub into Soul into Progressive Rock, Velvet Underground-affiliated solo projects, Beefheart, Can even… What a way to get hip quick!

But “Sweet Surrender” was the opener for his show as well, and it was the track that lingered longest in my head. So before exploring Buckley’s complete discography I jumped straight into “Greetings From L.A.” and I still think it’s his personal best. After albums of straight folk gave way to albums of avant-garde instrumentation and aural experiments using his impressive vocal range, he did an about face and moved back into a more conventional form; this time closer to Funk, Rock and Soul.

Buckley’s band is groove oriented whether quiet or busy, and in places they employ lush strings that fly as high as his voice can carry. He was not a limited singer. Actually, all that time making avant-recordings helped develop his voice as instrument approach, and when he belts out numbers like “Move With Me” or “Devil Eyes” he can really imitate those dirty bedroom yelps perfectly… No one saw this coming in his career arc, Buckley party music, but then again by the time he made it to this album he may have figured his audience wasn’t getting any bigger. Might as well have some fun, and it’s the most fun you’ll have listening to Tim. Try this one first. -Wade

Smokey Robinson “A Quiet Storm” (Tamla, 1974)

71IUgu2RM5L._SL1063_Defining a sound… just like he did at the beginning of Motown. Now here he his, just like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, going beyond the pop success for a new sound, new direction, new motivations. Marvin & Stevie went their way; and “Quiet Storm” was Smokey’s way.

His way was smoother, more gentler, never one to ruffle feathers like Marvin or Stevie did with their songs. That’s why Smokey is the genius he is; he didn’t try to do anyone else’s style but his own.

The album is quintessential Smokey…his same songwriting formula he has used for decades. You can imagine that if this were the mid 60s, these tracks would sound something like “Track of My Tears” or “Ooh Baby Baby”. The melodies and rhythms simply reflect what the 70s were about, using “non-native” instruments (latin percussions/rhythms), funkier beats and bass lines, and non-standard rhythms and times. Smokey is a master songwriter, always keeping his ear to what’s hip, and that what “Baby That’s Back Atcha” is; hip, funky, and totally Smokey. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is old-school Smokey and those from all the ‘hoods and barrios include this in their Oldies mixes (how ’bout that opening line? Vintage Smokey hooking you into the song). And the title track itself started a whole new sub-genre of R&B music…can you think of another song that has done that? Nothing more need be said. – MCB2