SOUND TO SPARE Every time I'd call Bootzilla Productions, the same sexy-voiced female would intercept the answering machine and say, "You've reached the office of Bootsy Collins." This was after Collins — in his unmistakable, almost cartoon-character voice — doing a weird little recorded skit at the beginning. My last-ditch effort to phone chat was a simple request to talk about "The Funk" with the Ohio-based funkateer, who's now pushing 60 and coming to the Fillmore Saturday, June 4 for his first Bay Area performance in seven years. I'd have to go elsewhere for answers.
I needed a funk expert, if you will. But my question was: Is there a department for such a thing? It turned out I needed to look no further than Berkeley writer and legitimate funk historian Rickey Vincent. Vincent was able to explain how Collins and his genre-defining space bass is the glue that holds the funk together. It's easy to get lost in the who's who of P-Funk All Stars, which saw many incarnations from its roots in the late 1960s — when George Clinton and his doo-wop group the Parliaments found their way to Detroit but ended up as Motown rejects — to the infancy of the 1980s. By then, Parliament-Funkadelic was a full-blown recording and touring enterprise. What I didn't know was that before he had donned the star shades and outlandish costumes, Collins honed his chops with a man known for running a tight ship when it came to stage performance: it was James Brown himself who would have Collins hold the rhythm down "on the one."
For your own funkology, the easiest way for me to explain "on the one" is via the chorus to "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)." We've all heard it, and its samples in hip-hop have been well-documented. When the Parliaments sing, "We want the funk," the emphasis is on the we. This is the same technique Brown already had employed in the mid- to late 1960s when he started crafting infectious beats on songs like "Say it Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud." By 1970, after Brown's back-up band had walked out on him over pay, Collina stepped in for a short time, lending licks to some of Brown's most notable funk tracks.
"The James Brown Revue had to be replaced," Vincent says. "[Brown] had a highly disciplined approach that had an impact. But Bootsy was a free spirit." In a short time, according to Vincent, Collins learned the business, including booking, costumes, and organization. "Later on [Collins] became known for outrageousness, but it was always a polished set," he says. Collins came from the same Ohio funk tradition that produced the likes of Zapp, Lakeside, Slave, and the Ohio Players — who all demonstrated unity in their sounds and color-coordinated looks.
But for all that Collins learned under Brown as his temporary, bass-playing protégé, he flourished even more under the free-form tutelage of George Clinton, who allowed for creativity and experimentation. On Parliament's 1975 Chocolate City (Casablanca), the writers updated Brown's anthem of black pride, expanding the notion into a full-fledged theme of black power in places you wouldn't normally expect. They ask us to envision a black president, complete with a cabinet consisting of secretaries Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Fortunately this premonition for Washington hasn't been completely off-base, but I suspect the cabinet is still a bit vanilla for the Mothership's tastes. (Side note: Washington's Smithsonian acquired a replica of the Mothership stage prop, which will be a part of its National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in 2015.)