By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
It’s an unseasonably cool August evening everywhere else in the Southland, but things are just heating up in the Hollywood Hills. New Orleans’ grooved-out Galactic have just closed their set at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, and now L.A.’s own Breakestra is juicing up the 800 restless fans. Drummer Josh Cohen lays down a mean second-line breakbeat from Eddie Bo’s funk classic “Hook and Sling” and the rest of the 11-piece band comes screaming in with the brass-knuckle punch of Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song.” Pandemonium ensues as the audience rains down its appreciation in a chorus of hoots and hollers.
Meanwhile, half a world away in Munich, a trio of musicians replace public spectacle with a private early- morning studio session. Jan Weissenfeldt, a tall, slender guitarist in his early 30s, motions to vocalist Boris Geiger as both listen to Max Weissenfeldt drill out a pattern on a vintage drum kit. The sound’s not quite right, and Geiger leans over to adjust a rusted mike aimed at the trap set, and suddenly Max’s tickling snares become crackling shots. All three share a nod and a smile — the Poets of Rhythm are ready to funk it up.
Though separated by 6,000 miles, Breakestra and the Poets are musical brethren in a growing global movement that plays hard and fast with notions of a sonic past and future. They are new groups steeped in an aged sound — 30-year-old funk music — practicing a down-and-dirty aesthetic once left for dead, only to be resurrected with a vengeance. In direct contradiction to the digital era, these groups abandon the obsession with fancy technology and contemporary fads and instead return to an analog age.
In truth, funk never really went away — it’s lived on in everything from Prince’s deep-purple soul to the acid-jazz stylings of the Brand New Heavies to the frilly frat-boy flavor of Jamiroquai, but the true force behind its unending appeal has been hip-hop. Rap music’s insatiable appetite for samples first devoured the James Brown and P-Funk catalogs a dozen years back and has since moved on to the gritty grandeur of countless 45 singles and LPs from the ’60s and early ’70s. Capitalizing on that resurgent interest has been a massive cottage industry of collectors and compilers and more recently neo-funk groups that take hip-hop’s aesthetic one step further. Groups like the Poets and Breakestra are among a fast-growing cadre that act as human samplers as they borrow from the past to fashion a sound that pays tribute to the pioneers even as it pushes funk’s evolution forward.
Begun by the Weissenfeldt brothers and Geiger in the late ’80s, the Poets of Rhythm were one of the very first to take up the challenge. The group have released eight 7-inch singles and four albums, including their first American release, the new Discern/Define (Quannum). None of the band’s first members was a trained musician; instead, they were funk collectors who obsessed over how the original bands managed to engineer their signature sounds. “We were really more interested in trying to re-create that sound some way,” says Geiger. “Through that, we became musicians.”
Their studies frequently took them across the Atlantic, including an early visit to the New Orleans studio of Allen Toussaint, famed producer of the Meters, Lee Dorsey and other Southern funk legends. They scoured thrift shops for vintage studio equipment from the era, working off the reverse logic that the worse the quality, the closer they got to replicating the sound of their heroes. Geiger points at the ring of plain, generic mikes surrounding the drum kit and explains, “They’re, like, $15 microphones from a supermarket — they just seem to work for us.”
Through trial and error, the Poets have come a long way in perfecting their own thing, a brilliant mesh of different influences from across the sonic spectrum. Rather than just boost loops from the past, they’ve learned to absorb, improvise and invent. On their remarkable Discern/Define, you can pick out certain threads — the heaviness of Fela Kuti’s mesmerizing rhythms, the acid wash of psychedelic rock, the caressing melodies of ’70s soul-jazz — but the group weaves it all together into a unique synthesis rather than a clever copy of someone else’s style. “Jan is more in the hip-hop direction, Max is more into avant-garde jazz, and I’m going in another direction, too,” Geiger says. “Funk is the fundamental thing at the base of our music, and then we try to put each of our individual tastes in.”
When the Poets were half a decade deep into their career, a group of scattered musicians in Los Angeles was just starting to coalesce. Back in 1996, bassist Miles Tackett was helping host a weekly DJ night called The Breaks in various Westside coffeehouses. “From the beginning, it was strictly original rare groove,” remembers Tackett, “keeping alive the whole [mid-’70s] block-party tradition of Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, before rap records, where DJs played whatever people could dance to.” Along with Cohen and trumpeter Todd Simon, Tackett formed a house band for The Breaks, aptly named Breakestra.