In a business where bands can form at college orientation, crank out hits, tour, implode violently and break up by graduation, Kool & The Gang is an anomaly. Celebrating an unfathomable 50th year in business in 2014, Jersey City’s hometown band has firmly established itself in funk, jazz, R&B and pop, while paying a brief visit to all in between.
Interestingly, they are also one of the primary architects of hip hop’s esteemed “Golden Era.” You’d hit a stalemate trying to find a hip hop album released between 1988 and 1994 that didn’t raid the Kool & The Gang spice rack for something – a random guitar lick here, a bassline there. But original drummer and key songwriter “Funky” George Brown was perhaps the most crucial disc in hip hop’s vertebrae. Like James Brown’s drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, George Brown’s brief solo opportunities at the drum kit eventually changed the way an entire genre of music was made.
Kool & The Gang’s contributions to hip hop are among the least explored areas of their legacy. So after 25+ years of sampling, DJing, collecting records, playing drums and being a diehard Kool & The Gang fan myself, I was finally able to sit down with George Brown and discuss it all – the drum breaks; the concepts; the live performances; the studio sessions; his feelings on being a sure shot sample source; the band in its infancy; his deep love of jazz and what finally made him trade in his drum throne for keyboards and rototoms.
Funk didn’t begin to develop until the mid- to late ’60s, so many of the early funk drummers got their start playing jazz. What made you pick up the sticks for the first time?
I had internal rhythm; I used to take butter knives and play on things [as a child]. Then I went down to a music store on Newark Avenue in Jersey City and took a $3 lesson from a gentleman who used to play with The Shirelles. He said, “Hey man, you’re a natural!” [laughs] So he gave me Buddy Rich’s 16 Essential Snare Drum Rudiments book; I took one more lesson and never went back. It was expensive for my mom! But I would listen to all the great jazz drummers of the time, study that book and stay in the basement of my building every day after school for hours tearing those drums up! The walls were very thin, and the people in the building would [still] let me play.
Kool & The Gang first got together in 1964 as a jazz act, but really got their band chops together by playing in Jersey City’s Soul Town Revue while still attending Lincoln High School. Is that where the nucleus of the original band formed?
[Keyboardist] Ricky West lived in the same building as me and he introduced me to [saxophonist and musical director] Ronald Bell (Khalis Bayyan) and [trumpeter] Spike Mickens. We were a little jazz group called the Jazz Birds and we’d play stuff like [Dave Brubeck’s] “Take Five.” Most of the funk drummers came out of jazz; that was the source. By 1965-66, we were in high school and playing in clubs six nights a week. We had ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Commission) cards, because we were underage. We’d play around Jersey City, Bayonne and Greenwich Village and moved on up to play the Blue Note Lounge in Newark, where we’d play from 9 PM to 2 AM every night. School nights and everything; our parents allowed it! They saw our desire. Around that time we were part of the Soul Town Revue, playing behind six or seven acts a night with different [styles] of R&B. So we’d hone our skills with commercial music by learning all that contemporary music, plus the jazz. We met [producer] Gene Redd around 1969 and he was like the Teddy Riley of his time. A lot of how he told us to play in the studio helped us develop into who we were.
Most funk drumming in the late ’60s had a lot of snare activity, with the ghost notes and displaced backbeats, like what James Brown’s drummers were doing. You were one of the early funk drummers to take that action to the bass drum. The bass drum activity was really loose and advanced with all the 32nd note stuff on songs like “Music Is the Message,” “North, East, South, West” and “Life Is What You Make It.” Do you think being somewhat self-taught and playing so many styles of music helped you to develop such a unique playing style?
I agree [about being self-taught]. But Gene would always tell me about how you’d hear a dance record or ballad, it was about locking in the groove. As a drummer, that was good information because you want to put fills all over the place. I would still play all those funny little patterns, but there was nothing contrived. I wasn’t sitting there working out parts; it just came to me. We would all just lock in and play.
Recently there was the unfortunate passing of the group’s trombonist, Clifford Adams. One thing Ronald Bell mentioned about him is he’d do sessions for other musicians or hit the after hours jazz gigs after Kool & The Gang shows to keep his chops sharp. Did you ever moonlight in jazz clubs or do any session work for other artists?
I used to play outside of the group [during the Soul Town Revue era] with a tenor sax player named Duke Washington, who played with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. I was 17 at the time and we’d do all the after hours clubs in New York City, till 7 or 8 in the morning. I’ll tell you one time I screwed up: I was called in to do this major session. I was playing with this huge orchestra, Age of Aquarius type stuff. And I kept messing up. The musicians were like “C’mon kid, we got a session to do.” [laughs] It was some free time [signature]; I just couldn’t get it. It was the most embarrassing time in my whole career. I was blowing it. [laughs]
I was never really that heady about that type of [technical] stuff, I’d just play.
