A Beginner's Guide to the Daktaris
It's a couple days after the traumatic Daptone Records robbery—in which thieves broke into the label's Bushwick studio/headquarters and carted off thousands of dollars' worth of the vintage microphones and audio gear that helped make Sharon Jones a modest (and Amy Winehouse a decidedly immodest) retro-soul star—and Gabe Roth isn't in the best mood. The Daptone kingpin and bassist for house band the Dap-Kings slept on the couch last night to deter the burglars from returning for a second helping, and he's still taking stock of what's missing.
What's not missing, thankfully, is his momentum: Amid the peeling paint and colorful posters (for Sharon Jones and local Afrobeat affiliates Antibalas) that line the walls of his converted duplex hangs a gold record for Winehouse's Back to Black. (The Dap-Kings, though primarily used as Jones's backing band, also supplied that album's vintage backdrop.) And although Roth frets over the missing gear, he's nonetheless going forward with plans to record Rod Stewart's next American Songbook installment. "I just had a meeting with Clive Davis," he says sheepishly.
It's quite a leap from Daptone's early days, when Roth, some NYU buddies, and a charismatic record collector named Phillip Lehman maxed out credit cards recording album after concept album of raw-sounding funk, putting whatever names they wanted to on the covers and selling them to the initial few who cared. His current success was partly set in motion by one of the more obscure releases in the label's catalog, one that fell out of print for many years and has only now been re-released: Soul Explosion, by the Daktaris, a band that does not exist. It was a joke: a fake reissue complete with bogus personnel listings and a blurb that announced "Produced in Nigeria" even though it was actually recorded at a heavy-metal studio on Long Island.
Musically, it didn't sit squarely with the rest of Daptone's catalog, leaning into Nigerian funk and Afrobeat, styles that in the mid-'90s were unfamiliar to all but the most devoted record-hounds. Featuring covers of Fela Kuti, James Brown, and an obscure Ethiopian tune along with a handful of credible-sounding originals, Soul Explosion is scratchy and raw to the point of total distortion, old-school to the point of being crude. Drums claw like they were recorded on a cheap cassette player, guitars practically scrape the insides of your speakers, and the horn section sounds like it's blasting out of a loudspeaker at the other end of a parade ground. And yet the whole thing is impossibly funky—a genuine crossover between African rhythms and Deep South funk, like James Brown recording in Lagos, or Fela in Memphis. Released right after Fela died in 1997, the record sold a few thousand copies and promptly disappeared just as interest in the genre was spreading.
"That record is definitely pivotal—it really spearheaded the Afrobeat music revival in the United States," says Ray Lugo, whose own band, Kokolo, was inspired by the Daktaris record. Saxophonist Martin Perna, who played some solos on Soul Explosion, was so taken by the new sound that he formed Antibalas, now widely credited with helping to jumpstart that revival. (In fact, they recently served as the house band for the widely praised Off-Broadway Fela Kuti musical, Fela!) "Basically, Antibalas was filling that void that Martin thought the Daktaris should have been filling," says trombonist/guitarist Michael Wagner. "The transmission is clear: Phillip to the Daktaris, because he introduced us to all that Afrobeat and Afro-funk stuff. The Daktaris to Antibalas. Antibalas to everyone else."
The album had an impact on Daptone's fledgling funk mini-empire as well. "I felt like that was really where we came into being a band at that point, instead of just copying James Brown," says Wagner, who as "Don Bonus" played on all the early Daptone (then known as Desco) records. The band and the label's origins are intertwined: NYU mates Roth and Wagner met Lehman in 1995 after hearing his reissues of old funk records on the French-based Pure label. Joining forces, they began to record (on vinyl only—no CDs) their own classic-funk stuff, which the trio quickly realized were only commercially viable if you lied about how classic the funk was exactly.
"Unfortunately, back then, people would associate funk bands with really shitty stuff," says Lehman over the phone from his home in the Dominican Republic. "There were a bunch of bands from England, but they all sucked, in my opinion, and that was it. There wasn't any good new funk being produced at all." The record buffs they hoped to target were extremely discerning: "It had to be old," remembers Wagner, "or people didn't want to hear from you."
So the crew got sneaky. Their first release, The Revenge of Mr. Mopoji, was credited to Mike Jackson and the Soul Providers, and packaged as a reissue of a soundtrack to a '70s kung fu movie that, naturally, didn't exist. "It was Phillip's idea," says Roth. "He was like, 'If we put this out as a reissue, all these people who buy old records will buy it, and if we say it's new, no one will care.' " The album was a hit—snatched up by collectors who invented their own stories about remembering the "original" record or having a cousin who owned a copy of the nonexistent movie. ("It just goes to show what bullshitters people are," Roth notes.) Lehman's theory was confirmed further when the group sold their next record, the raw-funk Gimme the Paw (credited to the Soul Providers), as a legit new release. "We could not give that record away," remembers Roth. "We probably sold about 40 copies."
So, when Soul Explosion was released (a few years after it was recorded, since everyone thought it was too obscure until a national surge of interest in Afrobeat after Fela's death), the fake packaging was a no-brainer, from the exotic-looking safari scene on the "Produced in Nigeria"–festooned cover to the liner notes by "Peter Franklin of Abidjan Musique." ("I think I wrote that," says Roth.) The personnel listings, save for a couple genuine entries like saxophonist Joe Hrbek and trombonist Neal Pawley, were all fake names dreamed up by Wagner's Nigerian roommate at the time, future TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe.
And, once again, the public bought it. "We had people claiming they owned the original!" remembers Roth, incredulously. "And that they had the Daktaris' first record, and it was a lot more traditional!" It wasn't that the crew pushed the hoax—in fact, the truth was literally spelled out in one of the song titles: "Eltsuhg Ibal Lasiti" spelled backwards is "It is all a big hustle." Instead, the myth of a lost '70s funk/Afrobeat album became part of people's collective memory. "Something I learned very early putting out records," says Roth, "is that the cover art and the story of the record is not just something that comes along the side of the music—it actually becomes part of the music. That's why it's important."
Soul Explosion is being re-issued "because people kept asking me if they could have a copy," says Roth, not because he expects to sell a ton. Still, it'll probably reach enough people to underscore what an impact even a so-called "fake" record can have, inspiring white Americans everywhere to discover a slice of African music and propelling a bunch of funk-crazy college buddies into a modestly successful career—one that even includes backing up Rod Stewart.
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