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The Isley Brothers' box

By Alex Pappademas

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Before we go any farther, please give it up for Ernie Isley's fuzztone. His soaked, spiraling overdrive ranks with funk's most goosebump-inducing noises, a playfully science-functional guitar squall that spread electric honey and tossed in the comb for free, schooling both Jonathan Richman and the Dust Brothers and (eventually) becoming the cheese, eggs, and Welch's grape on Biggie Smalls's lyrical T-bone. Ernie doesn't get his writhe on until disc two of the Isleys' terrific new three-disc retrospective It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers (Epic/Legacy/T-Neck). But if we excuse the set's lame Rainbow Brite wacky-package, this sweeping collection still has its bases covered and its thang in order, from doo-wop all the way to Hot 97.

It's Your Thing jumps off with "Shout," the gospel standard that Rudolph, Ronald, and O'Kelly Isley adapted into pure, amped exuberance (just check it out in Animal House) in 1959. After hitting again with "Twist and Shout" in '62 (beating the Beatles to it), they found Jimi Hendrix, not yet experienced but already wearing a hardware-store chain for a belt, in a Harlem hotel. His cat scratch on "Move Over and Let Me Dance," one of two Jimi-era sides on Your Thing, is loose-bootied enough to settle that argument in George Pelecanos's novel King Suckerman about whether Hendrix LPs should be filed under "Rock" or "Soul."

Ernie in particular ended up following Jimi's trail -- the Isleys would go on to make eight albums with Hendrix's guitar tech, Roger Mayer, whose early work as an underwater-warfare consultant for the British Navy informed his subsequent effects-box designs. But a frustrating stint at Motown may have been more influential: though their Motown singles, like "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" and "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)" became iconic, in retrospect you can hear the suit collars, the choreography, and the by-the-book house band giving them a case of the style cramps.

In 1969, when they decamped to Teaneck, New Jersey, set up T-Neck, their own indie imprint, and brought younger brothers Ernie and Marvin (and later, Isley Brother-in-law Chris Jasper) up from the minors, they started writing some nasty shit, like the lip-licking, just-barely-metaphorical "Blacker the Berrie." More important, they started wearin' them things that nobody wears: Your Thing devotes several liner-note pages to "Isley Fashion." At their deepest-dipped, the Brothers resembled Vegas-boudoir toreadors and/or their Satanic Majesties the Stones, primped to pimp. Awesome photo caption: "Real Men, Real Fur, Real Funk."

Thus self-employed, the Isleys had a great '70s, balancing manly, assured soul (like "What It Comes Down To," one of the set's few glaring omissions) with politics ("Fight the Power," with its "Superstition"-style bass blips). "That Lady (Pts. 1 and 2)," from 1973's 3+3, takes the acid-funk crown, proof of funk critic Rickey Vincent's observation that "black rock" is redundant. But I'm also partial to '71's schlock-into-gold covers album Givin' It Back, which is extensively excerpted here. Ronald puts the nervous-breakdown guts of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" on the outside; like their 1974 psychedelic-soul reworking of Seals and Crofts's "Summer Breeze," it suggests a Bizarro universe where Isaac Hayes is master chef of the lite-FM airwaves, Steven Stills fronts Al Green's ministry, and no song sucks.

The third disc features some of the Isleys' greatest gifts to hip-hop. On the sublime "Footsteps in the Dark," a tiptoeing bass and talkboxed guitar act out Ronald's suspicion that he's being cheated on, his fear of sending his girl packing on a false cue, and when he realizes his mind's playing tricks on him, there's even a happy ending. Ice Cube's equally masterful "It Was a Good Day" sampled a sped-up "Footsteps" melody; like Ronald, Cube can't trust his senses, so he flips ho's and watches the Lakers spank the Sonics in eerie post-LA-riots dead calm, until the footsteps turn out to be a SWAT team closing in.

Not to mention "Between the Sheets." Originally a slow-jam outpouring of single-entendres ("I'm comin', comin', comin' . . . on strong,"), with its gliding, insistent groove it was the MVP of New York hip-hop's 1993-'94 championship season, lubricating both Keith Murray's "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," the most debonairest song about coochie sweat ever penned. Their seductive prowess intact, Ernie and Ronald even played on R. Kelly's "Down Low," which is as pained a cheatin' song as "Footsteps in the Dark" and should rightfully close out this collection. Last year's Kelly-produced comeback single "Mission To Please" is a consolation prize; since Ronald still gets recognized in airports from his dramatic turn as vengeful sugar-daddy gangsta "Mr. Bigs" in the epic video for "Down Low," I figure the song's as much their thing as Kelly's.

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