After all those years paying dues and honing your musicianship, Gene Redd signed the band to De-Lite Records in ’69. Your debut album has always been a goldmine for sampling producers, largely because of the sound of those drums. The majority of the R&B tunes of the day had the drums recorded and mixed like a Motown or James Brown record. But songs like “Give It Up,” “Breeze & Soul” and “Chocolate Buttermilk” have this instantly identifiable mojo that the hip hop generation fell in love with 20 years later. Do you have any stories about the recording process for that first album, specifically the drums?
There was no overdubbing whatsoever, except for the [banter]. When everyone was getting ready to leave the studio, Gene Redd would say, “The mikes are on, just do something.” So that’s Ronald and me talking on “Raw Hamburgers” and “Kool & The Gang.” We went into Bell Sound [in New York City]; I got behind the [drum baffle] and just went for it.
Were you playing a house kit?
No, I brought my drums. In the beginning I was playing a green Gretsch set. [laughs] It was a jazz set, which was a total different thing. I can’t remember if I’d tune them to the song or to what I was hearing, but you definitely hear that high [tom-tom] in some of that stuff. I think we may have had the front head off the bass drum. I had Ludwig snares and some piccolos. But our engineer, Malcolm Addey, was an English engineer. He had that whole English way of doing things that was totally different than what was going on in R&B at the time. We’ve always had great engineers.
Do you recall how the drums were miked?
[The] snare [was] top and bottom heads. Rack toms and floor tom; hi-hat; bass drum; two overheads for cymbals. The mix was very important, the stems, etc. Remember, we only had eight tracks back then and we did no editing of the drums. But I was never really that heady about that type of stuff, I’d just play.
Your second, third and fourth albums were two live recordings and one greatest hits collection, respectively. That hadn’t been done up to that point, to my knowledge. Very few groups are fearless enough to do that so early in their careers. You guys were barely out of your teens. Talk a bit about both live albums.
Gene Redd had a lot to do with those; he was a great visionary. The Sex Machine was in Philadelphia and that crowd is overdubbed because we had about 15 people in there. [laughs] It wasn’t a large audience at all, but the whole album was live with a canned audience. We were up on a platform that was about 10-15 feet and it was freezing! It was a humungous, open, cavernous place and the cold atmosphere made everything denser and harder; the horns were a little sharp.
I’m sure you were seasoned for it, with all the gigging you guys did early on.
Back in the early stages when we started touring we actually used to get on Greyhound and Trailways buses. I used to bring the drums on the bus! That green drum set; it was amazing. [laughs] I don’t know who would do that today.
Actually I toured Greyhound ten years ago. And it was a nightmare! Talk a bit about “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” It’s your first jam with a message and only the second one with any type of vocal hook.
We used to rehearse in Jersey City in the basement of a gentleman named Jinx. He was known for dabbling in... illicit substances. We were putting together a show and all of a sudden three gentleman pop in and one grabbed a cymbal and said, “Stop the effin’ music!” They told us they were drug enforcement agents and they were looking for Jinx. They handcuffed us and put us on the floor for hours. Then, the DEA agents started planting evidence and saying, “If we find [drugs] under this pillow, who’s gonna take the weight for it?”
That’s where the song came from, that’s exactly what they were saying. So they took us and locked us up. Now we were in the system, even though we had no drugs on us. It took about six months going back and forth to court, flying back to Jersey City with Gene Redd from wherever we were [on tour] every time there was an appearance. The judge finally said, “You’re nice young men, don’t get any more trouble” and we were exonerated.
How about friendly competition between bands back then? Was there ever a band that scared the hell out of you and made you go back to the drawing board? I heard about something with Willie Feaster and the Mighty Magnificents at the Apollo Theater.
Well, with them, there was no competition – they’d just kick our butt all the time. [laughs] We were coming out of Jersey City thinking we were the full loaf of bread. But they were a few years older than us with a full band and a vocal group combined together. We weren’t vocalists and they were playing [bigger] New York dates and they’d beat us up every time we worked with them. Except one time at the Cheetah Club, we did a James Brown song and [Sly and the Family Stone’s] “I Want To Take You Higher” and that night we showed who we were as a group and they gave us honorable mention. But no competition. We were never competitive. Still aren’t. We just want to go make some people happy.
