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