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."



Jackson Brown said...

Very cool, very cool.

Yeah, striving for blended media, at the very least, keeps one's content interesting.

If I understood the technology (well, really, if I took the time to research/experiment with it), I think it'd be tight if we could incorporate rap snippets along with our blog posts.

Think of it: the members of Funk Attack recording from our various locations, then compiling and publishing hip-hop over the web.

Might have potential.

Abdel Shakur said...

You know, that's a good idea since everyone except Alex has a blog...and come to think of it he has that conference blog.

I actually think that's a good idea.

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