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The Boston Phoenix Soul Providers

Desco brings on the funk

By Douglas Wolk

JUNE 14, 1999:  Desco makes commodity fetishism groove. Over the last three years, the NYC funk label has cranked out a series of singles, LPs, and (when the Desco folks realized it was inevitable) CDs on the premise that James Brown's work from 1965 to 1975 is the alpha and the omega of music. Desco recordings feature a house band variously known as the Other Side, the Soul Providers, Bosco's Billionaires, and the Knights of Forty First Street, with or without assorted raspy soul shouters. The sound is straight-up JB, from the light-fingered appropriation of guitarist Jimmy Nolen's "chicken scratch" to the drum timbre. The label's mission is explicitly stated in a note on the back cover of the Other Side's (Don't Look Back) Behind the Shack . . . : "DESCO is seeking bands and musicians who are interested in recording HEAVY, HEAVY funk or Boogaloo. If your influences include Parliament, Stevie Wonder, or be-bop, you need not apply. When it comes to gettin' down, James Brown is the ground."

Desco's best recordings aren't just tributes to Brown, they're great funk in their own right. The label's most ingenious stroke so far is last fall's Soul Explosion, by the Daktaris. A mild departure from strict JB orthodoxy, it's designed to look like a reissue of an early-'70s funk album from Nigeria -- in other words, it fetishizes the replica that's part of DJ/collector culture, rather than the unaffordable original artifact. It's full of hellaciously hot African polyrhythms, sour horns, and apropos covers: "Musicawi Silt," a mid-'70s piece by Ethiopia's Wallias Band, and idiomatic versions of Fela Kuti's "Up Side Down" and Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose." And it's executed with such love and enthusiasm that even expert listeners and reviewers have been convinced it's the real thing. (The giveaway is the Daktaris' own composition, "Eltsuhg Ibal Lasiti" -- read the title backwards.)

Like the Soul Providers and their various other identities, the Daktaris are the work of an ensemble put together by drummer/Desco label head Phillipe Lehman and bassist/producer Gabriel Roth. Their first collaboration was the clever but uneven The Revenge of Mister Mopoji, released in 1996 but packaged like the bootlegged soundtrack of an early-'70s blaxploitation/kung fu movie. They got it exactly right a few months later with the Other Side's single "Diggin' Up the Yard," three perfect minutes of head-nodding 1971 groove. Nearly every Desco release since has hit the mark. Lehman and Roth understand that the key to Brown's heaviest funk was in its reserve and indirection, its ability to hint at the mystery of the beat rather than tossing it in your face.

Exclusively a studio group at first, the Lehman-Roth crew have begun performing live. About a year ago, they started booking "Desco Super Soul Revue" nights in New York, usually featuring the Soul Providers with one singer or another, as well as a couple of other Desco bands, like the boogaloo project Sugarman Three (modeled on Brown's mid-'60s organ-instrumental albums) and the Mighty Imperials, a quartet of teenagers itching to be the Meters. At one early performance, singer Sharon Jones -- a 50ish matron who'd sung gospel before she met Roth and Lehman -- started into her let's-do-the-new-dance single "Bump N Touch," then realized that she was obligated to invent the Bump N Touch dance on the spot.

The last few months have seen the Desco debuts of more vocalists: Naomi Davis, a sore-voiced, gospel-trained barker whose "Forty First Street Breakdowne" is more of a vamp-plus-rant than an actual song, and former Coasters singer Joseph Henry, whose single "Who's the King? (You Know That's Me)" is a fleet, muscular, Bobby Byrd-style bounce. But the first Soul Providers singer to get his own Desco full-length is Lee Fields, whose Let's Get a Groove On was released last month. Fields first recorded about 30 years ago -- his single "The Bull Is Coming" and album Let's Talk It Over are funk collectors' desiderata. He stomps around the stage in a glittery body suit that he'd never be able to get away with if he weren't an unflaggingly rough, emphatic belter, and he sings every song on the new album as if he were trying to top the last one.

Fields's vocal inflection comes straight from the Godfather of Soul; "Watch That Man," in fact, ends with Fields chanting "JB for President!" The Brown-produced '60s albums that Let's Get a Groove On is modeled after were assembled post-haste by label execs who barely cared about the music, and Roth and Lehman lovingly re-create that haphazard vibe, riddling the album with abrupt fade-ins and fade-outs, previously released tracks, filler instrumentals by the Providers, awkwardly imbalanced mixes, and a ridiculous spoken introduction. They know what they're doing: the charm they're re-creating was partly in how the funk erupted through the chaos of its presentation. The Soul Providers make historical accuracy work for them because they've got the instrumental fire to back it up and vice versa -- they reproduce the quirks of old funk not because they're kitschy cool, but because they feed that fire.

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