When it's good, funk is some of the most satisfying and libidinous music you'll ever have the privilege to experience. Trouble is, good funk isn't easy to create, as legions of Red Hot Chili Pepper copyists have proved, to the detriment of ears everywhere. This is especially the case after funk's late-'60s/mid-'70s peak. Funk got weaker after Gerald Ford took office. Coincidence? I don't think so. Funk somehow needed the über-corrupt Richard Nixon in the White House to thrive. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.
For myriad reasons, the years 1968 to 1974 provided a golden age of funkiness, an era overflowing with immortal, soulfully danceable cuts, which hiphop producers have been greedily plundering for samples over the last three decades. During this period, analog recording techniques reached their zenith, and when you factor in James Brown's groundbreaking lessons being incorporated; major labels throwing money at anything hinting at counterculture cachet; loosening societal strictures regarding sexuality; the empowerment of minorities, women, and antiwar activists; and the prevalence of potent drugs, you get a musical milieu of unparalleled risk-taking and innovation. And lots of towering Afros.
One of funk's most suave practitioners is Darondo (William Pulliam, whose hair is slicked back, for the record), an obscure Bay Area singer who gives Al Green and Ron Isley a run for their silk sheets in the loverman sweepstakes. Darondo recorded a mere nine songs in the early '70s (which Luv N' Haight Records collated for the 2006 release Let My People Go), played only four shows—including an opening slot for the aforementioned Godfather of Soul—and then exited the music business in a Rolls-Royce.
Darondo went on to travel the world as an artifact collector, become a renowned physical therapist, host his own cable television show, and allegedly work as a pimp for a minute. Every publicity photo of him suggests that D is no stranger to custom tailoring and flamboyant sartorial choices. Cat was bling before bling was even blung.
The undeniable swankness of Let My People Go—plus influential British DJ Gilles Peterson's inclusion of the sweet-cheek soul ballad "Didn't I" on his Digs America compilation—spurred a revival of interest in Darondo's music among crate diggers and Wax Poetics readers. Hell, even John Mayer blogged his approval of the virile vocalist. This resurgence of attention has culminated in Darondo getting his svelte, sexagenarian ass back on the road this year for a series of dates, backed by fellow San Franciscan Nino Moschella and a bunch of funky young studs called the Park.
At a recent Orange County show, Darondo looked like a million bucks as he danced, belted, crooned, and did the splits, shaming performers half his age with his energy and vocal dopeness. He excitingly reanimated songs like the ridiculously lascivious "Legs (Part 1)," the low-slung chiller of "Let My People Go," and the buttery heart-melter "Didn't I." These dapper 35-plus-year-old songs have aged as well his own bad self has. No wonder JB praised him during their only encounter.
Much younger than Darondo, L.A. nonet Orgone nonetheless have infused funk and soul's most tantalizing attributes with modern brio and true-school spirit. The group's 2007 debut disc, The Killion Floor (Ubiquity), flaunts righteous covers of the late Isaac Hayes's "Do Your Thing," the Beginning of the End's "Funky Nassau," and George McRae's "I Get Lifted," revealing Orgone's debt to history—and their exquisite taste.
Orgone's members have spread their carnal groove knowledge in other outfits such as funk chameleons Breakestra and hiphop orchestra Dakah, while also providing live backing for backpack rappers Pharoahe Monch and the Pharcyde, turntablist savant Z-Trip, and Nawlins funk deity Eddie Bo. Orgone's cred is irrefutable and these experiences have helped them hone their chops to military tightness on The Killion Floor.
One paradox about funk is that its rhythmic tightness triggers loose behavior, whether in clubs or boudoirs. Orgone—who are named after a potent sexual energy defined by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich—unleash said lusty life force with a rare panache. "Sophisticated Honky" is a raunchy funk-rock instrumental featuring flinty guitars twisted into lewd shapes, steamy bass-and-drum interplay, and breezy brass; "Do Your Thing" is a lubricious torch song that could make a Barry White ballad faint.
But Orgone also persuasively play Afrobeat, as "It's What You Do" and "Justice League" recall Fela Kuti's band's humidity and throb, repurposed for sophisticated R&B fans.
Many people swear that '60s and '70s funk and soul will never be surpassed. I asked Orgone vocalist Fanny Franklin what she thinks about that mindset.
"I agree with that," she says. "In the '60s and '70s, people were inspired by the times, and the music that came out of those times cannot be touched. Everyone is inspired by someone else, and that will never change, [but] how that is expressed in music is up to each individual. I think Orgone has a great love and respect for the music of that time, and no one [in our group's] trying to copy it, only to be inspired by it... I don't think anyone should feel like they have to re- invent the wheel—just play what you like. If it comes from the heart, it shouldn't sound contrived."