In 1971, the break in “N.T.” was just your drum solo. 20 years later it became the backbone of countless hip hop songs. If you had gone nuts and done a Buddy Rich thing during that four bar solo, an entire generation of hip hop records would’ve sounded completely different. Those decisions (or lack thereof) would be responsible for a whole new genre of music, unbeknownst to you. You always played in the pocket with slight embellishments when they gave you a solo, instead of going nuts or showcasing your jazz chops.
Wow! I never thought about it that way. That was just a jam, and when we finished Gene Redd said, “It doesn’t have a title.” You know what that means, right?
It still doesn’t have a title. “N.T.” No Title. We just played and I played [in the break] what I had been playing [throughout the song].
Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire had similar trajectories as bands. Both of you served as backing bands early in your careers, with them doing the score for Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song and you guys doing the backdrop for cuts from Lightning Rod’s Hustler’s Convention album in 1972-1973. The main song on that album, “Sport,” also features one of your most sampled drum grooves. What was that experience like?
Really?! Wow! With Hustler’s Convention, once again were we were just playing. But it wasn’t complete abandonment – we were censoring ourselves like we all do when we play to see if you’re in the pocket. I remember I did some stuff with Genya Ravan and Ten Wheel Drive with producer Harvey Goldberg and they said, “You don’t have to use all that [bass drum], man!” They said it was good, but it was something that I would naturally do. I’d just let it fly.
There’s so much stuff still in the cans. Universal Music Group has all that now.
With Music Is the Message and Good Times in 1972 you guys slowly began to separate from Gene Redd and produce yourselves. What stood out about recording those two albums?
With Gene, when we were doing those recordings, Khalis and I would hang out and learn a little more about production. By the time we got to this period, we had built upon who we were as musicians, producers and songwriters, so you can see the difference. Trial and error in the studio – those albums were a great building time for us. The ARP Synthesizer had just come out; Khalis was a big fan of it and I think Stevie [Wonder] helped him a little bit.
There’s an alternate take of “Love the Life You Live” on YouTube that I’ve never heard before or seen on vinyl. I’m still finding rare stuff you guys did over the years that fell through the cracks.
We recorded a heck of a lot. A lot of it never came out – there’s so much stuff still in the cans. Universal Music Group has all that now. At some point there’ll be a reversion of those masters to us. But a lot of stuff didn’t see the light of day because either [De-Lite Records] or we didn’t see it as worthy. Claydes Smith recorded a solo album, too.
Some of the band’s least commercially successful albums were made on the heels of its two biggest breakthroughs – once in 1973 and once in 1979. But those albums are also some of your most musically sophisticated. I’ve heard that in 1972-1973, Good Times’ lack of commercial success inspired someone at the label to ask you to remake a current hit, and those sessions became your breakthrough hits on Wild and Peaceful.
Absolutely. [De-Lite Records] were talking about re-doing “Soul Makossa” and they brought some other producer in. I recall sitting at the drums; Ronald also plays bass. Just noodling around, I played [imitates drum pattern for “Funky Stuff”]. Ronald said “Hey, keep that up!” He hopped on the bass, and then... ”Funky Stuff.” After that “Soul Makossa” was...
An afterthought! And in 1979 the same thing happened with “Ladies Night.” In the few years prior to that, you had Love and Understanding, Open Sesame, The Force and Everybody’s Dancin’. You specifically wrote some interesting material for the band around that time, like “Slick Superchick” and “Sugar.”
Well, “Sugar”... years later Khalis and I were taking an interview like this in London and they said “‘Sugar,’ Barry White must’ve gotten his sound from that.” The way it was put together. You go, “Oh man!” We never realized, but it was before Barry White [took that musical approach]. Again, it was just one of those things…
And then there was “Cosmic Energy.” The disco hi-hat thing that wears your shins out!
[sings “Cosmic Energy” chorus] Charles Smith. The thing I’d do with the heel and the toe [emulates a very funky disco hi-hat]. Don’t ask me. [laughs] Things would just pop in and the next thing you know...
I know! But drummers obsess over details. You always wonder what was overdubbed.
No, no, no overdubs. We didn’t overdub anything on drums. You know when we overdubbed? When Deodato came in [in 1979]. Deo was a stickler for clean. I would play snare, bass drum and hi-hat. That’s it. He was a stickler for keeping it right in the pocket because whenever you would go to play a crash or go for the toms, you’d always move a little bit. And when we come back [to the main beat], all drummers subconsciously compensate for that movement. He didn’t like that. He’d say “Señor! Just play [emulates basic beat] and we’ll come back and get [cymbals, etc.].” We made sure it was clean and got no leakage or rush and drag.
Light of Worlds and Spirit of the Boogie were interesting because it was almost a full-on return to your jazz roots and had a deep spirituality after the commercial success of Wild and Peaceful.
