Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Natural Way To Dro (Part I)

There only remained one piece of important business from my work at Indiana Review: Get funk art pioneer Pedro "Dro" Bell a copy of the Funk issue. We tried several times to send him his contributor's copies, but they kept coming back, so I figured the best way to get them to him would be to deliver them in hand.
After a season of cold spring Chicago days, a couple Saturdays ago the sun was finally peaking out from the clouds and it was getting warm. I decided to escape from the mountain of papers I had to grade and called Dro to see if he had time to meet up. I live on the Northwest side and Dro was over South in Hyde Park, so I had a train/bus ride ahead of me. He tried to give me directions, but I thought I was bad with my little Blackberry GPS and ended up getting lost. Anyway, I got over South finally and the cold wind off of the Lake had me shivering. I called Dro and told him to meet me in the Borders nearby because of the cold. He agreed and I went in. I'm familiar with that Borders because there are some Brothers who have chess games upstairs in the cafe. The guys talk all kinds of sheet, but they are good and quick, and although I hardly ever win, I learn stuff.

Dro said he was going to be wearing a long coat and a hat and that he shouldn't be that hard to find. He chuckled when I told him I had on a George Jackson t-shirt. "I know you cold," he said. I jogged upstairs to catch a quick game and ended up waiting for a long time. Finally, I extracated myself from a chess beatdown and called Dro to see what was up. He said that he had already been there, hadn't seen me, and went back home. He said he hadn't thought to go upstairs, but that he was almost legally blind and couldn't hardly see anyways.

He came back again and I met him at the entrance. He had a wooden artist's case, brown overcoat, and camoflage fishing hat that covered grey hair. Artists can be a strange lot, so it's hard to know how someone is going to be, especially when it's someone as influential (and cool) as Dro, but he put me at ease with a smile and a handshake. His coolness was further confirmed when we were getting ready to step back out into the cold streets and out of his bag, Dro pulled a cream-colored sports coat that fit me perfectly. "You going to need this, man."

Misstra Knowitall in coat (B-Boy stance)

Needless to say, I appreciated the gesture. We walked down to a nearby pizza joint and chopped it up for about three hours about all topics funk-related.

Pedro Bell, The Funkiest Drawer of Them All

One of the things I enjoy the most about Dro's work is the way he's able to dynamically combine words and pictures. Every illustration has some kind of textual component, either ironically commenting on the action or pushing you to look closer at the images. According to Dro, that's because he has always seen himself as a writer primarily. "I'm a writer who just happens to be an artist," he said, chomping on a burger with everything on it. "Writing was always easy for me. Drawing was work."

As a boy growing up all over Chicago, Dro learned to draw from his older brothers and learned the power of words straight from his daddy's Bible, specifically Genesis and Revelations, arguably the funkiest books in the Good Book.

"He used to read Genesis, and that turned me on to dinosaurs and Godzilla," he said. "I also got turned on to Latin, and that's where I came up with the idea of having a Rumpasaurus. Revelations was all about the future, which lead me to reading a lot of science fiction."

All of these influences are clear in Dro's work, which is at once silly, ironic, visionary, scary, and thoughtful.

When it came time to finish a Funkadelic album, George Clinton would come to Dro and pitch him a concept.

"It usually had to have a quick turnaround because the album would be so delayed and the studio wanted it," he said. Clinton would describe the album, play a few cuts, and then Dro would get to work. "Most of the time I would come from those meetings with a big picture of what I wanted to do."

Dro ended up doing work on all of the Funkadelic covers, which included graphics and liner notes. He notes that many of his creations ended up in song lyrics, like the title song for the Clones of Dr. Funkenstein album.

In Rickey Vincent's Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One, he describes Dro's contribution thusly:

"Bandleader George Clinton and writer-artist Pedro Bell were the primary sources of an endless flow of offbeat black philosophy that mocked the self-importance of religious and political doctrines wile subtly creating their own...Bell was also guilty of perpetrating a bizzare, Afro-centric mythology on long Funkadelic album cover essays, which complemented his felt-tip marker-drawn mutant-scapes of urban black life. Bell's visual imagery had the seamless layering of twisted symbols from the uncocnsious that Salvador Dali was known for, whil Bell's dark ghetto eroticism and hyperbolic grammar forged a new realm of black language."
If you haven't copped that book, you need to, by the way. Dro says his best cover is Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Because I had the time to work on it!"), even though it was censored by the record company after they deemed it too controversial.

