Many of us who grew up in the Seventies are convinced that the pop music of that decade is universally wretched. Of course, this isn't entirely true, but it is true enough: Listen to most of the smashes from that era and you'll find it all but impossible not to lose your lunch.
And yet there are exceptions. Lost amid the Seventies avalanche of tepid disco and toxic shlock was funk. Fathered by James Brown and reared by George Clinton, the style was dominated by big backbeats, thumping bass, undeniable grooves, riffing horns and gleefully lascivious lyrics perfectly in sync with the single-mindedness of the music. Moreover, a great many of these tunes still hold up after all these years--and, through sampling, have served as the spine of much of the finest hip hop to appear of late. Dr. Dre, through his work with N.W.A. and Snoop Doggy Dogg, has made the Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue a required part of every sampler's library, and new performers such as Coolio, Outkast, Raw Fusion and Kokane have based their careers on resurrecting so-called old-school sounds.
It's predictable, then, that record companies would start digging through their vaults in search of funk, as well as the early rap that so clearly drew from that tradition. What's surprising is the freshness of the material on the three most recent funk/rap compilations: Old School, released by tiny Thump Records, Raiders of the Lost Art..., on Scotti Bros., and Phat Trax: The Best of the Old School, an ambitious five-CD set due from Rhino. Because at least half of the songs heard on these discs were popular in urban cities along the eastern seaboard but hard to find west of the Hudson, younger fans likely will find the best of them to be revelatory.
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The Thump platter is a swell compilation, light on information but heavy on energy. Included are a handful of funk signatures, such as Parliament's epochal "Flashlight," the Clinton smash "Atomic Dog" and "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," by the Gap Band, an act often dismissed during its heyday in spite of its sublime funkiness. But just as enjoyable are "Mr. Groove" and "Cutie Pie," by the two-shot act One Way, "Five Minutes of Funk" and "Friends," by the early funk-rap combo Whodini, Frankie Smith's dopey "Double Dutch Bus" and Spyder-D's even dopier "Smerphies Dance." Most of these numbers are empty-headed, but that just means your skull will have more room for other stuff.
As you'd expect from a recording with two tracks from the Furious Five (who, with Grandmaster Melle Mel, produced "The Message," the most influential rap song of the early Eighties), Raiders of the Lost Art... features more topical concerns. There's pure get-down material here courtesy of Kurtis Blow's slinky "G-Party" and Whodini's "Do It Again," but the feel of the street invades the Furious Five's "Sun Don't Shine in the Hood." Not that you need a sociology degree to enjoy the album: It concludes with "The Cooley (Do the Cooley)," a low-IQ raveup from Afrika Bambaataa, whose Afrocentric approach inspired artists such as Queen Latifah and Arrested Development.
Rhino's approach on the multi-volume Phat Trax is more scattershot but ultimately just as satisfying. The album's producers have included several cuts, such as "Tramp," from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, that predate funk and likely had only a tangential influence on old-school innovators. Also present are a number of fairly questionable selections from the early Eighties, including "777-9311" and "Free World," by, respectively, the Time and Jesse Johnson's Revue, proteges of (I love saying this) "the artist formerly known as Prince," whose presence here is doubly puzzling given that Prince himself is not represented. But these weaknesses fade into insignificance thanks to the presence of danceable smashes from a slew of all but forgotten acts: Brick, Mass Production, Tom Browne, Slave, Con Funk Shun, Cameo, the Dazz Band and the Brothers Johnson among them. As a bonus, the majority of the songs appear in unedited, remixed versions that go on and on and on. For instance, the version of "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" here burbles along for more than ten minutes of apocalyptic fun.
Unfortunately, the fun won't last forever. Like the predictable nostalgia cycles that have led to recent revivals of country rock and singer-songwriter solipsism, the funk boom will no doubt run its course in the very near future. But until it does, there are a lot worse ways to flash back to the Seventies.