When we found out that the Poets Of Rhythm were getting an anthology, we were psyched even if we already had most of the material from the compilation on an assortment of compilations in our archives. The set did end up having one previously unreleased track (“Path Of Life”), but more importantly it placed a spotlight back on a group who started a movement towards old school techniques and musicality with a biting funk and soul to it.
The throwback sound not only resonated with bands who wanted to put a live element back into their recordings; it opened up the eyes of labels to be receptive to signing such acts. Says Eothen “Egon” Alapatt who started Now-Again Records (which is still releasing new music from the Poets Of Rhythm’s J. Whitefield), “Any label into that type of music – that means Now-Again, Daptone, Truth & Soul, Numero Group, etc. – owes the Poets, especially Jan and Max, a great debt.”
With that in mind, we reached out to J. Whitefield from Poets Of Rhythm to hear his thoughts on the anthology, the band’s stylistic transformation, and recording questions.
Record-Racks: How does it feel that you helped usher in the nu-soul/funk scene as far as recording new music? At the time you were creating this music, it certainly wasn’t the popular format. Daptone and Now Again and labels like them owe a lot to helping create a market for their longstanding success.
Jan Whitefield: It´s always good to experience that the sound vision I had back then was not on some complete outsider thing. The sound of a band the way it sounds live in a room will hopefully never die. In the 80´s it was almost there when instruments were replaced by synthetic simulations from keyboards and digital studio technology sucked all the life out of sound.
RR: What makes now a good time to celebrate you and your bandmates’ past? Even though it’s not your first retrospective (What Goes Round from 2002 on Shadow Records and the various Original Raw Soul comps), it’s a well put together compilation.
JW: It´s basically an anniversary comp celebrating the 20th year of our first release, which came out in June 1992. Due to the usual delays in record production, it cam out a year later than planned. That makes it a 10th anniversary compilation of the last poets release which came out in 2003. What Goes Round was an unauthorized release that just put the first 45 together with the full first album. It was an attempt to cash in on the success of Discern/Define. The Original Raw Soul releases were actually just compilations of all the 45´s that we put out in the 90´s.
RR: As blistering as some of your funk workouts were, you guys recorded some really smooth slower tunes. “It Came Over Me” is great summer daze music (as is “Summer Days”), and “Path Of Life” is really sublime, too. When was “Path Of Life” recorded. Why was it not issued until now?
JW: “Path Of Life” was recorded during the first Discern/Define sessions. It was intended for the original version of Discern/Define that we recorded for Desco Records. After they defeated it because it appeared to be to experimental (or less straight funk) for them, it was shopped to Quannum but because it was recorded for a single LP, we recorded 4 more songs to extend the play time. In that process, “Path Of Life” was taken off because it didn’t fit the vibe of the album anymore.
RR: What other soul/funk goodies are you guys sitting on in the vaults?
JW: There are tons of 4-track tapes where I find stuff from time to time. Recently, Treetop (Poets trumpet player) played me a song we apparently recorded during the “Funky Train” sessions. It was some heave JB´s style stuff. He only had a cassette rip, though, and the multitracks are most likely lost.
RR: Who decided the tracklisting, and what was the process for finalizing what made the cut?
JW: I made the first suggestion based on important, popular and personal favorites and discussed it with Bo (Baral) and Max (Whitefield) (both members of Poets Of Rhythm). Then Daptone added their favorites, and for these a couple others had to go.
RR: Should we expect another volume (or more) on your past work? This is a good start, but by no means is it a complete works set.
JW: Maybe for the 30th anniversary.
RR: Any thought of putting together some kind of 45s set to reissue these? The market would seem to be receptive to such a set.
JW: I thought about reissuing some of the 45´s in a box set. Right now I’m discussing a best of Original Raw Soul 1 and 2 with Daptone. The problem is that 2 of our best 45´s are already on the anthology (Pan-Atlantics and Bus People Express)
RR: There is an interesting growth/shift in the band’s music as time went on. You had all these JB-styled tunes (“More Mess On My Thing”) and Meters style (“Choking On A Piece Of Meat Pt. 2″) and then you move into a different sound (“Smilin’ While You’re Crying” and “Discern/Define”). What drove that?
JW: When we started I didn’t know too much music. As times went on, I dug up many more obscure records outside of the Parliament/Funkadelic, James Brown and Meters canon. Charles Wright was a big trigger in that development. If you compare his late 60´s stuff with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band to his solo records from the early 70´s, it is a very similar development. Basically from the R&B/funk styles to the more experimental hippie funk.
RR: Any plans on revisiting the funk sounds? I know you’ve been heavy into the African style music with the Karl Hector & The Malcouns band.
JW: Funk will always be at the core of my music because that´s what I grew up on, but going back to the straight styles seems very unlikely for me now.
RR: What kind of attention did you pay to the sound/engineering of the songs when you were recording them? There is such personality to the snare snaps and such a liveliness to your horns and bass.
JW: A lot of attention. I was very concerned about getting as close as possible to the sound I adored. Most of the times it was very difficult to communicate with engineers as they just didn´t understand. I heard “I can´t do that” many times when I asked for distortion on the drums or overcompressing something. That´s why I still like the stuff I recorded on 4-track cassette tape in my mom´s basement the best, because i could do it all myself.
RR: What new music being recorded today, songs and/or artists, are inspiring you or that you are enjoying?
I hardly listen to contemporary music anymore. I was following hip hop since I started collecting records until a couple of years ago, but then there was nothing fresh coming so I lost interest. I still dig 80´s and 90´s and some 00´s stuff and that definitely influenced and influences the way I hear drums sound in my music. Except for checking what my peers from the Heliocentrics, the Timmion guys, the Brooklyn Soul Clan and the Ethio-jazz inspired scene does, I don´t bother too much about what´s going on. I recently heard an interesting psych rock band with a little afro touches from Sweden called GOAT. They sounded pretty cool.