How Deep Is Your Funk?

This article was written following an interview with Keb back in June 1999. It was intended to be included in a fanzine with never saw the light of day. Infact, this website came about because the fanzine didn’t.

The Legendary Keb Darge is on top form tonight.

As Mickey and The Soul Generation’s monster ‘How Good is Good’ seeps from the dance floor, the ever explicit Scotsman introduces the next record with a succinct lecture on the virtues of integrity and taste.
“You can take your fucking Swingbeat and your Michael Jackson and your Mary J. Blige and you can shove them up your fucking arse. This is real soul music”.
Cue The Patterson Twins’ divine ‘Gonna find a true love’, a blissful slice of Seventies Soul, and much vociferous agreement from the dance floor.

Tonight’s reprimand is no different to the one that he lays on a weekly audience of first timers and devout regulars at Deep Funk. Not content with merely possessing one of the world’s hardest collections of funk and seventies soul 45’s, the outspoken Highlander regularly uses the microphone to reinforce the values of the scene has been nurturing for half a decade.

For the past two years Deep Funk has been running at Madame Jo Jo’s, an old cabaret club in the heart of Soho. Over this period it has become customary for the hardcore of regular dancers to occupy the top floor (the club is split on two levels) where the boards are of a better quality – and generally not soaked in drink. Unlike a lot of clubs where wading through slicks of beer is accepted as the norm and dancing on broken bottles almost welcomed as a sign of the crowd’s enjoyment, Deep Funk is unique in that the music is there primarily for the few serious dancers. As keb points out, Deep Funk isn’t about catering for a party night or providing the soundtrack to some wally disco. Nor is it about regurgitating a plethora of weak P-funk style disco-pop or paying homage to ‘anything with a breakbeat-for-a-breakbeat’s sake’. No doubt this confuses a lot of people. Funk has been badly represented by trashy Glam oriented nights like Car Wash and Starsky and Hutch. Popular public demand, informed by a stream of worthless compilations hashed together by souless breadheads and their music industry chumps, means that when the word funk is mentioned, many people still equate it with afro’s and medallions. This is probably one reason why funk went down the pan around ’76.
At the risk of offending people and losing numbers, Keb often directs his disapproval at anyone who doesn’t understand the difference. More often than not, it’s these people who are spilling their drinks on the top floor. While this may all sound highly egotistical and serious (after all, you’re supposed to go clubbing for enjoyment, aren’t you?) Keb makes no apology for insulting people who are prepared to accept diluted excuses for music.
To fully understand the logic behind this attitude, we have to go back to the early seventies, when the young Darge was first introduced to a Northern scene still in it’s infancy and Michael Jackson was still all human-no plastic.

It was at a Christmas disco held in one of the local RAF bases in the North of Scotland that Keb first encountered what the black music columnist Dave Gooding had termed ‘Northern Soul’-not because the artists behind the music necessarily recorded in the North of the USA-but because of the location of the clubs that featured this kind of music. In it’s best form, Northern Soul was noted for its toughness of production and inventiveness of arrangement- the kind of traits that any serious Deep Funk collector looks for in a tune. The records featured by the strongest Northern Soul DJs were largely obscure tiny label releases discovered through digging in warehouses and hassling dealers in the States. Featuring and concentrating on rarities isn’t, as some people may wish to see it, a deliberate attempt at ‘being different’ (although the world already has enough Noel Gallagher, Fluffy Acid headed Martian and Steps clones, thank you). It’s about recognising good hard music and avoiding the tacky pop that the ‘industry’ will insist on attempting to ensnare us with.
Ask any hardcore fan of any musical style with backbone, be it Rockabilly, Jazz or Funk, what they find in the tunes they fervently seek out and they will no doubt quote the same set of values and characteristics.

And so it was with Keb and the Northern scene. It’s true that while a few of the hardcore lived through the scene with their principles intact, even this genre had its villains- those who wiped the arses of the music industry fat cats and as a result, were rewarded with false positions of power and influence. Keb’s own account of the history of the Northern Scene reads something like a war documentary crossed with a tale of morality. At the beginning there was Blackpool’s Mecca, Bolton’s Va-Va’s and Wolverhampton’s Catacombs Club- the most noted amongst many others. All featured what Keb would consider the cream of the Northern DJs at the time. Then there was Wigan. Wigan opened on the 23rd of September, 1973 to a ‘small’ crowd, just over 600 strong. Enter (in Keb’s learned opinion) would be Villain Number One: Russ Winstanley, otherwise affectionately know as Wankstainley and Wimpshiteley. In three short years Wigan became known as the venue and in these same three years it also succeeded in setting in motion a virtually nation wide decline in the standards previously maintained by the earlier DJs. As well as featuring copious amounts of popish drivel fuelled by an unwillingness to fork out vast sums of money for hard tunes, they actually believed that they were in a sane enough frame of mind to supply the world with new ‘northern soul’ music. With the money they had saved on buying real records, Wankstainley and his balless pals were able to grace the world with their joke ‘northern’ labels- the most humorous of which was Stan ‘Fuckfartley’s’ (probably not his real name, but then again…) ‘Casino Classic’ project. And because most of the punters didn’t need to spend any brain power on defining what was good and what was shite (if Wigan featured it, it must be good, right?), they could instead empty their local Boots and Woolies of their entire stock of Johnson’s talcum powder in readiness for the weekends arseing-around-on-a-dance-floor-looking-like-twats, session.
As the seventies wore on the scene split and splintered into several groups that each wanted something different. In some cases these were decisions based on taste and values and in others it was merely a case of being ‘the thing to do’. The ‘New York Disco’ movement heralded the Jazz-Funk scene while the demand for ‘Modern Soul’ began to take its toll on the Northern scene. It seemed like people were beginning to go off in all directions leaving a staunch few to save what remained of the real Northern Soul scene. With hard headedness and much growls of abuse Keb and a small group of renegades brought the respectability back to the Northern scene, this time culminating at Stafford’s ‘Top of the World’. This venue was eventually closed down in 1985-the authorities took a dim view of the apparent drug abuse problem within the club- and the search for a new ‘Mecca’ began. At present the only regular Northern night is held at the 100 Club on London’s Oxford Street.

