Last week I caught a screening for Finding the Funk at the Urbanworld Film Festival. It's a documentary – directed by Nelson George and narrated by Questlove – that charts funk as the adjoiner between ‘60s soul and the hip-hop era. Toward the end, as the film documents how hip-hop artists used sampling machines to reinterpret James Brown break beats or Larry Graham basslines, a few artists halfheartedly lamented the rise of the machine and, hence, the fall of the black instrumentalist. (Notice I used “instrumentalist” and not “musician.” You can’t tell me Kanye isn’t a musician.)
What happened to the black band? We must use "black" as a qualifier because a Friday night jaunt around Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, Chicago or elsewhere will put you within a stumble of any number of "white bands." But, although black musicianship is alive and well (sonically sophisticated hip-hop albums are not rare), gone are the days of the 1970s’ glut of funk bands or even the Prince/Minneapolis-led ‘80s funk/R&B bands (shout out to Rick James and the Stone City Band).
This was a long way of getting to The Internet, a scary precocious band from the Odd Future set.
Although "Dontcha" from their new album Feel Good is "on the 1" in the proudest of funk traditions, the album's retro vibe is much more early-millennium "neo-soul." They’ve traded in the electro-soul of their debut EP Purple Naked Ladies – the product of mostly machine-produced gems from founding members Matt Martians and Syd tha Kid. In its stead, Feel Good adds Patrick Paige II on bass, Christopher Allan Smith on drums, and Tay Walker on keys.
Adding the bandmates makes all the difference, as, sonically speaking, the two albums feel almost entirely apart from each other. Although Chad Hugo makes an appearance on Feel Good, he and Pharrell’s Neptunes-influence is much more conspicuous on Purple Naked Ladies (“Dontcha” being Feel Good’s most clear Neptunes ode). Feel Good owes more, however, to The Soulquarians, the game-changing collective of the early millennium. They weren’t a band, but it felt that way. Those albums – Voodoo, Mama’s Gun, 1st Born Second – were marked by Questlove’s drums, James Poyser’s keys and Pino Palladino’s bass, grounded by J Dilla’s production. Songs like “Sometimes” and “Orange Moon” are as much about the musicians as the singers. That movement and sound informed lesser, but still excellent, music on early albums from Spacek, Dwele, Angie Stone, Musiq Soulchild and others.
This is where Feel Good seems to take its cues. And, with the way the actual Internet (as in, the interwebs) has made music much more immediate and fleeting, an album that so diligently harkens back to a sound from 10 years ago…well, that’s downright retro these days.
In some ways, it was a little shocking. Over the last six or seven years, there have been artists like Georgia Anne Muldrow, Muhsinah, J Davey and even Foreign Exchange that – like The Internet on Purple Naked Ladies – affected that live, instrumental sound sans an actual band. At its core, electro-soul’s sonic ideas were no more daring than the quintessential neo-soul of the early-millennium, but the technology had a way of making you think so. One would think The Internet would have kept driving in this lane.
Feel Good flips the script. You can almost say it makes a U-turn. “You Don’t Even Know,” “Pupil/Patience” and even “Wanders of the Mind” (featuring the increasingly reliable Mac Miller) feel familiar. The “Higher Times” groove could have appeared on Like Water for Chocolate. None of this should be viewed as a demerit.
As Syd in a recent statement, "The album is a journey through funk and soul through the eyes of young adults trying to find their way."
Although Syd can take on a Flora Purim tone over some of the band’s more Return to Forever-sounding joints; her light, fluttering voice makes you think that this might have been the type of music Aaliyah would have made as an adult, if she ever chose to take a break from Missy and Timbo. Syd seems to have left her hard edges on Purple Naked Ladies (songs like “She DGAF,” “Cocaine” and “C*nt” were your more provocative fare, along with frollicky joints like “Lincoln,” and others, such as “Fastland” where she repeatedly tells a potential love interest to either “get right or get left”). On Feel Good, the band offers songs about sunshine (“Sunset”) and somber ballads (“Red Balloon”). Perhaps the albums highlight is “Partner In Crime, Pt Two”’s refrain is “It’s just me and you forever.”
The band, by the way, is on 100 out of 10 on the latter song. Four millennials groovin’, funkin’, vibin’ – basically getting way too busy.
Pretty soon we’re going to be looking at The Roots like they’re The Max Weinberg 7 or Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra. It makes bands like The Internet that much more precious. They’d make Earth Wind & Fire proud.