V/A: The Funky 16 Corners (Stones Throw, 11/1/01)
The Highlighters: “The Funky 16 Corners”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/05-The-Funky-16-Corners.mp3|titles=The Highlighters: “The Funky 16 Corners”]
The black-music renaissance of the ’60s and ’70s yielded all sorts of wild soul permutations. Psychedelic explorations, free-jazz epiphanies, black-power anthems, and resplendent gospel all powered an era that still fascinates our culture with its complexity and spiritual depth.
The sounds of those years continue to resonate through ongoing interest in soul revival. In the ’80s, there was the “breaks”-obsessed hip-hop scene, and quasi-legal ’80s compilations like Paul Winley Records’ Super Disco Brake’s and Street Beat Records’ Ultimate Breaks & Beats. Then there was the rare groove craze of the late ’80s and ’90s, and “acid jazz” comps like Ubiquity Records’ Home Cookin’ and Blue Note’s Blue Break Beats.
As the revival reached critical mass through the popularity of retro-soul stars like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the reissue game has flourished. And it hasn’t just been major-label corporations that have contributed to the deluge. Small indie labels such as Stones Throw, the Numero Group, Ubiquity, and Light in the Attic yield dozens of titles documenting the era’s vagaries. These labels tend to focus on the trickle-down stuff — the pick-up bands, amateurs, chitlin’-circuit veterans, and, in some cases, marginal industry players.
“Part of the interest in this stuff to me was that it never was a ‘classic’; it was somewhat lost and dusty, bound never to be heard by too many people,” says Andrew Jervis, vice president and A&R representative for Ubiquity Records. One of the oldest and most respected of the indies (it has a separate reissue imprint, Luv N’ Haight), Ubiquity has fueled many of the soul-revival trends, from the aforementioned “acid jazz” comps of the ’90s to full-fledged artist albums by underappreciated artists, such the 2007 reissue Betty Padgett.
“Beyond righting historical wrongs and telling good stories, the soul revival is really about timeless music; many of these soul reissues still sound fresh today.”
“It was all about one-off tracks” intended for dancers at acid-jazz clubs, Jervis says, referring to those early, singles-based “rare groove” comps. Eventually, however, “It became clear that the scene had more mileage in it,” he says.
The term “classic” can be a double-edged sword too. It confers legendary status on a handful of key recordings, but it also tends to reward the tried and true that everyone has heard a million times. By reviving sounds rarely heard before, indie labels such as Ubiquity effectively reintroduce those old, unheralded musicians as new, exciting artists.
The ultimate case of old-is-new-again may be The Funky 16 Corners. Assembled and released by Stones Throw Records in 2001, the compilation arrived at a serendipitous moment when hip–hop turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were mounting their Product Placement tour, spinning old funk 45s for standing-room audiences around the world. Newly formed revivalist bands such as Breakestra, Orgone, and the Sugarman Three approximated a sound rechristened “deep funk,” a nod to the art of searching (or “digging”) deep “in the crates” for rare vinyl.
“At the time in Los Angeles, particularly, there were actually club nights that focused around this music,” remembers Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, the Stones Throw A&R representative who produced The Funky 16 Corners.
“There was a very interesting sense of discovery. We all came up when hip-hop had its greatest years because of these sample sources that our favorite producers, geniuses in their own right, had at their disposal. And now we were finding the next level of sample sources, stuff that these guys would have never been able to get their hands on.” In a sense, the “deep funk” renaissance posited itself as an inheritor to the “golden age” of hip hop and producers such as Pete Rock and DJ Premier.
The Funky 16 Corners reached beyond vinyl-obsessed DJs, though, because it was so good. Packed with supremely funky cuts, from Co-Real Artists’ “What About You (In the World Today)” to the Rhythm Machine’s “The Kick,” it makes listeners wonder why those bands weren’t successful in the first place. Stones Throw took pains to contact many of the original artists (or their survivors), paying for licenses to the tracks and compiling a CD booklet’s worth of essays, reminiscences, and vintage photos. The package evoked a period when its songs were contemporary and vital.
“It was a real game changer,” says Oliver Wang, journalist, DJ (at Café Boogoloo in LA), and sociology professor at CSU – Long Beach who writes the blog SoulSides.com. “There had been other funk comps prior to that, but not with the same level and depth of liner notes, packaging, and licensing. Stones Throw did it legally, whereas a lot of the earlier funk 45 comps were just bootlegs.”
If The Funky 16 Corners brought DIY funk to a new audience primed from classic hip hop, then 24-Carat Black’s Gone: The Promise of Yesterday, released in August of 2008 by Chicago-based reissue label the Numero Group, explores the myth of the “lost album.”
In the late ’60s, Dale Warren wrote string arrangements for Stax Records, including Isaac Hayes’ atmospheric opus Hot Buttered Soul. 24-Carat Black should have helped establish Warren as a creative force in his own right. But its 1973 debut, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, was a commercial disaster. Though highly sought by collectors today, it barely survived record-store sale bins at the time.
Warren subsequently struggled to record a follow-up to Ghetto, shuffled band members, and embarked on disastrous promotional tours. Before 24-Carat Black fell apart, he managed to record dozens of tracks on reels of audio tape. Three decades later, Ken Shipley, co-owner of Chicago reissue label Numero Group, discovered the reels in a nondescript basement. Most of them were irretrievably damaged, with the data on the tapes having literally flaked away. Gone: The Promises of Yesterday salvages what’s left of 24-Carat Black’s doomed sessions.
Part of Gone’s appeal is that terrific tale, which the Numero Group details through old photos and an extensive essay, complete with anecdotes from Warren and others. The packaging gives context to 24-Carat Black’s elegiac, dreamy soul-jazz tracks and helps explain the uneven quality of the songs, which Warren recorded with different incarnations of the band. Gone isn’t really an album, but just a rough draft for an album that will never exist.
As Wang explains, “Had it been completed and finished, it probably would have sounded different than what you have. Yeah, it’s going to be unrefined, and, personally, I don’t even like most of the songs on there. But it’s this lost album, and that’s what makes it interesting.”
Myth also plays a key role in the career of Betty Davis. A self-described wild woman, as well as ex-wife and protégé of jazz giant Miles Davis, Betty Davis recorded three controversial, unsuccessful albums for Island Records in the early ’70s. Reviewers of the day wondered whether her outrageously uninhibited sexual persona and loose, stylized funk vocals were real innovation or just flashy image-making. New York Times critic Les Ledbetter wrote in 1974 that “Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs, and Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognizes the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.”
Thankfully, Ms. Davis is very much alive to enjoy the renewed interest in her work. In 2007, Light in the Attic Records reissued her albums— Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974), and Nasty Gal (1975). And in October of 2009, the label released Is This Love or Desire, a Betty Davis album that Island Records shelved back in the ’70s before releasing her from her contract.
LITA’s reissue campaign not only brings Betty Davis’ music to a new audience, but it seeks to restore her rightful place in the funk pantheon as a provocative, misunderstood eccentric. “When I listen to Betty Davis, she reminds me of Iggy Pop,” LITA owner Matt Sullivan says. “She’s not this incredible vocalist in terms of Tina Turner, but someone who has so much attitude that she doesn’t really care what anyone else tells her to do.”
Beyond righting historical wrongs and telling good stories, the soul revival is really about timeless music; many of these soul reissues still sound fresh today.
“You’d think that with all the record labels, and all the crate-diggers and all the people interested in this kind of music, that at some point that well would dry up,” Ubiquity’s Jervis says. “But no…there’s always some new discovery around the corner.”