We’ve always been very spiritual. We’re human beings, so we’re not angels, but we were always trying to walk in the light. All those albums have that spiritual feeling and color. Those were the best of times – we would go to Boston and play at Paul’s Mall, which was the jazz club, for a few days. Then we’d come back weeks later and play the Sugar Shack, which was the R&B club, and we’d play the funk. We had a [separate] jazz following and we’d be down there with Norman Connors.
Ricky West even wrote “Fruitman,” a song dedicated to healthy eating!
[laughs] Yes! Around that time drums were getting deeper and more muffled, but the Light of Worlds LP in particular had a very bombastic drum sound with that fat snare.
We used to put a wallet on the snare and tune the top head down to almost a low [tom-tom]. That was the sound at that time.
Many funk and jazz drummers had a lot of chops, but when disco and pop/soul came around they had to contain it and be disciplined enough to play four on the floor and refrain from solos and fills, at least on record. Did making pop records like “Celebration,” “Fresh” and “Joanna” feel strange for you at first coming from a school of Elvin Jones and Art Blakey?
What I found as a jazz drummer making the transfer, at first I didn’t like playing the funk. And then when disco came, I didn’t like the four on the floor. In a sense it was a little…arduous? And I found it boring. But all the jazz drummers, when they played funk, it swung.
I didn’t use any click. Ever.
And also, the metronome came into play in the early ’80s. What was your take on click tracks?
I didn’t use any click. Ever. Khalis and I were talking about that the other day. I never used a click. Not ever, ever.
Were you dead set against it?
It didn’t occur to me, no one ever asked me. Not Gene Redd, not Deodato... I’m not hyping myself, I just played.
Grip went from traditional to matched and kits got a lot bigger in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And there were those headless toms. They sounded like cereal boxes!
It took me a minute to get matched grip, too. To me, when you wanted to solo... Matched grip gave you a lot of power, but all the finesse...
I still can’t effectively get all those ghost notes, drags and rebounds without using traditional grip.
Yeah! All the [single stroke] ruffs…
Was that because of the bigger venues?
Bigger venues – you needed the power. In the mid-’70s Kool & The Gang played large venues, but by the time ‘79 came in and we put out “Ladies’ Night” and “Too Hot,” [the venues were] huge. So you’re using a lot of wrist action and putting your whole arm into it – smack!
After the hits in the ‘80s, things hit a lull by the end of the decade with the Sweat LP.
But all of a sudden, sampling comes around and you’re discovered by a whole new generation of people. Everyone knew an early Kool & The Gang record had some funky drums to sample. When was the first time you heard your soloed drums being sampled? What was your initial reaction?
The first time I realized? Maybe it was “N.T.” My son, Dorian, was doing a lot of sampling and producing and he used to talk about it all the time, like, “Dad, do you know?” But I’m gonna tell you, man – I’m not that type of an egotist. It was happening, but I didn’t look into it that deeply. I’m just totally honored that people like yourself and all those producers around the world said, “Hey, we like this.” I’m honored and I’m taken aback by it. But I don’t walk around with that type of head, like, “Let me do some research and see who’s sampling me.” I never thought that type of stuff was necessary, till this very day. We’re artists and just trying to bring happiness to people. It’s a blessing.
Did you ever get into hip hop?
Oh yeah! Snoop, Tupac, Biggie…totally!
Some guys see are flattered by it. Some just want to be credited. Some just want to be paid. Some don’t like it at all.
I’m flattered. But you know what happened to me? When we started playing the more commercial, poppy, disco type of stuff, I started losing the feel of playing drums.
Ah. I knew you had stopped playing drums and started playing keys and percussion recently, but wasn’t sure why.
I always played piano, but I stopped playing traps [drum set] years ago, maybe the late ’80s or ’90s. I stopped because I was bored.
I actually felt like I was becoming useless.
Was it that far back?
After awhile it was just two hours of bashing. Bash, bash bash! [laughs] We’d be on tour for months. I’d go back to the hotel and say, “What did I do?” Psychologically I felt I didn’t do anything. Thousands of fans were screaming and I just played two and four and four on the floor. I actually felt like I was becoming useless.
Did you ever reflect on your days playing jazz and funk and working so hard to become this craftsman on the drums, only to reach this commercial pinnacle in the ’80s and you end up just playing 1,2,3,4?
That’s how it was. I [still] took solos [during the pop era], channeling Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones, but besides that it was just bashing for two hours. I felt totally restrained because [JT] was singing, there were harmonies going on and we had to make it sound like the record. I couldn’t get in the way of any of that. But when I get on the set, I like to play jazz. It’s expressive. To this day, I like to swing.