Rick James – “Throwin’ Down” (1982)

Every single Rick James song sounds like a party.  The kind of party with dancing and drinking and people getting loose.  The kind of party where people are getting down and hooking up.

Throwin’ Down (1982) followed hot on the heels of James’ hit record Street Songs (1981), the album that spawned the mighty “Super Freak”.  It didn’t crack the Top 10 like its predecessor did, but still peaked at a respectable #13.  But what I feel compelled to talk about isn’t the sexy funk jams, or the song he did with The Temptations (“Standing On The Top”), or that Grace Slick was a backing vocalist, or that a dozen people are credited for “Handclaps”.  No.  What I can’t get past is this cover.

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I get it – it seems a bit comical today.  But replace James with some white guy with equally long hair and what you have is about 27% of all the heavy metal album covers from 1981 to 1984.  Dude dressed like Conan, his guitar a bloody axe, with fire and skulls?  That’s straight up metal, and for every ounce of it that is metal, it’s also the complete antithesis of funk.  Could ANYONE in funk other than Rick James pulled this off? (♠)  The imagery has exactly nothing to do with the songs on Throwin’ Down, all of which are about women and what James wants to do with and to them.  HOWEVER, if you look at the back of the inner sleeve, there on the far right side is a rhyme called “Throwin’ Down”, and that’s where we get verse about dragons and maidens and battle axes, some Game of Thrones stuff that ends with:

You are the warrior, the seeker of truth
Your pen is your axe, your strength is your youth
Follow the path I have laid on this ground
And all battles you’ll win, by just throwin’ down HARD…..

Rick James, philosopher.

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Because this is a Rick James album we’re treated to plenty of funk and R&B, some sweet guitar licks, and double entendres (I’ll let you guess what the song “69 Times” is about).  That’s the thing about Rick – you always knew EXACTLY what he was about.  I mean, when you reportedly have a $7,000 a week cocaine habit FOR FIVE YEARS your judgement as well as any ability to be subtle will certainly suffer.

But man, James still brought the funkiest funk in funk.  And you can hear it throughout Throwin’ Down‘s nine tracks, a collection of the most delicious funk riffs anywhere.  If you don’t believe me, just give “Hard To Get” a listen.  So good.  The only time Rick trips is “Happy”, a more traditional unfunky R&B ballad.  The rest of the album is pure gold or, more precisely, platinum.

(♠) To be fair, I’m not sold that James actually pulls this off.

Brooklyn Funk Essentials – “Cool and Steady and Easy”

I’ve had a copy of Rickey Vincent’s book Funk:  The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One laying around for about a month now, and it finally made it’s way to the top of the pile.  Coincidentally I spent a few hours hanging out at Silver Platters Records in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood last Friday and spied the double album Cool and Steady and Easy by Brooklyn Funk Essentials.  It was like it was meant to be that I’d pick up this album at the same time that I cracked a book on funk.  Serendipity.  Perhaps a cosmic alignment.  Or maybe just coincidence.  I don’t know.

To call Brooklyn Funk Essential’s music “funk” would be to put it into too small of a box.  This is acid jazz – electronic but with horns, sometimes instrumental but sometimes hip hop, and sometimes even reggae and soul.  What is it?  It defies explanation.  Just listen to Cool and Steady and Easy‘s second song, “The Creator Has a Master Plan” with it’s jazz opening followed by male reggae vocals that give way to female soul singing; it’s a microcosm of the entire 1995 album.

When I looked this album up on Discogs I only found a listing for the 63 minute, 12 song CD (also available on iTunes for $8.99)… nothing at all about the two 12″ vinyl version I found in the DJ Masa collection section at Silver Platters.  Was the vinyl version a DJ only promo?  Maybe… given the plain black jacket with just a sticker on the front, this may have never been released commercially on vinyl.  So I’m particularly glad I found this version… because this is music that belongs on vinyl.  It’s just right.

Stylistically Cool and Steady and Easy is all over the place.  From the opening jazz instrumental “Take the L Train (to B’klyn)” to the previously mentioned reggae/soul “The Creator Has a Master Plan” to the jazzy, reggae scat-like “The Revolution Was Postponed Because of Rain” that comprise side A, you’re being taken on a musical journey that weaves in and out of different styles and sounds, with just the jazz horns to anchor you.  Bottom line is it’s brilliant.

Brooklyn Funk Essentials’ collective approach and large number of musicians ensures that no matter what a song needs, there’s an expert to step up, and nowhere is that more evident in the horns which are the key to their sound.  Acid jazz is great chill music, and Cool and Steady and Easy takes it a step further by layering other styles over that jazzy base in a way that keeps a steady vibe but ensures that each song sounds unique.  If you like jazz, you need to check this out.