KOOL & THE GANG / “Summer Madness (Live)”

kool & the gang 02.jpg Kool & The Gang, depending on whom you talk to, is either a mostly instrumental funk band or a cross-over pop band featuring the vocals of James “JT” Taylor. Nothing against JT in particular but I generally don’t listen to the second incarnation (even though I, as well as millions of other people, can hum/chant "Joanna." I go straight for the funk. But it’s a complex funk or better yet a funky complex. Huge slabs of outright frantic dance floor fervor: fatback drums; humongous bass lines; stabbing, red hot horn licks; catchy, hummable chorus hooks. They called it “Jungle Boogie.” Whatever you call it, this was black dance music of the early seventies. Of course you had many others: P-Funk preeminent among them, and I must make mention of the Godfather, JB, and then there was damn near the whole state of Ohio. (Can you say Ohio Players, Lakeside, Con Funk Shun, Zapp?) But you know what? While not as memorable off the peak of one’s dome as the aforementioned, Kool & The Band were actually trail blazers. They not only got the dance floor groove in spades but they also pointed the way ahead for what became known as smooth jazz and the UK-based acid jazz scene (listen to the live Summer Madness” track and you will hear where Incognito is partially coming from. So this week’s write up gives you both the funk and silky flow. The “Hollywood Swinging” and the “Summer Madness.” kool & the gang 03.jpg First, the straight up funk. Two classics: “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie,” plus two early ought-to-be considered classics: “The Gang’s Back Again” and “Let The Music Take Your Mind.” So that’s the core, the kernel, the what the band is known for kind of grooves. Second, the merger of jazz and soft funk, precursor of that detestable pap now called smooth jazz. “Summer Madness” is the über example. I include “Ladies Night” (actually from the beginning of the eighties disco/pop/crossover era) because it was a “Summer Madness” sequel. I always liked “Summer Madness” and I luxuriate in the glow of the live version taken from the Love & Understanding album. (Hey, as a momentary digression apropos of luxuriating, y'all remember the sudsy bathtub lovemaking scene in Superfly?) Anyway, “Summer Madness” got that kind of flow plus features some early use of synthesizer as a solo instrument in a popular funk context, a context Herbie (Hancock) was later to claim. The cherry on the top is that this is a live recording, not a studio-engineered, over dubbed, twenty-takes-to-get-it-all-just-right paste job. No, this is in the moment, in the zone, doing it all together, all live and direct, right here in front of you! Third, the merger of message music with butt-shaking funk. “Who’s Going To Take The Weight?” is about as serious as you can get on that score. Check out some of the album titles from that period: Light of Worlds, Wild and Peaceful, Love and Understanding, Music Is The Message. How much more direct could they be? Now, there’s also a back story, an interesting underside whose implications are both deep and far reaching. I remember back in the seventies, interviewing Kool & The Gang for The Black Collegian Magazine where I worked as the editor and chief music writer. Although I’ve been a born again pagan since the age of 15 when I left my grandfather’s Baptist church, you can imagine my delight when I found out that the band’s leader, bassist Robert “Kool” Bell, at that time was a Black Muslim. kool & the gang 04.jpg Taliban (& hardcore Bible thumpers) take note. Fundamental Islam/Christianity wake up. Music and dance is not an offense. In fact a cut like “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” makes judgment day sound positively the bomb! As is the case with any powerful expression, music can be used and abused for nefarious purposes, but the music (dance) itself is not intrinsically evil—indeed, I would argue that nothing is inherently evil, it’s all a question of context and use. Kool & The Gang always had a strong message up in their music. There was always at least one cut on each album straight up saying “straighten up.” I liked that they were not just conscious but also funky, that they were among the fittest of the fit funky but had something deeper on their mind than simply dancing their lives away. It made me feel good to know that when I bought a Kool & The Gang record I was also supporting The Nation (aka The Nation of Islam, BKA the Black Muslims). kool & the gang 05.jpg It’s complex when you consider the various aspects but it’s not complicated in the sense of too dense to be comprehended. They were avatars of an age, the seventies, when all the various meanings inherent in the phrase “getting down” were what the masses of us strove for. We wanted to be funky and we wanted to be free, we wanted to be for the people and at the same time be deep as we could be. We wanted soft nights full of summer madness. We wanted life. Our music reflected that. We wanted to be a Kool & The Gang show. Fundamental in our funkiness but unafraid to use the latest technology to project and explore our visions. Or something like that. Damn, this music brings back memories. —Kalamu ya Salaam         All kinds of confused         Man, I'm all kinds of confused right now. Before I get into it, let me say there's nothing actually "wrong" with Kool & The Gang. (The first incarnation, at least. When it comes to that second incarnation, songs like "Joanna" and "Fresh" were about as annoying as annoying gets.) In New Orleans, "Summer Madness" is one of those tried-and-true summertime jams. If you're at a barbeque or on the Lakefront and the DJ drops "Summer Madness"—either the live version or the studio jam—and that high-pitched keyboard kicks in...man, that's just the shit. I've been loving that since grade school. But look, here's what I'm confused about. Back in March, Kalamu posted some Earth Wind & Fire tracks. That post kicked off a back-and-forth between me, Kalamu and some of the other cats of Kalamu's generation. The bottom line was, I considered EW&F soul music and they considered them pop. Kalamu even referred to them as, and I quote, "petit bourgeois funk." Now, it's a few months later and Kalamu is singing the praises of Kool & The Gang. Kool & The Gang? Kool & The Gang?! Are you kidding me? Early on, these guys were a good light-funk band, but that's about that. They made easy, catchy jams that you could get down to at the function and that was about it. Meanwhile, on the petit bourgeois side, EW&F were dropping science. So what gives? I was born in 1971, so maybe I just don't understand the Black Power-era dynamic, but how can a band as light as Kool & The Gang (even in their first incarnation) be considered "strong," and "deep" and all that while, at the same time, a band as heavy as Earth Wind & Fire can be considered "pop" and "bourgeois." What the deal? —Mtume ya Salaam             Light Funk—Si, Lite Funk—No             Mtume, there's a big ass difference between light funk (i.e. funk showing the way) and lite funk (i.e. as in analagous to 'smooth jazz'). Don't confuse big words and religious concepts with dropping science. EWF was always metaphysical, also into mind over matter, ideas being more important than reality. And that's partially why we did then and do now consider them petit bourgeois funk. What EWF funk cut you want to put up against "Jungle Boogie" or "Who's Gonna Bear The Weight?" I've got a 2-minute EWF demo that's truly funky but a finished funky EWF track—where it's at? EWF was not a funk band. I dig them, which is why I posted the cuts, but I don't pretend that they are the shit when it comes to funk. Moreover, I am not trying to say that Kool & The Band is better or more important in the development of the music than is EWF—that would be ludicrous. But when you want some plain old smelly funk music—there's no contest between Kool & The Gang and EWF. Additionally, you partially answered your own question when you described how the peoples respond to Kool & The Gang jams. I personally get tired of elevating the petit bourgoise and down-grading the working class. Take away them lights and costumes, stage props and whatnot and put both bands on the ground at the lake front with shitty ass P.A. systems and see whose gonna move the crowd. Seen? Fortunately, there is room enough for both bands in the spectrum of the music. I'm just saying you're setting up an unnecessary competition and, when it comes to funk music, a disadvantageous comparison for EWF. Finally, yes, there is something about the Black power era that escapes many young folk. Today style is just fashion. For example, how one wears one hair is no longer a political statement. Back then afros were definitely a statement and ditto the music you listened to. Wasn't no tip toeing through the tulips. We was on a move, straight up marching. Mtume, you don't have to like Kool & The Gang. You can prefer EWF. But don't mistake funk that was pointing us toward the light for lite funk. —Kalamu ya Salaam

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6 Responses to “KOOL & THE GANG / “Summer Madness (Live)””

Berry Says:
July 8th, 2007 at 9:16 am

Um, you both make good points so I have nothing to add to this debate. Perhaps it is due to my lack of perspective as I grew up with both groups…may as well throw the Gap Band into the ring as well. Anyway, love that live version…I hadn’t heard it before.

