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Mama's Got a Brand-New Bag

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings carry old-school funk into the new millennium

Roth's funk odyssey began during his college years (he studied music at NYU). His education shows when he talks about his musical ethos and viewpoint, though his opinions on the matter have a naturalistic slant. "If you look at the big picture, the really big picture, like all of music history, it started out with some people banging on logs and grunting and stuff. And they are just trying to express the human condition.

"And through music history and the progression of culture and music, we discovered harmony and rhythm and different kinds of melody. And we started using those tools and eventually different kinds of technology to build instruments and ways to record music, and express feelings and transfer it to other people. Through all these tools, we learned how to better and better express ourselves.

"And I think that sometime around the late '60s, there was a certain peak. At some point when James Brown grunted or Otis Redding whined, there was a certain peak where it was just harmony and rhythm and technology were coming together in the perfect way to express the human condition. That was the most feeling that could actually be put into sound."

Sharon Jones: Triple the funk pleasure in one compact 
package.
Sharon Jones: Triple the funk pleasure in one compact package.

And that is the exact point in time that the Daptone gang and their fellow New York funk travelers try to stay focused on. Roth and company believe it's all been downhill since then. "I think what happened was that we started on this route of following these technological progressions and experimentation with melody and harmony and rhythm and stuff, and I think we missed our stop," Roth posits. "I think people failed to recognize when the technology was adequate and we didn't need more and more computers. I think people didn't recognize when it was time in music to stop saying, 'Okay, well, I can do something nobody ever did before,' and instead say, 'Okay, I can do something meaningful.' "

Hence the Daptone studio's low-tech feel. "It's pretty '80s ghetto; RadioShack keeps us in business," notes Roth. "It's just more about trying to make good records."

Whatever they're doing, it works, and an increasingly discernable scene is burgeoning. Today, a neo-hard-funk family tree grows in Brooklyn. "It's definitely more of a family affair, a community thing," observes Roth. "It's a bunch of musicians that have been working together, some of us, for ten years. Everybody is playing in everyone else's groups or bringing people in from the outside: 'Oh, that guy sang on your record,' 'Oh, let me get him in here on my record.' All the people that we are working with are working in the same style. Everybody is doing kind of organic, funk-related stuff; whether it's Latin, Nigerian or reggae, it's still heavily influenced by the sounds in the late '60s and early '70s."

It all definitely offers a respite for what passes for soul on today's pop and black music charts. "It sometimes feels a little bit sad," says Roth. "You turn on the radio and they announce that they're going to play some R&B. And then you hear a little computer beeping away at you. It's like, whoa, where's the rhythm and where's the blues?"

But maybe the tide is turning in the direction of this new funk in the old spirit. After all, as Roth observes, "The ironic part of it is that if you listen to techno music, dance music and a lot of pop music now, it's starting to sound more and more like log-banging -- boom, boom, boom."

So will Daptone become the latest trend-setting record label to hit the big time? "I don't think you have to worry," laughs Roth. "We're not really smart enough to get really big."

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