As promised, here’s the second part of our conversation with author, filmmaker, music historian, and cultural critic Nelson George on his new music documentary Finding the Funk, which traces the lineage of what Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (in his narration for the film) aptly calls an “essential and under-appreciated musical movement.”
In yesterday’s first installment George talked about genesis of Finding the Funk (on which he collaborated with producer extraordinaire Arthur Baker and VH1 Rock Docs), why funk never broke out like soul or hip hop, and the genre’s working-class, Midwestern underpinnings. In part two he addresses the eternal funk question of Earth, Wind & Fire vs. Parliament-Funkadelic; ponders chasing Prince; reflects on the changes in black music since his 1988 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, a passionately argued study of black culture’s fraught relationship with white society; and selects some of his choicest funk tracks.
Additional work on the Funk will take place this summer, but if you’re at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto you have one more chance to see the current, work-in-progress version, 1:30pm Saturday at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
MFW: D’Angelo makes the point in the film that, much like with the Beatles and the Stones, back in the day you were either a P-Funk guy or an Earth, Wind & Fire guy. Which were you?
Nelson George: I was probably more Earth, Wind & Fire back in the ’70s and ’80s. They were the most amazing live band I’ve ever seen. They were just so precise. I always thought of them as watching Ellington or something. The way their arrangements were live, with the percussion, the horns, they used kalimba – they used the entire spectrum of R’n’B, plus Afro-Cuban, plus African instrumentation. Their harmonies were amazing. I thought they just did everything beautifully. P-Funk was a different experience. It was much more like a Grateful Dead experience. They could be sloppy, they could be unfocused, but then when they hit it, it was just like, “Wow.” They would play, especially when they played smaller venues, two, three, sometimes 3 1/2 hours, if you caught ‘em on a good night.
Is there anyone that you really wanted to get for the movie and couldn’t?
I think Prince would still be the guy. He’s been reluctant. He doesn’t really do interviews anymore. Prince doesn’t even really clear his music [laughs]. We’ll have to just cheat around that a little bit. He just doesn’t want to talk about this stuff. I reached out to him, and I may go back again and say, “Look, I got Sly, I got George, I even got James Brown. Dude, this is the only doc that has D’Angelo. I have this whole lineage and you’re the only thing missing. You can even just answer your own questions [laughs]. Shoot it yourself.” So I’m gonna take a swing at him.
The other person I want to get in, this summer if I can catch him, is Larry Blackmon, because I think Cameo was one of the only bands that really made the leap over from ’79-’80 to ’83-’84. By that time most of the funk bands really started falling off, or they had shrunk. Cameo was the one band that really made that leap into the era of video, the era of the new technology, stripping down a band from 10 pieces to three pieces, and having, actually, their biggest hits after that. So I’d love to get Larry in, talking about his evolution from more traditional funk to the sort of synthesizer and drum machine funk. Those two pieces – I think there’s some other people I want to put in, but they would really add a lot to the doc.
It’s been 25 years since you published The Death of Rhythm & Blues. I’m curious as to how you think that book might differ if you wrote it today, both in terms of what’s happened since then and with the fact that you’re an older man.
I was thinking of doing a book about hip hop, and as I really sketched out the book I felt like it was gonna be too negative. I thought, I don’t really want to write that book. I felt like there was a distance. I remember when I was younger and my whole point, what made me want to be a music writer and a music historian, was, I would read reviews, in Rolling Stone for example, of funk bands, and I would just think, these guys don’t dance [laughs]. How can they write about these bands if they don’t dance? It’s coming from an intellectual point of view and not a visceral, and I don’t think you can write about funk without dealing with the visceral. I thought that was crazy. I didn’t want to be the guy writing about Waka Flocka Flame, because I’m not really gonna dance to that. So I’m actually gonna do another book now on funk, this evolution of funk from the ’60s to now, to look at how a musical culture can go through these different evolutions.
One of the last sections of The Death of Rhythm & Blues deals with hip hop, and hip hop basically ate R’n’B. The generation of musicians that came up, say, post-Teddy Riley, they were so hip hop-based that a lot of the musicality of R’n’B really got lost. Mary J. Blige, her first two albums she mostly sings over samples, and that became standard. It wasn’t about band music, it was about R’n’B over hip hop, and that dominated for a long, long time, with the exception of the neo-soul moment. The neo-soul thing, that whole generation of D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Maxwell, was in the tradition of R’n’B, but at the time that seemed like an underground thing, because what became mainstream R’n’B through R. Kelly and Beyonce and Mary was much more hip hop. I think that’s the hugest thing [since the original book] – that traditional R’n’B got eaten by hip hop.
And, if you’re looking at the R’n’B journey, the fact that Adele and Amy Winehouse – there’s a whole wave of female, some white, some black British singers who are doing great records, that are much more invested in soul music traditions than what younger black artists are doing. A big chapter would’ve been why London in the last decade has become such a soulful place. Those are some of the things I probably would have dealt with, and maybe I’ll allude to them a bit in the funk book. If I did The Death of Rhythm & Blues now I’d [also] go much more into the educational system, how music in the schools has become very inaccessible outside of private schools.
I want to do a lightning round and ask you for a few of your favorites, your most choice tracks. What’s your favorite JB track?
Uh … “The Big Payback.”
Sly. Track or album, because he was more album-oriented.
Oh, man. “Family Affair” is my favorite record by him, only because it’s just so mysterious and evocative and rich – it seems like there’s so much going on with that record. The sound on it is still kind of unique. I would say that and “If You Want Me to Stay.” Those records have that cool, dark thing that no one else does.
[Long pause] I’ve been listening to a lot of P-Funk. It’s hard to say. I’d probably say “Knee Deep.”
Earth, Wind & Fire.
“Can’t Hide Love.”
No, I love Springsteen.
I know, because I just read your memoir, so I’m throwing that in.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Actually, the whole album.
This may be a slightly rockist question, but how did Springsteen resonate for you, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, spending time in the projects?
I was listening to a lot of the rock stations as well as R’n’B, and I remember hearing “Born to Run,” and I was really intrigued by it. I read a ton of stuff about him, read a lot about the shows at the Bottom Line. [Editor’s note: Springsteen did a now-legendary week at the New York club in August 1975, previewing the Born to Run album.] So I went out to my favorite record store and bought the album and brought it home. And I was shocked to see Clarence Clemons on the back cover – who’s this black guy? At the time, there was really a schism. Rock radio didn’t play anybody [black] but Hendrix or Sly, and black radio maybe played the Average White Band.
And there were very few interracial groups.
There really weren’t. So I was struck that this guy is “the future of rock ‘n’ roll” and he’s got black [band] members, and he’s prominently featuring these black members on his album cover. And the relationship of Clarence’s saxophone to Springsteen’s voice – the sound was really interesting. I really enjoyed the album. Although I must say, the Darkness on the Edge of Town album really, really resonated with me. “Adam Raised a Cane,” some of the other songs. There was a desolate beauty to that album that really struck me. I always thought he was a great songwriter. I love the imagery in his records. Also, ironically, at that time we moved – my family moved from the projects to another development in an integrated part of Brooklyn. It was my first time living in a mixed neighborhood and going to a mixed, integrated high school. That also played a role, I think, in my being open to purchasing and telling people I listened to Bruce Springsteen, which I probably wouldn’t have done when I was living in the projects.