Kayvon Says:
July 8th, 2007 at 9:37 am

Gotta love it, Summer Madness is imprinted on my musical psyche and I can’t help quoting the solo lines when I play. Also George Brown is one of my favourite funk drummers, not the tightest but he seems to be able to give you palpitations with his grooves. Chocolate buttermilk is one of my favourites which kinda picks up where Amen, Brother left off.

btw just been reading the Kool & the Gang home page and found out where ‘Who’s gonna take the weight?’ comes from, they got framed by narcotics officers. Shady.

Qawi Robinson Says:
July 9th, 2007 at 10:44 am

As a 70’s Baby like Mtume, I have fond memories listening to Kool and the Gang (KATG) on my family’s record players and 8-tracks. Also like Mtume, I slightly disagree with Baba Kalamu’s assessment of KATG being the halcyon of Blackness while other groups, EWF in particular, were less funky or "funk lite". Not that religion or political astuteness should play into this review, but it should be noted that most groups of the time wore Afros and were championing Blackness, not just KATG. Geez Baba Kalamu, does every band have to have a card carrying Black Panther to be down for the cause. 🙂 I guess Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers were enigmas as their Christian background let them to revolutionary music. 🙂 Also, even an untrained listener like myself can tell that EWF was physically larger and had a bigger horn presence than KATG. That brassy sound, coupled with EWFs disco inspired music (aka Boogie Wonderland), led them to sound less funky as they were covering a myriad of genres at the time. Still you can’t tell me that the basslines of Serpentine Fire and Shining Star weren’t funky. Still, as this is a KATG review, let me say that I was much impressed with them back in ’87. I was a high school kid then and was blitzed with New Edition, Teddy Riley, and other 80’s groups/bands. Still, I got to go to the KATG by accident and enjoyed their musicianship even as an "old school" band. They had lights, smoke, and costumes that were on par with EWF as well. They brought down the house with their classic tracks and even got great responses from Emergency and Joanna (their hits at the time). All thing brings me to the "funk" track of the week – "Summer Madness". While Kalamu made a remark that EWF’s music was metaphysical – I put Summer Madness in the same category. As I had never heard this live version before, it is pretty much on par with the studio one.

          kalamu sez          

i understand your sentiments. but you are disagreeing with arguments i didn’t make.

1. i didn’t present katg as "the halcyon of Blackness." i put them in the context of funk bands and both called the funk leaders by name, i.e. p-funk & jb, as well as cited a number of bands from ohio. i spoke specificly about katg as a funk band.

2. don’t boil the funk movement down to one moment in time. in terms of afros, that was a political struggle around hair styles. the prevailing trend for men and women was straightened hair (the men called it ‘conks’). by the mid-70s most groups did wear afros but that was only after years of struggle around the issue, which was my point that the hairstyle was more than just a style.

3. i did not make mention of black panthers. 

4. curtis mayfield and the staple singers–i don’t know that their christian background led them to revolutionary struggle but i do know that they were active participants in the movement, first for civil rights and later the black power movement. they are not enigmas but rather are products of their time period who decided to take an active leadership position. we’ve already written specifically about the progressiveness of the staple singers.

"The Staple Singers maintained their reputation as one of the most popular purveyors of social commentary in song. Other artists may have been better known, but there certainly was no other group that rivaled The Staple Singers as messengers of pride and empowerment."

