Trouble Funk playing at the 9:30 Club is nothing new. The local go-go icons have played the venue “well over 50 times” according to frontman Big Tony, and will add to that number on Sunday when the group headlines Soundbites . It’s a unique event that combines music and food (local restaurants such as Jaleo, Indique, Policy and many more will be offering tastes of their dishes while Trouble Funk, the Pietasters and Ra Ra Rasputin perform) to raise money for the D.C. Central Kitchen. And it gave us an opportunity to catch up with Big Tony and talk about how he’s kept the band going for more than three decades.
“Speaking as the leader, it’s been very tough … not just keeping the band together, but keeping the sound right,” he said. “I have made some transitions as far as band members. My main focus is trying to keep that identity. You have to train every individual that comes in there to maintain that consistent Trouble Funk identity.”
We also talked about Trouble Funk’s ability to adapt, the “retirement” of longtime percussionst Tee-Bone and how go-go could have been as big as hip-hop.
What is that Trouble Funk identity? How do you explain it to new members?
You have to explain how things are done. I have a format I’ve been using for 30 years. My thing is, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Styles are meant to change. You never lose your identity. It’s OK to change your style. Say, for instance, if I get a new drummer. I take my original material and I have my drummer really study this material, to do the necessary things that work for this particular groove or this song. That’s how you maintain your sound. You can’t just let someone come in there and do what they want to do. Because then you have no control over your sound.
You don’t want to mess with that. Stuff like “Drop the Bomb,” it’s a classic. It’s not meant to be changed too much. “E Flat Boogie” is not meant to be changed too much. “Pump Me Up” — these are songs that stood the test of time. You can put these songs on at any party, any venue, and people are still going to respond like it’s brand new.
Most of the bands around here, they gravitate to something that someone else has already done. And it becomes a go-go remix. If we see something hot, then we try to create our own version, and we create it to make our own original composition of it. Again, it all goes back to styles. If something’s hot back in the day … like you had the Soulsonic Force with the computerized, upbeat tempo. What we did, we went and recreated our own version of that and we made “Arkade Funk.” And it had that familiar style of what was already a hit and we made a hit all over again. And back in the day when rap came out, when Sugar Hill Gang had the first hit that went national, we had our version with “Pump Me Up.”
We always took and used what was hot. We took the blueprint and made it our own concept. And we wasn’t having enough of that back in the day. Trouble Funk was only one group and right now to this day we hold the catalogue for biggest hits of any group from Washington, D.C., outside of Marvin Gaye. I respect Chuck Brown for being the godfather of this genre of music, but not even Chuck Brown can say that he has more hits than Trouble Funk.
You guys have always shared the stage with a diverse group of bands. Go-go, hip-hop, rock, punk … how do you account for that broad appeal?
Our brand of music is in its own category. You know what I’m saying? And it’s never been just a D.C. thing with Trouble Funk. Although we’ve been recognized as one of the top go-go groups around the world, Trouble Funk is a funky group. We just a funky band. Everybody — black, white, Chinese — everybody love our music. We just have so many different ingredients in our style of music. It don’t really have any color barrier. Believe it or not, our biggest following on a worldwide basis is white. And I can’t honestly explain that. [Laughs.] I do know that everywhere we go in the world, we rock ’em. From Japan to Germany to Amsterdam. In September we’re going for the first time to Brazil and they just love Trouble Funk music. And I feel real blessed that we were able to come up with a unique brand of music that touches everybody and all different nationalities.
Tell me about one particular show that ranks near the top in the Trouble Funk pantheon.
Quite a few of those! One that stands out in my mind, in particular, is Japan [in 1982]. I never had no idea that these people could party like that. For a moment I thought I was back home in Southeast somewhere! We performed in Tokyo, it was a venue of something like 22,000 people and performed two nights in a row and sold it out both nights. We were by ourselves. We played close to three hours both nights. Of course, we were a lot younger back then! [Laughs.] I don’t think I would want to try that today! Back then we had a lot of energy and it was fun. It was fun then and it’s fun now...
Another thing I want to mention about this Sunday that’s going to make this show so special, this is (percussionist) Tee-Bone’s official retirement show. We’re going to be filming for documentary purposes. This will be his retirement show.
What’s making him hang it up?
Well, he’s not going to completely hang it up. We do a lot of hard grinding! We’ll use Tee-Bone for the big shows, when we go to the 9:30 Club. But he’s getting too old to be grinding like the rest of us. I recruited a lot of younger musicians. I’m 51 years old but I still feel 25. [Laughs.]
