Saturday, April 4, 2009

What's been rocking my stereo lately... (Dap Kings edition)

In this age of relatively soulless and unfunky music, there are a number of bands still keeping the funky flame alive. But one band stands head and shoulders above them all, and that is New York's Dap Kings. Unashamedly retro, these cats act sound like nothing you've heard since 1971, which is incidentally before any of them were born. Unfortunately, this classicist approach means that the mainstream completely ignores them. Yet their influence is still pervasive, as a number of commercial artists have sought to bite or borrow their sound.

None are better than Sharon Jones, however. Her 2004 album with the Dap Kings, Naturally, is simply the best real soul album since the 70s. 53 year-old Jones (who not so long ago was working as a corrections officer and wedding singer) may not be a household name, but has achieved the improbable feat of rockstardom at middle age, courtesy of her timeless pipes and the brilliant musical mind of Dap Kings maestro Gabriel Roth. Yet the fact that Amy Winehouse has made millions with a good but inferior take on Jones' sound reflects the superficiality and ageism of the music industry.

So hot are the Dap Kings that even their castoffs can turn into gold. A guy calling himself the Prince of Ballard has mashed up a discarded instrumental jam with Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and the result is unbelievable. It's available as a free MP3 download over at his Armed Snobbery blog. I confess I'm not much of a Jay-Z fan, but when the groove kicks like this it's a pleasure to listen to.

Speaking of Jay-Z, one of the few non-Jay-Z songs to appear on the American Gangster soundtrack was "Do you feel me" by Anthony Hamilton. Hamilton has surely the greatest male soul voice of his generation, yet has never reached his full potential in my opinion, largely due to unsympathetic production. But this track, with the Dap-Kings, is when it all comes together. It's got that classic Al Green sound, a solid foundation for Hamilton to truly soar.

The Menahan Street Band is a kind of instrumental deep-funk supergroup founded by Dap Kings guitarist Tommy Brenneck. (In another Jay-Z connection, his song "Roc Boyz" samples them.) This track, "The world (is going up in flames)" features vocalist Charles Bradley, who may look like he is straight out of a James Brown cover band, but totally rips this number. What a song.

Sharon Jones comparisons aside, Amy Winehouse is a good artist in her own right, and its a shame that it took excess and scandal to cement her as a big-name star. Most of her Back to Black album was produced by Mark Ronson and played by the Dap Kings. They come together again on this sterling cut from Ronson's Versions album. "Valerie" is a cover of a track by UK indie rock act the Zutons; their original version is also splendid.

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