Sharon Jones And the Dap-Kings


(Daptone; 2005)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

Question: is there any single musical genre that’s been so completely doomed to museum status as da funk? And I’m not talking about horrendous hippie-approved “funk” acts with horrible one word names like “Soulive” and “Topaz,” all of whom shit out sterile studio documents having far more in common with Kenny-G than King Curtis. I'm talking about the aggressively rhythmic, bass-driven music at the crossroads of soul and the big-band era that emerged in the late '60s and early '70s as the most vital force in black pop.

You hardly need to be a purist to be aware of the handful of classic funk acts that actually met with lucrative success --- in particular, the legendary JB’s, Stax house band Booker T and the MG’s (famous for “Green Onions”), and Parliament-Funkadelic. But like DJ Shadow sorrowfully noted in Doug Pray’s DJ documentary Scratch, the era was marked by hundreds of comparable acts criss-crossing the U.S. only to go nowhere; maybe seeing their legacy live on via a Kanye sample or in the form of a single hot track rescued for inclusion on one of those “rare” funk compilations that seem to crop up everywhere as of late (the best recent example being 2002’s Peter Butter Wolf compiled The Funky 16 Corners).

Some scholars would have you believe that the spirit of funk lives on in hip-hop, but outside of the rawness often associated with the best aspects of both genres, this is wishful thinking. Just Blaze doesn’t exactly encourage the listener to seek out the source of his '70s samples, and they’re hardly a substitute for the real thing to begin with, downplaying the fact that the heavenly trumpet part in your favorite Jay-Z song was once played by a living human gigging 250 nights a week. A quality hip-hop DJ unquestionably has a place in modern pop music, but who can’t appreciate the purity of a ten-piece band with a funky drummer and a full horn line? “Wit Dre Day” is probably my favorite song that the good Doctor has committed to wax, but it’s the P-Funk source material (“(Not Just) Knee Deep”) that Ice Cube recently (and correctly) referred to in Rolling Stone as “making motherfuckers real crazy.”

Sharon Jones and the Dapkings consist of a southern-bred, forty-something female vocalist and a eight-piece backing band featuring such colorfully named characters as Homer “Funky-Foot” Jenkins (drums), Binky Griptite (guitar, emcee) and Bosco “Bass” Mann (guess). Their brand of smokin’ live R&B might not have made such a huge splash within a sea of hundreds of similar acts in funk’s heyday, but sure as hell stands out in this R. Kelly-rich climate. The one word that’s constantly being used to describe Naturally is “retro,” and it is proudly and unabashedly so, from the fact that the recording simply sounds like it was hatched in 1972, to Ms. Jones’ vocals; brash and soulful, and having nothing to do with the soft-porn garbage comprising the lion’s share of Top 40 R&B (apologies is that sounded too much like the R&B equivalent of Nick Hornby’s rock music whining, but the funk gets me passionate).

Naturally laughs in the face of any recently released “funk” or R&B albums, but how does it stack up against the '70s recordings that it so aspires to reach? Surprisingly well. The Dap-Kings aren’t so much attempting to expand their genre as simply introducing it to a younger generation that should already know better, but the band is tight and their myriad wah-guitar licks and horn riffs quite tasty. They fare best when they keep the tempos sprightly, such as on first single and virtual standard “How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?,” “Natural Born Lover” and “How Do You Let a Good Man Down.”

The ballads aren’t quite as strong due to a curious lack of dynamics, but they’re thankfully outnumbered by the up-tempo material, and feature at least one standout in “Stranded In Your Love,” an Ike and Tina-style conversational duet with James Brown disciple Lee Fields that manages to be both tender and hysterical. Save a smokin’ reinvention of “This Land is Your Land,” subject matter is unsurprisingly limited to Sharon Jones and Her Man, with emotions ranging from “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”-styled barnburners (“Your Thing is a Drag”) to what fellow scribe Aaron Newell once coined “the Ashanti-esque wilting in the face of male-dominance” (nearly everything else).

De facto bandleader Bosco “Bass” Mann has stated in interviews that the purpose of the Dap-Kings is to “keep the music of the JB’s alive,” and I can think of few worthier pursuits. The Dapkings’ genre is one that deserves to be heard by as many people as possible, and while Naturally has about as much chance of cracking the Top 40 as Wolf Eyes, it’s certainly worthy of an audience far wider than the small core of white indie kids (at least in the Northeast) who seem to have taken to its grooves. One gripe that costs them at least 3 CMG percentage points? No trombone player. What gives?