For a younger generation, the first wave of classic R&B compilations in the 80s was like peering through a window into another world. Kent’s For Dancers Only introduced many to the labyrinthine world of northern soul, while NME’s legendary Stompin’ at the Savoy alerted inquisitive minds to swing.
But possibly the greatest compilation of the era was James Brown’s Funky People, which shone a light on the Godfather of Soul’s productions and roster of artists from his People imprint (1971-1976). These artists – the J.B.’s, Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley and Maceo and the Macks – were then largely unknown in the UK.
At the time, Brown was going through a major revaluation – he scored a first UK top 10 hit with Living in America, from the Rocky IV soundtrack. Brown’s enormous influence on hip hop was also being recognised, as the growth of cheap technology meant that his off-the-peg beats were sampled to underpin many contemporary records.
Although credited to the other artists, Brown is all over this, arranging, producing, writing and playing. These strange, spindly, skeletal grooves – such as Pass the Peas, Gimme Some More and Damn Right, I Am Somebody – were made by people who knew the funk intimately. It was simply exhilarating.
Lyn Collins, aka the Female Preacher, sounds stupendous. The Human League had recently covered her Rock Me Again and Again… on their Hysteria album, and now listeners were able to enjoy the sass of the original. Think (About It) was to be sampled hundreds of times, most notably in Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s It Takes Two. Collins’ original is one of Brown’s most borrowed grooves.
This was inner-city music par excellence, each song complete with its own imaginary journey through a city’s brownstones. The success of James Brown’s Funky People led to two further volumes, one in 1988 and the last in 2000, which equally uncovered more treasures. But the original still sounds as fresh and surprising as it did in 1986.
The notion of “rare groove” seems odd today when everything is just a click away, and we have all become all our own compilers. But few self-assembled selections will ever have the authority and groove of this benchmark release.
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