Ah yes, the student becomes the master — or at least masterful in being able to summon some true funk masters to his side. The “student” in this case is veteran ethnic studies scholar, author and radio show host Rickey Vincent, who has effectively won the funk fantasy lottery to live the music journalist/fan dream of collaborating with some of his heroes to record and release an album, Phool 4 the Funk. The 15-track, 72-minute collection was four years in the making.
Among the cast pitching in for this party on plastic (download get down?) are Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Dawn Silva, Ronkat Spearman, Paris, and the entire affair is predominantly produced, written and performed by Phillip “PTFI” Jones. Bernie Worrell, James Brown, Junie Morrison and Dr. Cornell West also show up in interview snippets conducted by Vincent, who contributes vocals (mostly spoken) and receives writing and production credits as well.
In truth, while it did require a fortuitous series of events to transpire for this project to materialize, there really wasn’t all that much luck involved as Vincent possesses a genuine love and affinity for funk music and put in the hard work through the years to build a high level of respect and credibility within that community. A UC Berkeley graduate and educator, Vincent’s notoriety includes the books “FUNK: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One” (recommended) and “PARTY MUSIC: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music, and hosting “The History of Funk” radio show on San Francisco Bay Area’s KPFA.
So when the opportunity presented itself, like all true pros, Vincent was well prepared to make the most of it. Although based on musical talent he would likely be the first to dismiss such a comparison, nevertheless one might liken Vincent’s path to that of another well known Bay Area funk artist who was a local D.J. before forging his recording legacy — Sly Stone. While he does not approach that level of genius, it does speak to the strong funk roots from which Vincent emanates and that he has long tapped into through his written and spoken word, and now also musically.
Phool 4 the Funk opens strongly with the slow, funky throb of “Welcome to My World” in which Vincent name checks several Parliament-Funkadelic players as well as others like Herbie Hancock. It sets the tone for frequent P-Funk references and twists on coined phrases, such as “That’s the law around here, you have to have your headphones on so you can hear what I’m doin’,” as opposed to sunglasses in Parliament’s “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).” Fittingly, Bootsy shows up to close out the track.
Next up is the short but catchy theme song, “Ride on It,” that opens up Vincent’s radio program, “The History of Funk.” Placing it here near the front of the LP adds to the whole affair being similar to the experience of one of his on-air broadcasts. It’s here that one of the record’s top highlights surfaces, a welcome remake of the largely overlooked 1978 Ohio Players’ gem, “Funk-O-Nots.”
Slipping and sliding into the mix is another one of the album’s most enjoyable cuts, the Parliament-inspired “Thumpasorus Galacticus.” Its wicked down-tempo groove replete with squealing guitar soloing is an adroit melding of Funkadelic’s and Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s signature styles. A pair of noble but a bit musically tedious songs ensue in the cleverly titled West (“West World”) and Brown (“The One & the Three”) tributes. The former is more uptempo than what precedes it and is marked by a slinky rhythm guitar, while the latter loops the Godfather of Soul’s classic “The Payback.”
Fortunately, just about midway through the disc things really kick into high gear with the terrific (again Parliament-inspired) “Go Wiggle.” Vincent offers his rendition of rap to an uptempo beat that is lifted into the realm of involuntary head-bobbing and rump-shaking thanks to its insidious and thumping bassline, timely horn punches and Worrellesque synth backing. However, it turns out the 3-minute track is a mere teaser for the epic long version (almost 9 minutes) of the song that closes the album and is arguably its zenith. That version includes trombone legend Wesley blowing his sacred horn and Spearman attacking his six-string.
Back to the run order, Phool pulls out one of a pair of tracks that bring Vincent’s ethnic studies to the fore in “American Africans.” The song’s peppier pace belies more serious messaging that centers on black pride issues and offers food for thought by placing racial stereotyping under the microscope. It features several sound bites from high level thinkers, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and is propelled along by a slick chinking rhythm guitar. The other socially conscious tune, “Hollow Cost” (as in holocaust) shows up as track No. 12 and is the LP’s only straight-up rap number. It tackles disenfranchisement in way that would make Public Enemy proud, albeit to a less abrasive musical backdrop.
The mood lightens considerably for the next song (No. 9), which is a breezy remake of the Heatwave song that led off that band’s 1978 smash album Central Heating. I get that Vincent was looking to revive a tune that was for the most part overlooked and since forgotten, but there are other funkier hidden jewels in the Heatwave canon from which to draw. Still, this one is easily Phool’s most accessible selection and the prime candidate to garner radio exposure.
The 10th track is one of two tributes to a pair of the most wonderful and gifted keyboardists of all time. Both are among the album’s highpoints and made all the more poignant by their subjects’ tragic deaths during the past year. “Trippin’ With Junie” serves up sound bites from Morrison’s rare 2005 interview over a grinding, pulsating groove that includes some tasty synth noodlings in honor of its namesake. The other tribute comes on the second-to-last composition, “Bernie’s ‘P’ Soup,” and is notable for its uptempo, handclap-style beat and cymbal crashes, as well as the stylized synth squiggles that are Worrell’s trademark.
On the heels of the Junie track comes the No. 11 cut “Deep Sea Divers,” which enlists Silva to help give props to the Brides of Funkenstein and other somewhat unsung ladies of the ‘P.’ Sorry to say but this sludgy song is arguably Phool’s weakest, at least from a sonic perspective. All the other tracks have already been discussed, aside from the closest thing the record has to a ballad, “RV @ Sixteen.” Revolving around a slowed-down interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” Vincent reflects on his teen years during the 1970s.
In sum, the real standout tracks are “Funk-O-Nots,” “Thumpasorus Galacticus,” “Go Wiggle,” Trippin’ With Junie” and “Bernie’s ‘P’ Soup.” Most of the rest is pretty good if not great, with only one or two dead spots. Taken as a whole, this endeavor has to be considered a resounding success that serves as a nice companion piece of sorts to Bootsy’s own The Capital of the World. That 2011 album also featured lots of well-known guests (again including West), spoken word parts and timeworn funk references over slamming grooves. Pretty good company and rarified air, Mr. Vincent.
Particularly in this era of near-zero funkativity as far as all-new releases of genuine dyed-in-the-wool funk goes, Phool is a paradise (and dig that crazy cover too!). Who knows, another effort or two like this and funk’s most prominent Rick-associated sir name may no longer be James.
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