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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

The Dap-Kings and their label, Daptone Records, are deadly serious about their funk. So it seems fitting that they're headquartered in a genuine urban ghetto: the Bushwick section of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. (To give an indication of just how bad-ass that 'hood is, note that Geto Boy Bushwick Bill actually hailed from the far less ghetto Brooklyn section of Flatbush, but chose to adopt Bushwick as his tough-guy nom de rap.)

But Daptone isn't in Bushwick for the street cred, per se. No, first and foremost, it's the cheap rent that enticed them. "It's a big two-family house on a real beautiful block in Bushwick, if you can imagine -- it's pretty ghettofied there," says Dap-Kings bandleader and bassist and Daptone-owning partner Gabe Roth, a.k.a. Bosco "Bass" Mann.

But what they may have established is a virtual Hitsville, NYC -- ground zero of a burgeoning Big Apple funk scene that includes the Sugarman Three, the band led by Roth's Daptone partner and Dap-King saxophonist Neal Sugarman, and rapidly rising fellow Brooklynites the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, among a slew of other young acts playing a brand of music that had its heyday some three decades ago.

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

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Tuesday, February 8. Allison Fisher is also on the bill. For more information, call 713-529-9899.
Continental Club, 3700 Main

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The eight-man Dap-Kings are the house band for Daptone, which releases CDs and even some 45s. The label has unearthed obscure older funk and soul singing talent like Lee Fields, Joseph Henry and Naomi Davis to work with its bands, but their big find may just be Sharon Jones, whom they've dubbed "Soul Sister No. 1," and not just because she was born in the same hometown as James Brown -- Augusta, Georgia.

The music Jones and the Daps make is analogous to that of Brown and the JBs: funk as deep and loamy as a Southern cotton furrow and as hot as the summer sun shining above. All you have to do is flip the gender of the lead singer. The band has the sharp threads and cool moves as well as the simmering chops to roll the groove out onto the dance floor. And Jones boasts a set of pipes that wails and howls and gets down and simmers in a way that can't help but sex you up. It's easily a match for any of the great soul-shoutin' sistahs of the style's heyday.

Jones first came to Roth's attention while the latter was making a funk record with veteran singer Lee Fields -- known as "Soul Brother No. 2" or "Little J.B." -- in the mid-1990s. Speaking on his cell phone in a taxi rolling through Brooklyn's snow-lined streets, Roth remembers their meeting. "We needed some background singers. And the sax player that was playing on the record at the time said, 'Oh, my girlfriend can come in and sing background.' And these other two girls were supposed to come in and sing, too. And the sax player's girlfriend, who turned out to be Sharon, said, 'Don't worry about it. I can do all the parts myself.' And she came in and killed it, sounded great."

The 48-year-old Jones had put in many years in a series of rising bands that never quite made it, although some of them did open shows for the Four Tops, Peaches and Herb, the Drifters and Maceo Parker, so she knew a thing or two about how to get a crowd up and doing the boogaloo. But when she first entered the studio and saw a sea of white faces, she was highly skeptical. "I'm gonna tell you just what I thought," says the diminutive but highly feisty former prison guard from her home in Far Rockaway, Queens. "I thought, 'What do these young white boys think they know about funk?' I thought they were joking, I thought they were playing with me. But I finally went down there, and I was like, whoa!"

Bosco won Jones over to the point where she now speaks of him in mystical tones. "I told Bosco he's been reincarnated," she says. "He's really a 55-year-old black man who came back as a 30-year-old Jewish boy."

The sessions -- for Desco, Roth's previous label -- paid off. The singer shot straight to star status in the UK, where she is now referred to as "The Queen of Funk." Jones is quickly adapting to touring across the pond. "The main thing is blouses and underwear -- that's what you have to worry about," Jones advises. "I was in London, and they didn't have any place for me to hang my clothes that I washed out in the sink. And I was hanging it on this lamp. And I woke up and my underthing was burning, a big hole in it. I was like, oooowww! The alarm went off and everything. Never do that again."

It's clear that she's loving every minute of her finally found acclaim, which is just starting to blossom stateside. The band recently returned from a four-day trip to London just in time to nab a last-minute appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Jones marvels at how a coterie of mainly young, mainly white musicians can make such genuine, greasy funk, and Roth echoes the sentiment with his more philosophical observations. "For me it's definitely not like a retro thing, like, hey, let's randomly take this genre of music and pull it out, or let's try to do this old thing in this cool retro way," he says. It's more about "going forward in the right way -- trying to find the music and the meaning that is most natural to us."

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."

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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