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By Charles Lam
Slapbak are a funk band from Mission Viejo.Wait! No! Stop laughing!The MV can make it funky, baby!
Ahhh, whatever. Slapbak svengali Jara Harris says most people think they're from LA whenever they play a gig up there. Once they see real live black people in the band—well, there just can't be any of those living in überwhite Orange County, can there?
"Someone did an article on us once," Harris explains, surrounded by heaps of electro-clutter in Slapbak's studio/office, which is stuffed inside a Santa Ana business park. "The writer mentioned something about the mixture of races in the band, which at the time was four black people and four white people, and he said that was obviously done on purpose. But it wasn't! And three of those black people were me and my two sisters! But people don't understand Orange County. My family moved out here in 1969, the year I was born, so when I grew up and started playing funk, there were only three or four black families down here. I really had no choice—white people were all who were around. But we've always had to deal with weird racial politics like that."
To the point of enduring catcalls from their audience, even.
"We would play Compton College, and every time we'd walk onstage, we'd start getting, 'Why you got that white boy up there playing guitar?'" Harris says. "And because we had two guitar players—one black, one white—we'd hear 'You need [that] white boy to help you play guitar?' Crazy! It's weird that people would trip on that. I've experienced more racism from that side than I have the other side, even growing up in OC."
Together in OC since 1990 (though there are only two original members left, including Harris), Slapbak have perennially been fluttering on the fringes of fame—well, it's more like fame by association, whether it has been through playing the same OC clubs in their early days with to-become-mega bands like Sugar Ray and No Doubt, having lunch with OJ Simpson, or working for a label run by an alleged Mafia greaseball. But those last two would come later.
After a few LA showcases, industry people began showing up and hitting Slapbak with offers. They eventually signed to Warner Bros., the suits at the label having branded them as a Chili Peppers/Fishbone type of alt.-rock band—their gigs at the time were pretty raw. But after they recorded some demos, the Warner people realized what they had signed instead was a pure funk band, more deep P-Funk than Peppers. Now nobody was sure what department at the label fit them best.
"They started getting scared," says Harris. "You would think that at a record label, everyone works together, but inside, it's so compartmentalized, and there's so much competition going on between this department and that department they weren't sure what to do with us."
And when it came time to cut their debut disc, 1992's Fast Food Funkateers, the label landed Cameo front man Larry Blackmon, one of Harris' heroes, to produce it. But that didn't work out. ("There's nothing worse than an older guy trying to do a newer sound because it just sounds cheesy," says Harris. "I didn't want the first album to be a bomb, so the label let me take him off the project—which probably put another mark against us at Warner.") So Harris wound up producing most of the album himself.
"I was freakin' out, man!" says Harris. "I'm a kid out of Mission Viejo, and they're recording in our studio, and George Clinton is walking through my back yard!"
But Harris wasn't happy with the ultimate product, especially the final mixes. Though the album got some radio play, the label didn't lift a finger to promote it, and it slowly died. When Warner wanted to push their follow-up album, Blue Light Special, back by eight months, Harris wasn't pleased, so they let Slapbak walk.
And that's not the end of Slapbak's hard-luck label saga. Their next album was picked up by Raging Bull, an imprint headed by Joe Isgro, an independent radio promoter—but not just any indie promo guy. Isgro was indicted in 1989 on 57 counts of racketeering, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and engaging in payola (the illegal practice of paying radio stations to play certain songs). Federal prosecutors also linked Isgro with the Gambino crime family. "I thought, great, this guy is the king of radio," says Harris, "but we didn't know he was also the king of shysters and liars."
The charges against Isgro were eventually thrown out, but two years ago, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion charges in connection with running a loansharking operation. He's currently serving 50 months in prison. And whether influenced by the Isgro ties or not, Harris says there was an awful lot of shadiness going down at Raging Bull.
"I found out two years ago that they had released two of our albums over in Europe," he says. "They were making money off them, and we didn't know anything about it. Plus, I never got SoundScan reports from Raging Bull to see how our album was selling—it was always their own reports."