We owe a lot to the ears of crate-digger extraordinaire Eothen Alapatt (aka Egon), former general manager, A&R, and producer for indie hip-hop stalwart Stones Throw Records. Along with ST owner Peanut Butter Wolf, he helped to cultivate the brilliant minds of J Dilla and Madlib for their label. As founder and owner of ST subsidiary Now Again Records, Alapatt now employs his fine-tuned ears full-time to unearthing the obscurest soul, funk, or rock records and compiling projects like this latest 15-song album, Soul Cal: Funky Disco & Modern Soul, 1971-82.
Alapatt states that “these are the bands that transitioned from funk to disco… the bands that kept up the backbeat when rhythm moved to the backseat”–so it goes without saying that we’re not quite dealing with the novelty disco of Rick Dees or the Village People. Although a few unremarkable offerings bog down the compilation’s midsection, Soul Cal excellently embodies that period’s evolution to disco. However, the star of this special project is the accompanying 80-page anthology that for each track runs down the bands’ backstories, recording processes, personnel struggles, and whatever else Alapatt could cull from his comprehensive research and first-hand interviews. To the purist, record crate-miners, this is probably cheating, but the book makes an already superb collection of indie soul and deep disco-funk a very vivid listening experience.
The title, Soul Cal, is a misnomer. These shoestring-budgeting, funk bands originated from all across the country, including Texas, Nebraska, New York, and Michigan among many other places. However, the term Northern soul, the cult “genre” based on arcane soul and funk finds, is also misleading. Here, “Northern” refers to the geographic location of the clubs in Britain where the DJ subculture first sprouted. The inspiration for the title, Soul Cal, began with Bakersfield, CA, army vet Luther Davis and his uplifting guitar-funk 12”, “You Can Be a Star,” the first track and Now Again’s first release in 2003. Alapatt and Wolf initially lost money re-issuing this deep disco gem, but they decided to keep trucking on and release other rare, independent finds that were of the same vein as Davis’, morphing the series into this well-conceived anthology.
The collection’s second jam, “Don’t Get Discouraged” by the Omaha, NE-based U.P.C. All Stars, is evidence enough that this decade-in-the-making project was well-worth pursuing. In the book, bandleader/keyboardist John Roode recalls how he was influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Blood, Sweat, & Tears more so than James Brown at the time. But, the incisive, blaring horns and thick yet nimble basslines hold this protest song firmly in funk territory—plus, not to mention, the freewheeling jam session the musicians partake in to end the song.
Positive and socially conscious messages like this, whether political or personal, dominate much of these artists’ concerns. Unfortunately, a few of these cuts turn personal self-encouragement into campy affirmations like Rhythm Machine’s “Put a Smile on Time,” with its synthesizer riffs evoking the theme to old TV show Love Boat, and Key & Cleary’s “What It Takes to Live,” a middling, rollerskate disco number.
In contrast, for the listener who reads Rhythm Machine’s background, the listening experience can shift dramatically. According to co-founder James Boone’s recounting, the band lost all motivation to record ever again after the fatal car accident of their supremely talented sax player, Maride Williams, despite having perked the interest of Quincy Jones a few years before. Not all of the book’s backstories are that gripping, yet every single entry is informative, well-written and a straightforward read. In many cases, having limited sources to go on, Alapatt proficiently details the mechanics behind each song, revealing the artists’ strategies, rough ideas, and musical influences. Moreover, Alapatt even includes a few original photos—personal shots, images of issued vinyl, newspaper clippings, album covers, and other pertinent mementos.
The most bittersweet thing about Soul Cal is discovering musicians like George Calhoun and Craig Green. Regrettably, this bassist/drummer combo have no relevancy today, but the duo’s badass rhythmic chemistry anchor the best cut on the album, the hyper-frenetic soul jam “Love Is.” Other highlights, like Freedom Express’ “Get Down” and Pure Essence’s “Wake Up,” also show the same high level of musicianship. If these funk ensembles had ever crossed the line of obscurity, some of these electrifying players could have garnered the notoriety that, say, a Maceo Parker or Bootsy Collins (before he led his own band) have today.
Music is infinite. The beauty of Northern soul/deep funk is that no matter how deep one’s record collection or musical knowledge may be, there will always be some random, unknown musician, song, album or corpuscle of information that can still expand your musical sensibilities. Soul Cal may not have the same intellectual intrigue of Now Again compilations on Zambian psych-rock or Afro-spiritual jazz, but Alapatt wholeheartedly accomplishes this task with his meticulous handling and care of these bands’ precious music and stories.