So where does Deep funk come into all this?
Well, back in ’88 when a divorce settlement saw off most of Keb’s Northern collection, our Highland friend began to look more closely at some of the tunes that he had been giving away during his hunt for Soul in the mid ’80’s. Back then it wasn’t rare for Keb to hand over bags full of funk 45’s to his Deep Funk partner Raw Deal, and sell sought after hard funk to wide-eyed folk like Norman Jay and ‘Roy the roach’, for the price of a bag of ‘Jolly Fryer’s’ finest  It was only when he began to seriously listen to this funk stuff that he realised the potential in the music. The so-called ‘rare groove’ era of the early ’80’s also acted as a motivating factor in what has spiralled into a real quest. One anecdote relates how Keb had spotted an ad in a magazine that promised ‘Rare American Imports:Soul and Funk’. On seeing this, our ever-intrigued-at-the-word-rare Scotsman duly turned up at the shop and asked the owner, one ‘Roy the Roach’ what the biggest tune on the rare groove scene was at the time and if he could see these rare 45’s. The proprietor tried to give our man the brush off saying that it was ultra rare and that he had the only copy. Undaunted, Keb pressed him for the record’s identity until ‘The Roach’ finally gave in.
“It’s a tune called ‘GWan’, you won’t know it”.
Keb did in fact know this tune, a pretty mediocre mid tempo handclap and organ track out of Detroit. In fact, one of his mates had been to a party thrown by label boss Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie and had found out that they had 800 copies in storage that they didn’t know what to do with. Our ‘Roach’ nearly wet himself.

From there Keb began to find out what the biggest tunes of the time were and as a result concluded that “None of these fuckers were doing it right. They were all going out to the States alright, but they were fishing around in shops, getting the crap”.
Now, as any self-respecting collector knows, it takes more than walking into an American record store with a little list of tunes and a bundle of cash, to find the real hard small 45’s. Heavyweight funk hunters like Keb and Josh Davis go to lengths to actually find anybody even remotely involved with certain records-and with a degree of success. A lot of the artists or producers are astonished to find that such interest is being shown in tunes that they recorded, sometimes ‘just for a laugh’, over 25 years ago. Collecting is infectious- as soon as one record is secured it’s on to the next one and the next and as Keb will testify, obtaining some tunes takes more than just money. Certain collectors refuse to sell their pieces, instead insisting on swops-even if it means giving up a tune they’ve spent years trying to track down.
The good news for those folk hoping to get their hands on some tough funk 45’s, is that in Keb’s opinion, there are still loads left to be found in the states. The Northern scene is apparently running out of records whereas most of the funk is just sitting there waiting to be found, whether it’s in a back yard shed baking in the Californian sun or in some neglected cellar in Oregon. The bad news is that Keb and his mates are on the case and will probably be the ones to find it.
Admittedly the world needs more Deep Funk nights that hold the same virtues as Keb’s and for this to happen there needs to be more serious collectors who know how to deliver the product and are willing to run regular nights (Malcolm Catto, Ian Wright, it’s time to get off your arses boys).
There are also a whole bunch of heavyweight compilation albums that provide the best examples of the Deep Funk scene-Keb’s volumes along with the Soul Patrol productions being the most noteworthy-although no-one can consider themselves serious if they spin a set made up of somebody else’s tunes. The issue of compilations is something of a grey area. Primarily they serve to inform would-be collectors about the identities of the big records and if they are done well, they also document the best examples of the scene.  In the past Keb has defended his motives for compiling albums which contain super hard 45’s by stating that without them, the Deep Funk ‘message’ would be restricted only to that area where the real clubs are held. This would leave the rest of the country to believe that funk meant ‘obvious soundtrack style fodder and well worn classics like ‘The Champ”(which is a good record nonetheless). In terms of the value of the original, compilations surely only serve to increase their desirability amongst collectors who want the real thing.
Which brings us on to the final aspect of the funk scene: the new release.

There is currently a movement underway (all be it a relatively small one at present) to produce genuine funk tunes that side step the overly cool attitude of a lot of the Acid Jazz sound and avoid the obviousness of so many so-called ‘new funk’ records. While people like Josh Davis will argue with Keb about the need to keep music moving forward, he surely can’t fault the kind of stuff currently coming out of the Desco studio and the legacy that the now defunct Hot pie & Candy label left behind.  Desco in particular have an unwavering ability to cut thoroughly rough funk and soul tracks that on first hearing, sound like long lost tunes from back in the day Their slogan reads, ‘Guaranteed Heavy, Heavy Funk. No Bullshit’, and they mean it. Accusations of revisionism or nostalgia don’t even stand a chance when it’s done this well. As long as the right people are applying the right attitude, this ‘real new funk’ will continue to be heard at the hardest of funk venues for a long time to come.