This was the original:

And this was the censored version:

Despite the censorship, Dro understands the importance of the visual component to Funkadelic's success.

"If you have have group that has a concept that's visual, people will by the product," he said. Groups like Mandrill and The Undisputed Truth were impressive, but didn't have the longevity of Funkadelic because they lacked a coherent (literal) vision of themselves, and the world they were creating. "If you want to survive, you better have some visual concept, and if you really want to survive you better have more than that."

He thinks contemporary groups have learned the lesson and gives props to the Wu-Tang Clan for having "blended multimedia concepts" that will help their longevity. He also notes that this kind of production has to be collaborative. "All of that can't be done with just one dude, man."


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Don't Stop Til You Get Enough

I always lived in a world where Michael Jackson was the world's biggest living star. I'm not sure how to feel now. It seems like a seal has been broken somewhere. Is this a sign of the apocalypse? Michael was our pop-cultural Jesus Christ and now it feels blasphemous to have thought (and said) all of those things about him. But the world was never really ready for Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson wasn't ready for himself, he was so talented. And funky. And funky. And funky. Always funky.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Singularity of Funk (Part II)

So, The Singularity is the moment where human biology and technology become indistinguishable. It's our "if you can't beat 'em, than join 'em" moment. But does that mean we give up our minds? Our souls? God forbid, our Funk?

Roger Troutman is interesting because he was not only a funk pioneer, but he also made some damn sexy music by synthesizing his sound. And if you take a jam like "Computer Love," an all time favorite, and look at the lyrics, you see that he was already ahead of his time in terms of dealing with this Singularity issue:
You know I’ve been searching for someone
Who can share that special love with me
And your eyes have that glow
Could it be your face I see on my computer screen?

Need a special girl (Ooh, yeah)
To share in my computer world
I no longer need a strategy
Thanks to modern technology
The groove is so smooth that it's easy to overlook the subtext of what the speaker is saying here. He's been looking for someone who can "share that special love" with him. He finally finds a mate, but only recognizes her when he sees her eyes glowing on a computer screen. His exclamation about not needing a "strategy" because of "modern technology," sounds like something out of a late night infomercial, not a love song. Here we have a Funk jam that's giving us a lesson in dehumanization of intimacy brought on by technology. Although the speaker gets "Computer Love," you can't shake the feeling that he ain't done nothing but click his own mouse, so to speak.

Although Roger Troutman was known mostly for his sexy slow jams, it's significant that he started out with Funkadelic (most notably with The Electric Spanking of War Babies album) because beneath all of the funny costumes, wigs, and set pieces, they were deep into exploring how technology was affecting our understanding of philosophy, creativity, sexuality, and humanity itself.

One of the best examples of this is George Clinton's Computer Games, where he says:
I fidget with the digit dots and cry an anxious tear
As the XU-1 connects the spot
But the matrix grid don't care
Get a message to my mother
What number would she be?
There's a million angry citizens
Looking down their tubes at me
Clinton is talking about a world where computers alter our fundamental relationships (Get a message to my mother/what number would she be?) and where techno-voyuerism is mistaken for actual human connection (There's a million angry citizens/Looking down their tubes at me). Sound familiar? Although the speaker in "Computer Love" is a lot less aware of the implications of what's going on, both songs wrestle with how technology affects our human identity.

Outkast, who best represent the modern-day melding of funk and hip-hop, featured Clinton on the song "Synthesizer," from their brilliant Aquemini album, and took a similar tact.

Like almost every Outkast song, Big Boi spits (raw) lyrics that have nothing to do with the subject of the song, but both Andre and Clinton take the issue head-on.
George Clinton:

Conceived under the influence of toxic-wasted doctors
Computer buggin debuggin device-a and vice versa
and various viruses
Performing with laser light precision and verbal incision
For a lingustic ballistic lobotomy
Mind-fuckin you, a psycho-sodomy
of the medula oblongata
Accept your mind down your spine and out your behind

Andre Benjamin:
Synthesizer, microwave me
Give me a drug so I can make seven babies
Pump my breasts up, can you suck the fat up
Please make my life appear
like ain't no such thing as bad luck
I don't know how what to add to that except: yup.