5. mtume, brought ewf into this discussion. as you admit ewf was much broader than a funk band, which was essentially my point: ewf was not a funk band. pre-80s katg was a funk band. i never argued that ewf did not have elements of funk in their music, in fact, i specifically said that they could play funk. my argument was that when it came to playing funk, ewf was no match for katg. mtume was also referring to me calling ewf a pop band. i stand by that. moreover, as i stated, in the 80s katg became a "cross over pop band."


6. as both you and mtume noted, katg could and often did bring down the house. ordinary folked loved their music. i think the real issue is my antagonism toward presenting the petit bourgoisie as stellar examples of blackness while downgrading working class orientations. to be clear, as i stated, there is room enough in the spectrum for different approaches. i’m a trane freak. make mine jazz. that does not mean that i don’t listen to or appreciate other kinds of music. isn’t it ok to give katg props for their funk just like we give trane props for jazz or ewf props for progressive pop or give props to anyone else who makes a contribution in a specific field? the strength of black music is in the totality of it, the broad community of different styles and approaches rather than in any one or two individuals.

thanks for your response. i hope this clears up some of the misunderstandings.


p.s. mtume made mention of ewf dropping science. i think he was speaking metaphorically, however, science is based on materialism and not on metaphysics, which is why i disagree with characterizing ewf as dropping science. i am not opposed to spiritually but let’s not confuse spiritualism with science.


Ekere Says:
July 11th, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Oh. I haven’t been hear (I noticed this mistake but I’m gonna leave it in) in a LONG time. What a gift it is to resurface–in the midst of a serious heatwave–
and have this sultry jam poured in my ears. Yes, I love “Summer Madness.” And you know what’s funny? Here in this 18 story block of bricks where I live with my ever expanding family, folks throw parties and barbecue downstairs. Sometimes the loud music gets on my nerves, but two weeks ago the DJ threw on “Get Down on It” and I started singing and dancing with my newborn like we were both up in the club. Word. 🙂

I was born in 73 but it’s obvious that Kool and The Gang had different incarnations. I guess they just wanted to stay up with the times. Whatever. They sure did drop some gems.

one love,

Ken Says:
July 13th, 2007 at 8:29 pm

“Summer Madness,” like “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” always evokes that feel-good vibe when the weather has turned and life, by necessity, slows down. I’ve always found the “live” version such a diversion from anything else I’ve heard from Kool & the Gang–that open-ended, toe-in-the-jazz bucket feel, plus sounding like they brought The Fifth Dimension in on vocals (and I don’t mean that disparagingly).

In that you make mention of the influence of Ohio bands on the 70’s music scene, I’d like to throw in the Wilder Brothers, who fronted Heatwave. I wouldn’t call Heatwave a funk band–but vocally, songwriting-wise, in terms of musicianship and ( based on some of the archive stuff on sites like Youtube), performance-wise, one of the tightest bands of the 70’s.

Meaning in the music. I think the messages that were so attractive to us in the 70’s are still out here today. More challenging to find, given the nature of the music industry today. But Exhibit A: couple of months ago, saw a video of The Roots performing “Don’t Feel Right,” live (I’m again remineded of y’all’s fine write-up on the “Game Theory” tracks). They came out with that manic take on the beginning of “Jungle Boogie”…but then, for the first stanza, broke out into a loping, cooled out riff with that “Summer Madness” bassline underneath. It was a powerful choice by the group. And the affect of the performance on the audience was unbelievable. Camera panned to all these young faces and they looked hungry and hypnotized at the same time. Heads nodding in affirmation. You could see that they had found something elusive that they had been looking for. Kind of scene that gives you hope in the world. I think the band was moved, too. Black Thought closed out to the applause at the end with a big, “uh-HUNH!” The type of “un-hunh” you say when you’ve given people more than they expected, surprised them in a very good way.

wyatt Stanton Says:
January 10th, 2011 at 10:14 am

this song is beeeeessstttttt!!!!!!!!!

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