On some level I lied in the title of this post, because the incredible Funky Soul box set isn’t the ideal Christmas present. Indeed, the perfect Christmas present for anyone with class and gentility would be Jim Jones’ A Dipset Christmas. But perhaps that special someone in your life doesn’t find hearing the word Baallin!!! hysterically funny (i.e. they have a normal well-adjusted sense of humor). If that’s the case, then there is no better solution for your gift-giving woes than the recently released four-disc funk compilation: What It is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-1977). Take that Sufjan Stevens and your O So Silent Post-Modern Hipster Christmas!

My knowledge of classic funk and soul is tenuous at best. For this, I blame R. Kelly and Usher for souring me on the fine name of Rhythm and Blues. Sure, I dig me some Al Green, Shuggie Otis, James Brown, and Sly & The Family Stone, but hadn’t ventured much further than those relatively obvious boundaries until Ace of Slack Lalane pointed me in the direction of this Rhino Records compilation that came out last week. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out Ace’s Glide Magazine music blog, you should)

In terms of as introductions to the world o’ funk go, you won’t find many better primers than this one. Despite its whopping four discs and 91 track length, Funky Soul never ceases to entertain with cuts full of rolling and rich music brimming with joy and soul. Each track bursts with triumphant horns slick pianos, serpentine basslines and back-breaking Crazy Robertson -esque funk. Music doesn’t come much better than hearing Parliament’s Eddie Hazel doing a solo cover of “California Dreaming” full of Hendrixian guitar pyrotechnics, haunting piano keys, ghostly backing singers and a plaintive and bruised lead vocals. Or a brass-backed falsetto-voiced Curtis Mayfield cooing his strangely uplifting dirge “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna’ Go.”

You’re Either With Curtis Mayfield or You’re Against Curtis Mayfield

While many of the songs selected come from big names (Hazel,Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, The Meters, Wilson Picket, Earth Wind & Fire, Little Richard), it never feels like a greatest hits compilation, as each track is rare and seldom-heard, plucked from the dusty recesses of old major label catalogues. Besides the marquee artists, the album is filled with strong songs from lesser known acts like Eddie Harris and The United 8, who turn in incredible performances on “Live Right Now” and “Getting Uptown (To Get Down),”respectively.

In addition to listening to some vintage windows-down bass-rattling funk, any hip-hop head will have a field day trying to pick out which songs have been sampled where. Some are immediately recognizable like “Hard Times” by Baby Huey & The Babysitters which provides the foundation for Ghostface’s classic Supreme Clientele track, “Buck 50;” or Lupe Fiasco’s “Slow Down” which re-appropriates Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Bad Tune.” “Ridin’ High” by Fazo-O laid the musical foundation for tracks like Black Moon’s “Shit is Real” and Snoop’s “Ride 4 Me.” while a Fred Wesley cut called “Four Play” was snatched by DJ Premier for the Gangstarr classic, “Step in the Arena.” And as one might have guessed, the Dust Brothers-era Beastie Boys also owe a large debt to these cuts, as they pilfered Funk Factory’s “Rien Ne Va Plus” for Paul’s Boutique‘s”Car Thief” and Eugene McDaniel’s “Headless Heroes” for Ill Communication’s “Get it Together.”

If you have any interest at all in classic soul and R&B music, this compilation is highly recommended. Sure, it might not have the intrinsic Yuletide charms of Jim Jones rapping on the soon-to-be classic, “Dipset X-Mas Time.” But even the Capo himself would be hard-pressed to admit that What It is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967-1977) is anything but Baalllin!!!

Rating: 9.5

Buy it here.


MP3: Baby Huey & The Babysitters:: “Hard Times”
MP3: Ghostface Killah from Supreme Clientele:: “Buck 50”

MP3: Earth, Wind & Fire:: “Bad Tune”
MP3: Lupe Fiasco from the leaked version of Food & Liquor :: “Slow Down”

Mp3: Fred Wesley & The Horny Horns: “Four Play”
MP3: Gangstarr from Step In the Arena: “Step into the Arena”

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