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.
At their start, the group would play breaks and loops made familiar through sampling, but because the band members had dissimilar knowledge in funk, Tackett gave each player tapes of songs to learn and master. “We started practicing, then every week there’d be a rehearsal, and we’d try to add some new songs, add a new loop, a new cut,” says Tackett. Eventually, the group swelled to 11 members, and since 1999 they’ve released several singles, including their original composition “Getcho Soul Togetha” (1999) as well as the albums Live Mix Part One (1998) and Part Two (2001).
Where the Poets of Rhythm took almost all their early cues from the original funkateers, Breakestra have long crafted a dialogue with both funk and hip-hop aesthetics. Regarding their Live Mix series, Tackett explains that the albums are “completely influenced from having heard house-party sets from hip-hop DJs like Cut Chemist, and Marvski playing just funk with a little bit of hip-hop referencing.” With Breakestra, “The musicians playing are the DJ,” says Tackett, which explains how they seamlessly segue from one song to another, just like a DJ, quick in the mix.
Breakestra and the Poets have emerged as leaders in a rapidly expanding community of neo-funkateers that includes the U.K.’s Soul Destroyers, Afrobeat acolytes Antibalas and New York’s Sugarman 3. For Geiger, practically a veteran in the scene, the whole evolution has been a welcome surprise. “When we started 10 years ago, I thought, okay, it would go for two or three years,” he recalls. “Then five or so years ago, the generation after us got interested, and now there’s tons of bands doing this kind of music.”
While he’s heartened to see the resurgence in full swing, Geiger’s still concerned that a strange paradox has been created — the closer many of these groups get to authentic perfection, the closer they risk turning themselves into mere musical mimeographs. “I think it’s a waste of time, trying to so urgently re-create something that’s already been there instead of trying to look inside yourself and find your own kind of music,” he says.
As for Breakestra, they keep their philosophy simpler as they eschew the debate over defining this new movement and its implications. “Whatever you want to call it — deep funk, rare groove, soul-jazz-funk, it should always be alive,” says Tackett. “Whether people want to call it retro, I don’t even care. It’s just good music.”
Breakestra performs with the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra at El Rey on Wednesday, September 26. (323) 936-6400; www.breakestra.com .