Making an Old Bag New Again

Desco Records and Breakestra Put Funk Back on the Good Foot

As it seems to have done every decade since its birth in the '60s, funk is making another resurgence into the American soundscape. However, unlike the sound strip-mined by rap and r&b producers, this is funk whose legacies are found only on forgotten 45s and LPs stashed away in dusty record bins. It's the difference between the sickly sweet, over-orchestrated orgies of the post-Parliament, pre-disco era and music made for late-'60s Saturday night house parties in the rural South and urban tenements—funk where back-busting breakbeats, sweaty guitar rhythms, and thrusting horn choruses communicate the profane language of sex.

At the head of this nascent revival is New York's two-year-old Desco Records. Desco specializes in "guaranteed, no-bullshit, heavy, heavy funk," which it aims to achieve by dumping digital's "cold, brittle" sterility and embracing instead the hot, loud roughness of old-fashioned analog tape. Not coincidentally, all of Desco's dozen-plus singles have been released on 45-RPM seven-inch, and its LPs are pressed on vinyl plates dense enough to serve dinner off.

So is this music strictly for trainspotters now? Desco's new album by soul semi-legend Lee Fields, Let's Get a Groove On, is crafted with obsessive attention to detail, all the way down to its Dixie soul artwork. A contemporary of James Brown years ago, Fields borrows more than just the Godfather's slick pompadour as he screams and hollers over a blatantly derivative juiced-up JBs-style rhythm section. But originality may be beside the point; Desco walks a fine line between inspiration and imitation. The label is less interested in unearthing a hidden past for contemporary presentation than in the obverse: forcing today's pop community to rediscover a lost world of classic funk. It's a gamble that doesn't always pay off, such as in Fields's LP, which invokes familiar sounds of Brown, Fred Wesley, and Clyde Stubblefield but never establishes its own identity. In contrast, though the spoon-fed song descriptions on Nino Nardini's Rotonde Musique (also on Desco) seem silly—"Soul Walk: medium tempo, heavy rhythm with soul style organ"—the music itself is no laughing matter, mixing together Latin-soul fusions, darkly Blaxploitated grooves, and breakneck organ romps. Rotonde Musique is the secret imaginary-soundtrack stash of anonymous funk that crate diggers daydream over finding.

While Desco's LP series has been uneven, its 45 series has suffered no such fate, pleasing collectors enough that every new single sells off the shelves as soon as it's filed. While the series has produced instant classics like Fields's "Steam Train" and "Catalyst" by the Knights of 41st St., much of its lure and lore derive from how 45s seem to capture a unique moment, dynamically etched into grooves, yet kept intimately accessible in their small, simple design.

Of course, ultimately, such details won't be appreciated by a generation of consumers who don't own phonographs and who are more likely to remember Bobby Brown than Bobby Byrd. If the musical legacy of small-label funk has managed to traverse the ages at all, it owes its biggest debt of gratitude to hip-hop's insatiable appetite for samples. It's easy to forget in this era of studio-shiny Swizz Beatz and Timba land tracks, but hip-hop graduated from the old school to the new under the tutelage of producers like Marley Marl and Jazzy Jay, who livened the drum machine's mechanical drone with a breakbeat science grifted from soul obscurities like Melvin Bliss's 1977 "Substitution." It's safe to say that, if the Rhythm of the One has found new life in everything from pop rock to drum 'n' bass, hip-hop has paradoxically been both mother and child of these inspirations.

This serendipitous, circular route of sampling (il)logic explains a band like Los Angeles's Breakestra, led by bassist Miles Tackett, who leads a double life as a hip-hop producer. As suggested by their name, Breakestra specialize in mastering vintage tracks made famous by hip-hop songs that sampled them. In live performance, the band can swing into the staccato horn bridge of Marva Whitney's "It's My Thing," transform that into the electro-fusion of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," then shift into a gumbo downbeat cribbed from Allen Toussaint. But Breakestra are more than just a soul-revue band. They've begun to synthesize original songs out of the mass of styles they've memorized, starting with "Getcho Soul Togetha Pts. 1 & 2," a 45 single (naturally) pressed by the indie hip-hop label Stones Throw. On one hand, "Getcho Soul Togetha"'s Mardi Gras rhythms obviously mimic the Meters, but consider Josh Cohen's four drum breakdowns in "Pt. 2": Such gratuitous stick-work can only be a nod toward the needs of modern hip-hop DJs searching for monster breakbeats to backspin into eternally looped dance tracks. Rather than producing for connoisseurs, Breakestra create new funk for a generation who may not know enough to trace the music's genealogy, but who have the savvy to know what's funky enuff when they clap their hands, stamp their feet, and snap their necks in mesmerized adulation of the grand groove.

Desco: www.descorecords.com or 212-465-8195. Breakestra: www.baselinemedia.com/breakestra/ or 310-455-2816.

 
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