Although the cautionary tone of these Funk explorations get us to think about how we're affected by technology, it's also significant to recognize that the song utilizes quite a bit of technology to create its sound. And although Funk is as ambitious as Gospel music in its goal of taking the listener's consciousness "higher," the address of your destination and the means of getting you there (whether pharmacological or technological) are quite different. Whatever it takes to make you shake your ass, Funk employs. However, The One is an introspective rhythm, so Funk also has the potential to free your mind as well.

These explorations of the creative and philosophical implications of technology are part of the reason Funk endures. Although I am just about over all of the "Computer Love" knock-offs, I'm hesitant to cast too many stones against Auto-Tune and the like. Music will survive. Neither Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, or his compatriots at Microsoft will ever put Funk completely out of business.

Besides, the true culprit isn't the computers. Auto-Tune might give us the ability to change the sounds of our voices at our whim, does it really matter if we're not saying anything?

Can you get to that?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Singularity of Funk (Part I)

I started reading Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near recently and one of the central ideas of the book is a prediction that technological innovation will reach a stage, in the very near future, where biology and technology will become indistinguishable. In other words, technology will become so advanced that it will allow us to "crack the code" of the brain and essentially "develop" our own consciousness manually. He calls this moment The Singularity. This raises a lot of serious questions for me, most importantly: what is the future of our Funking?

Well, with the proliferation of hip-hop artists (Lil' Wayne, Kanye, T-Pain, etc.) using Auto-Tune to synthesize their voices, it seems that the future is now. Jay-Z stirred a bit of controversy lately by calling for the death of Autotune-produced hip-hop, which he said was hurting the music he so desperately loves. Jay said he knew enough was enough when he saw Wendy's "Frosty Posse" commercial.

First of all, he's got a good point about the Wendy's commercial. It's funny and makes you feel bad about ever liking T-Pain (as we should).

But before we allow Rev. Carter to lecture us about the evils of commercials that use silly technology to strain the credibility of "real hip hop," I hope no one has forgotten his own foray into Super Bowl marketing back in 2007.

Budweiser sponsors Shula versus Jiggaman. I couldn't figure out who I felt more sorry for: Don Shula for having obviously hit rock bottom, or myself for ever buying a Jay-Z album. But I digress...

Auto-Tune is basically an audio processor that changes pitch and allows an artist to produce "flawless" vocals, no matter how untalented they may be (see: Paris Hilton, Brittney Spears, etc.) According to Wikipedia, Cher was one of the first to use the technology to change her voice for that Believe song she made back in 1998 (Be warned: if you click the link the song is going to be in your head for at least a week). But when I think of voice modulation, particularly the kind that's taking place in hip-hop, I think of only one name: Roger Troutman.

You may ask: Who is Roger Troutman?

If you asked that, take a moment to slap yourself. Not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough to get your attention.
Okay, now play this video.

Coming out of Dayton, Ohio, Roger Troutman and his brothers were discovered by George Clinton and cut their teeth on Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking of War Babies album. He and his brothers went on to start Zapp in the early 80s and ended up making some of the most influential Funk cuts of all time. Joints like Computer Love,

More Bounce to the Ounce (produced by Bootsy Collins),

Zapp & Roger Troutman - More Bounce To The Ounce

I Want to Be Your Man,

Zapp & Roger - I Want To Be Your Man

and Slow and Easy

These cuts are still being (over)sampled to this day. Troutman's use of an electronic "talkbox" (the precursor to Auto-Tune) pushed the Funk envelope and presaged (for better or worse) the dawn of the T-Pain era we currently live in.

next: The Funkadelic Matrix

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fun Knees

Ever since I was a little Knowitall, I've been in love with Dan Piraro's Bizarro comic. Sometimes he's dark, sometimes he's political, but he's always weird. He's got a really cool blog where writes a little bit every day about the comic that he drew that day. It's interesting to get insights into his process and a view into the twisted mind behind the curtain.

If only Nicholas Gurewitch, who writes Perry Bible Fellowship would start his own blog. For now, we'll just have to enjoy his website, where he regularly posts new comics. Word of warning: dude is sick.

Oh yeah, don't forget about the genius of Jackson Brown's Cake and Potatoes.

***And that reminds me...

Have you seen the Garfield minus Garfield comic? Basically, Dan Walsh wondered what John Arbuckle's life would be like without his sarcastic cat, so he removed Garfield completely. The result is basically addition by subtraction. Instead of the same old unoriginal punchline, the comic becomes something tragic and haunting (and funny in a different way). Reminds me a little bit of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy in the World.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Funk for Dummies

Dr. Bootzilla breaks down The One.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009