By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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."
But this all pales in comparison to something we like to call the "O.J. Incident."
See, Slapbak's music had found its way into the hands of one of O.J. Simpson's lawyers—this was after he was acquitted of murder—and the idea of O.J. appearing in a Slapbak video had for some reason been proposed to the band.
"I knew he was the most famous guy in the world and that everyone was looking to see what he was going to do next, but I was leery about being seen as a gimmick," Harris remembers. "I didn't have any hardcore feelings about him because I didn't follow the trial. I just went by what the court said."
But a few months later, Harris got a phone call at home: it was O.J. He said he was in Coto de Caza playing golf, and he wanted to talk about the video idea. Two hours later, they met at a restaurant in Dana Point.
"I called the band because I didn't want to go by myself," Harris says. "We met for three hours, and O.J. was really cool, just shooting the shit, but he came across like a womanizer. That was obvious. Then it turned into a disaster.
"He got drunk, and out in the parking lot, he pulled his pants down in front of my sister," Harris says. "She told my brother what happened and told him not to say anything, but he went and told the Brown family, and then the Browns tried to get my brother to convince my sister to testify during the custody case. She wound up selling her story to the National Enquirer, and every time they showed her, there was a picture of Slapbak at the bottom of the page! We were in the Enquirer just for eating with the guy! There's so much more dirt that I can't get into, but it was bad like that for a whole year. It should've just been me at that meeting."
And so Harris decided not to do the video. In fact, smelly label run-ins and ghastly lunches with possibly murderous ex-football players made Harris think about ending the band, until one day a few years ago when he hopped on the Internet and, just for the hell of it, did a Slapbak search—and 120 hits came flying back.
"I was clicking on stuff all day long," he says, "links to Germany and Australia. It was wild! We had all these fans we didn't know about, mostly from the first album."
By the late '90s, more than 100,000 copies of Fast Food Funkateers had sold worldwide, and they had been influencing people in ways Harris couldn't have fathomed. Japanese bands were covering Slapbak songs. A German band named themselves Fast Food Funkateers. A European DJ dubbed himself DJ Slapbak.
"He even spells it the same way we do!" laughs Harris. "People were really taken by the whole funk thing."
The Net has helped keep Slapbak alive, and Harris says they sell about 70 to 100 copies of their albums per month through the band's website (www.toxicfunk.com) to all parts of the world. Now Europe wants to pick up the band's entire catalog. A new album, Fast Food Funkateers 2nd Edition (not a remastering—though the title makes it seem so—but a CD of all-new tunes), comes out next month on Challenge Records, a label based in Amsterdam, where they have some shows lined up later in the summer. They've added a DJ and a rapper, and what was once their strict funk diet has ballooned to a sound that at times tosses in elements of Dr. Dre and Rage Against the Machine.
So after 12 years, it's finally starting to pay off for Slapbak. Smallish little slivers of recognition, compared with what some of the OC bands that came up with them have tasted. But Harris happily takes them.
"There was a point when Sugar Ray, No Doubt and Slapbak were all on the same identical path, with the clubs we played and what our first record did," he says. "Then Sugar Ray and No Doubt did their second records, and they both decided they were gonna compromise and go commercial enough to break big. That's what was happening with us at Warner, and I didn't like that at all. If I can't be known for what I want to be known for, then it's not worth it to me. I don't knock those guys for doing it because honestly, I like Sugar Ray's last couple of records. They're always gonna be great, and Gwen is a great performer. I think it's great that they came out of OC and did it, but for me, that kind of success is gonna have to happen a different way. I've learned a lot these past 10 years. It's kind of hard to pull things over my eyes now."