Lately any song with a black-accented vocal and a dance beat has been quickly labeled disco, a stereo-typing which is not only misguided but is an affront to funk, a black dance music with the complexity and personality that disco lacks.
Funk builds around a central dance beat that's slower, sexier and more syncopated than disco. The musicians lock into that groove as if it were a hypnotic mantra but unlike disco players, funk musicians spin off dozens of subtextures and counterpoint harmonies which orbit the main beat. And because they are usually members of a band rather than hired guns, funk musicians play with more personality than disco's producers-programmed synthesizers.
Funk grew out of the pioneering efforts of James Brown and Sly Stone, who use big, booming bass notes to raise the traditional backbeat to a new level. Both Brown and Stone have been in slumps lately, but their former bassists - Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham respectively - have carried on the tradition. The current leaders in funk, however, are George Clinton - the lead singer, songwriter and producer for Parliament and Funkadelic - and his counterpart in Earth, Wind & Fire - Maurice White.
While Clinton uses the same 25 to 30 musicians and singers for his projects, Earth, Wind & Fire lists nine members and regularly uses another 10 to 15 associates - numbers which allow for the thick textures that are another characteristics of funk.
Earth, Wind & Fire has released its first new album in almost two years: "I Am" (ARC-Columbia FC 35730). It reveals some changes in direction for the group. The adventurous lead guitars of Johnny Graham and Al McKay have almost disappeared entirely, but the vocal harmonies of Maurice White and Philip Bailey are richer and more imaginative than ever.
The strong bottom groove is still there - led by the resounding bass notes of Verdine White (Maurice's brother) with several Latin percussionists filling in between the trap drummer. But the new dominance of the vocals is clear througout.On "Wait," the horn section follows the ballad duet as it ascends through one rich harmony after another.
On the hit single, "Boogie Wonderland," the Emotions - a White-produced female trio - chant the chorus while White and Bailey soar in gorgeous falsettos above or slip in parenthetical shouts.
It's a loss that Earth, Wind & Fire have downplayed their rock n' roll side of funk, but their vocal harmonies are the strongest seoul efforts since Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1971. The horn arrangements by Tom Washington, Jerry Hey and Ben Wright match Steely Dan's as the sharpest and best integrated in pop music.
The biggest drawback is still the pompous spiritualism of Maurice White's lyrics ("Every man I meet is walking time - Free to wander past his conscious mind.") But if you don't listen to the words, "I Am" is a source of repeated delight.
George Clinton has coproduced two new releases: Parlet's "Invasion of the Booty Snatchers" (Casablanca NBLP 7146) with Ron Dunbar, and Bootsy's Rubber Band's "This Boot is Made for Fonk-N" (Warner Brothers BSK 3295) with Bootsy Collins.
Collins is the best bassist funk has yet produced. He plucks and pushes his wide electric bass strings with perfect timing ti,ll his deep resonance and quick turns produce a laughing, rumbling human sound. His bass-playing has highlighted James Brown's best records and the half dozen Clinton-produced acts.
Yet Collins' own record with his Rubber Band tend to be his least satisfying efforts. Admittedly aimed at the youngest of the funk fandom, his records are built around a simpel, unchanging groove while Collins delivers his half - sung, funny - voiced monologue as if he were a crazed cartoon show host. Collins' undisciplined vocals and all the sound effects - whistles, motorcycles, ray guns - undermine the dramatic structure of Clinton' best records.
As he did last year with the Brides of Funkenstein's "Funk or Walk," Clinton is using the three female singers in Parlet to create a funk version of the old female harmony groups. For four of the six songs on invasion of the Booty Snatchers," Jeanette Washington, Shirley Hayden and Janice Evans of Parlet are integrated into the texture of the band as if they were three more instruments.
This works best on "Ridin' High," where Clinton's superlative musicians create a wriggling, writhing bottom of wah-wah guitar and throbbing bass and a sparkling, spraying top of synthesizer and trumpet. The three voices glide in and out of the middle to tie together all the far-flung musical activity.
But the best cuts are the two straightforward love ballads. "Don't Ever Stop" opens with angelic "ooohs" and proceeds to set an aching lead vocal against background whispers that needle like unspoken thoughts. On "You're Leaving," the background vocals precede the lead vocal to create an unusual dynamic.
When Larry Graham left Sly Stone, he formed his own band, Graham Central Station. The new band featured Graham's slapped bass sound that had highlighted Sly & the Family Stone, but few of Stone's other essential ingredients. Listening to Graham Sly Stone tapes before the lead vocals and instruments were added.
Graham's new album, "Star Walk" (Warner Brothers BSK 3322), is listed under his name with the group's name in small type at the bottom. This typifies the background role assigned the other musicians. They tag along after Graham's vocals and rhythm lead to produce one-dimensional songs. This is the antithesis of the democratic, multitextured carnivals of sound on the best funk records produced by George Clinton and Maurice White.