Tee-Bone’s 63 years old. He’s just as funky as ever. It’s just that he has some health issues. Some of these smaller, grind-type of shows, he’s at that age now where he needs to pick his battles. And I want to preserve him for when it really counts.
So it won’t be his final, final show. He’s kind of like an independent contractor now.
Exactly. Same thing with some of the othes. You know that [keyboardist] Robert (Reed) passed on from cancer. But his brother Taylor still performs with me. Taylor is a doctor. I don’t use Taylor for the small grind shows. I use him for the big shows. He’ll be there at the 9:30 Club.
It’s an interesting dynamic to have different members at different shows.
The thing about the original members — after you’ve been together so long, it don’t matter how long you’ve been away. You develop a chemistry that doesn’t go anywhere. You develop a chemistry that lasts forever. We’ve been playing together for 30 years. If Taylor’s away for a year or two years, he comes right back in and it’s like he never missed a beat, because we’ve been doing this so long. I can do that with my original members.
Now on the other hand, with the new recruits — I have to constantly stay in their ear. It’s a whole new breed. They’re not built like we were coming up. The technology thing — they’re locked into that. We didn’t have a lot of technology back in the day. We had to rely solely on being creative and making our sounds. Now you can go in the store and buy a keyboard and just use the pre-programmed sounds and get a hit record. But if you notice the hit records don’t last as long these days as they did back in the day. You create ’em fast, they hit fast, then they die fast. And you never hear from them again. But you got songs like “Atomic Dog,” “Flash Light,” “Pump Me Up,” “Drop the Bomb,” “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” -- these songs last forever. “Bustin’ Loose.” These were songs that were created. It took time to create them and put real effort and real music to these songs. And create real unique sounds. It becomes one-of-a-kind.
Also, it’s my opinion ... I feel like Trouble Funk, the brand of go-go we created, played a big part in the success of the hip-hop era.
Where do you see your fingerprints the most? Do you still hear it?
Oh yeah! And not just the hip-hop, but the R&B era. There’s a song out right now that Kirk Franklin did on his new album that has a Trouble Funk sample on it. It’s a go-go song, believe it or not. It has a Trouble Funk sample. So they’re constantly using Trouble Funk samples and hooks and ideas to enhance — everywhere from Kelly Rowland to Beyonce to Toni Braxton — they all use some go-go concepts and have gotten some very big hits. Cee Lo Green. Timbaland. Everybody has used some go-go. And I don’t want to take all the credit for it, but it just happens to be music that Trouble Funk created that some of these samples and recreations, the concept sounds so close to. Like, LL Cool J, he got his first platinum record off of [“Pump Me Up”] — “Rock the Bells.” KRS-One, Will Smith — oh man, I could go on and on and on. Public Enemy.
So why did it never take off on its own outside of D.C.?
There’s just not enough consistency with creativity. The next reason is because of D.C. This has been something that’s been on for years and years. I don’t know why but a lot of groups had to leave D.C. in order to make it. Now if this same music … Tommy Davidson and I, we just did an interview for a documentary. And they asked us the question, if this go-go music was something that originated in New York, how do you think it would be? It would be just as big as hip-hop is. New York is 10 times magnified. And then you have all the major labels. It’s just a better business [spot] for music. Period. So if we had to switch places, and hip-hop originated in D.C. and go-go originated in New York, go-go would be just as big as hip-hop.
Do you wish it would have been different or have any regrets?
I don’t have any regrets because Trouble Funk — we did pretty well! We represent D.C. to the fullest! But we are only one group. And I think we made our point on a national level that hey, we hold our own. A lot of people when they talk about go-go and how go-go hasn’t made it as big, they exclude Trouble Funk a lot of times. Because Trouble Funk has done more than any other go-go group that has come out of D.C., including Chuck Brown. We were the first to go national. We were the first group to go on a national tour. We were the first group to go overseas. So we accomplished a lot.
And it ain’t over! We’re working on the Trouble Funk reunion album which is something we shot in 2009 at the 9:30 Club. The reason why it’s taking us so long to put that out is because we also have some new material to go with it. So we’re going to release the DVD and a brand new CD to go along with the old live music. So we have something like six additional brand new tunes. It just takes time. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another classic hit out again, but it still takes time to create good music.