Coffey Break!

coffey.jpgDennis Coffey: Big City Funk (Vampi Soul)

Back in the '80s I was working college dorm security at an inside post and one of the uniformed outside guards was a guy who also deejayed as Super Dan. Every few hours he had to do a tour of the building. I was always listening to a portable tape player (yeah, that’s how long ago it was), and we inevitably ended up talking about music. The best tip he ever gave me was to keep an eye out for Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio.” When I saw Coffey’s 1970 LP Evolution, including “Scorpio,” at a used record shop a few years later, I snatched it up and was quickly happy that I had.

Coffey was an ace session guitarist; among the hits he played on are the Chairman of the Board’s “Give me Just a Little More Time,” the Dramatics’ “What You See is What You Get,” Parliament’s “I Wanna Testify,” Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,” Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love,” and lots of Motown favorites including Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Someday We'll be Together,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Junior Walker and the All-Stars’ “What Does It Take to Win Your Love,” the Temptations’ psychedelic Norman Whitfield productions “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can't Get Next to You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” and more.

Coffey was also a producer and arranger, and he had some interesting ideas about how to use guitar: layering three or four of them, sometimes using them like a horn section, applying a multitude of effects, getting a very full sound. His 1969 debut, Hair and Thangs (recently bootlegged on vinyl!), was poorly distributed; not so Evolution after he switched to Sussex. Featuring the cream of Detroit sessionmen, including members of Motown backup regulars the Funk Brothers, it’s a classic album, and six of its ten titles are on this fifteen-track German compilation of Coffey’s material for the Sussex label, for which he made four albums released from 1971 to '74.

This is instrumental music, aside from a few murmured asides here and expostulations there. Words would only clutter these funky grooves. Big City Funk is subtitled “Original Old School Breaks & Heavy Guitar Soul”; it basically exists because of what happened with “Scorpio.” Released as a single in '71, it climbed all the way to #6 on the pop singles chart while spending 15 weeks in the Top 40. One of its features is a percussion break, a section in the middle of the song where the other instruments drop out and just the drummers lay down a tight beat for awhile.

Along comes hip-hop later in the decade, with deejays looking for beats they can use. The break in “Scorpio” is perfect for them. It quickly became a classic of the type, and in the decades since has been sampled for tracks including Busy Bee’s “Old School,” Double D & Steinski’s “Lesson 3,” Geto Boys’s “Do it Like a G.O.”, House of Pain’s “All My Love,” LL Cool J’s “Jinglin' Baby,” Lord Finesse’s “Keep it Flowing,” Moby’s “Mobility,” Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic,” Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads,” Queen Latifah’s “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children,” Roni Size’s “Share the Fall,” and Young MC's “Bust a Move.” The opening track of Evolution, “Getting It On,” also proved popular with hip-hoppers, including Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.

Of course, Coffey tried to repeat the success of “Scorpio”: this compilation also features “Son of Scorpio,” “Capricorn’s Thing,” and “Taurus.” The latter made it to #18 on the pop chart in 1972 and placed higher (#11) on the black singles chart. Even better is the super-hot “Ride Sally Ride,” familiar from LL Cool J’s “Big Ole Butt” and a couple of Ultramagnetic MC’s tracks. Playing acoustic guitar on the first half of “Lonely Moon Child,” Coffey shows a mellow side as well. Wildest of all is “Outrageous (The Mind Excursion),” which borders on some of the spacier jazz of the decade with its modality and an excellent bass clarinet solo (too bad there are no player credits here).

Though Coffey-penned material dominates this disc, his takes on Lalo Schifrin’s “Theme from Enter the Dragon” and a funky and fun recasting of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” provide crucial examples of how important outside material was to this sort of enterprise (the LPs are dotted by many other instances).

The choice of tracks could be better; “Lonely Moon Child” and “Garden of the Moon” are fairly redundant, while such great tracks as “Midnight Blue” and “Can You Feel It” are absent. The sound is a bit dim on some tracks; honestly I wonder whether they were taken directly from vinyl. But considering that this stuff has been out of print for nearly three decades, I’m just glad that it’s back in circulation. Pick up this disc and last year’s Incredible Bongo Band reissue and you have a good chunk of the source material for hip-hop’s greatest hits. Here’s hoping somebody reissues Coffey’s classic blaxploitation soundtrack Black Belt Jones (Warner Bros., 1974). – Steve Holtje

Purchase thru iTunes.

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Steve Holtje used to spin as DJ Magic Fingers, a name bestowed on him by former bandmate Michael Ackerman, but recently learned that there’s a Londoner operating under that name. Any suggestions?

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