Simigwa on Yo' Ass
My love for African funk began way back when I was a precocious thirteen year old, partially thanks to the NJ Transit bus system and the punk explosion happening in 1976–77. I lived ten miles from New Brunswick, New Jersey, and in that college town Back In the Day resided one of the best record stores one could have imagined: Cheap Thrills. I learned of its existence thanks to the kickass owners of another store in nearer East Brunswick, the Record Setter, where I biked it Saturdays (and also once a week during schools-out summers). Record Setter was where I discovered Patti Smith (thanks to the alluring cover of her debut album), Television (thanks to the weird cover of their debut album!), and everything happening in the UK, especially Stiff Records and my one-time savior, Elvis Costello. The owners of the Record Setter pointed me to Cheap Thrills* in New Brunswick and suggested I keep my jaw from dropping too far.
With my dad's help, I found out there was a nearby bus stop that could take me within steps of this magical place, and from my first visit it became for me (and, a few years later, my like-minded friends) one of the main havens for all things music in our lives.
Cheap Thrills had an outrageous selection of import vinyl, in large part thanks to the preeminent record importer of the day, Jem. And oh, what a layout this place had—racks and racks of facing-out bins so you could see cover art easily. It was around 1978 when, while doing my usual walk around the bins, I spied the cover of a record that not only had a great title but had titties too! Expensive Shit, by Fela and Africa 70. (Give it a Google.) How could I resist? Thus began my obsession not only with Fela but with African music in general. By the time I got to seventeen, I had to be the youngest, whitest boy in America with the most kickass collection of African LPs.
I owned an original copy of this album, purchased solely for the wacky cover. And what a teenage-mind-blowing album! Sadly, my copy was sold off in one of my have-to-pay-the-rent purges in the early 1990s, living in Brooklyn on my own with a low-paying publishing job and a refusal to share my apartment with anyone. Clean copies on eBay have sold for hundreds of dollars (when they show up), and it was an album (out of hundreds!) that I vowed one day to own again. Academy Records saved my bank account further damage this year with its rerelease. This very special record brings smiles to faces and shaking to booties. It's one of the greatest African funk albums ever created.
* I would eventually also discover the beautifully esoteric Music in a Different Kitchen, and combo record/video store Flamin' Groovies.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
I grew up the youngest of three, and was sometimes referred to as "the happy mistake." My brother and sister are, respectively, thirteen and ten years older than me, and I was lucky enough that through the 1960s they were voracious in their music consumption. (Another added bonus was that my brother was a musician, so I grew up having a piano and guitar at hand.) Being a typical white middle-class suburban family, my siblings were into the usual: Beatles, Stones, Byrds, and the top 40 hits of the day (when radio ruled the air). Our house was very small, thus my brother and I shared a room. I still count it as an early blessing that nearly every night, when it was lights out, he'd put a few discs on the record changer and we'd (slowly) fall asleep to the White Album, Younger Than Yesterday, and occasionally Miles Davis or Coltrane. And many was the Saturday I couldn't wait for my sister to leave the house so I could raid her ample 45 boxes to play on my own. (How could I ever forget my greatest, most favorite childhood Christmas present? At the age of eight, I was given my own portable kiddie record player. I actually used that thing until I was nearly thirteen! It wasn't a true child's model, i.e., decorated with Sesame Street characters. It was white on the outside with red components inside, and a fairly decent mono speaker that blasted pretty loud.)
At the dawn of the 1970s, I discovered the smaller radio stations of NYC and, through my dad's short-wave radio, those of far-flung towns outside New Jersey's borders. I became particularly enamored with soul sounds, and eventually became hooked on one of TV's greatest musical programs: Soul Train. This was how I discovered the man who would soon replace the Beatles and Byrds in my youthful music parthenon: James Brown. His music just electrified me! And I mean to the core—his chants, his dancing, but especially his ENTIRE BAND! Whenever he would appear (and how I loved repeat shows), I just could not get enough. And so I asked my brother (who was working at the local Corvettes, the 1970s precursor to Kmart) if he could find any James Brown albums for me and buy them. Fortunately he got a work discount and could snag any album cheaply. I soon was marveling to Live at the Apollo, Mother Popcorn, and the album I'm writing about today: Hot Pants. "HOT PANTS!" 127 times! I had a vague idea what hot pants were, but sho' 'nuff my family quickly grew sick of me randomly saying it out loud like I suffered from Tourette's. I was soon relegated to only playing the album A) when my brother wasn't in the room, and B) through headphones.
Hot Pants was the album that started my lifelong, never-ending/always growing love affair with soul music and black music in general. And little did I know how this love for James Brown and soul/funk music would serve me well once I moved to Brooklyn nearly two decades from that year. My college years found me mostly surrounded by people who had no clue about the history of African-American music (hell, AFRICAN music too), and could find no one who shared my seemingly disparate musical tastes: rock + punk + jazz + new wave + funk + psych + ethno + noise + blues. I often wish I'd gone to a more cosmopolitan university. But my true life education started when a few years after graduation I moved to a then very ungentrified Park Slope in 1989. Brooklyn and Manhattan were the places I finally began meeting people who shared my tastes. And in the fall of 1993, a record store would open up a block away from where some good friends of mine lived, on East 5th Street near 2nd Ave., owned and run by someone who had the same tastes as me. In August of 1995, our band would release its first single, and thus began one of the best segments of my life—the Lynnfield Pioneers and eventually being signed to Matador Records.
James Brown—and my love for the drummer Clyde Stubblefield—played a huge role in the feel we wanted to impart inside our sounds. This album was the one that planted the funky seeds in my soul as a youngster.