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It should have been a night to mourn funk. The music made famous by Sly Stone, George Clinton and Prince was being trotted out for a nostalgia trip at the Hollywood Bowl in early August—and it was none other than funk hero Isaac Hayes who was cranking out the cheese. Blame generational change: hip-hop devoured funk's ghetto vibe and party-for-the-revolution credo sometime during the 1980s, and that's why the Bowl's well-heeled baby boomer crowd felt comfortable clinking their jewelry to such hits as "The Theme From Shaft." They knew that no dangerous young musician still calls his music funk.
But none of this matters to Jamie Allensworth, singer for local funk-fusion band Natural Afrodisiac. From his perspective, far away in the Hollywood Bowl's poor people's seats, Allensworth saw Hayes' performance as a victory for funk. It may be party music for moms and dads in Stanton—the tough, blue-collar city that birthed Natural Afrodisiac—but it still gets people dancing. And for Allensworth, the music still works because it has a mission: even though funk is way off pop music's radar—with the very notable exception of Nelly's hit "It's Hot In Herre"—he thinks it could be the antidote to the worst aspects of pop and hip-hop.
"Just watching Jay-Z recently, I saw a lot of people were having a good time, but then there were a lot of people trying to act hard because they thought it was cool," he says. "Brawls happening in the front row and shit. You'll never see that at a soul or funk show. It's just people there to have a good time and to watch live music."
Not that Allensworth and his crew dislike hip-hop—they just go back farther. They're the band that time forgot, one of only a handful of young acts in Southern California playing funk that would easily fit alongside bands like War and Curtis Mayfield. Still, they can't be totally clueless. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to win all their fans.
They look like a Sly Stone fantasy—they're a multi-ethnic band, with roots in the Samoan, Filipino, Chicano and Anglo gene pools. And when they started gigging in 1998, they played with hip-hop-friendly bands such as Ozomatli, but they also opened for such jazz and funk pioneers as Herbie Hancock and Maceo Parker.
And after recording three EPs on their indie label Da Soup, Natural Afrodisiac remain funk traditionalists: they're all downstroke guitar rhythms, aggressive horns and thumping percussion mixed with Allensworth's pitch-perfect ghetto grit vocals. They promise they'll never dress in cheap knock-offs of Bootsy Collins' intergalactic clown getups, but musically, they pile on heaping portions of Afro-Cuban timbales and congas, spacey guitar effects, doo-wop and foot-stomping rock & roll.
Their tunes recount their lives: the wild block parties depicted in their song "Chao," the sweet "Does she love me?" doo-wop of "Tired Eyes," or their furious dread of police brutality of "Leo Leo"—all off their third EP, Rudiment. "Leo Leo" (pronounced "lay-o l-ayo") is island slang from Allensworth's Samoan-American family, meaning "Watch out for the cops!"
"A lot of problems were happening around my house with my brothers, problems with police and a little bit of brutality here and there," Allensworth says. "Getting pulled over for no reason, just because you and your brothers got long hair and shit like that. It's about being under suspicion—always sweating. I can't drive next to an officer and be comfortable to this day."
Another part of the song tells the cautionary tale of one of percussionist Anthony Gonzales' uncles, a man currently in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit. "He didn't plead guilty, and he'd be out of jail if he plea bargained," says Gonzales. "It's about how I see how it took a toll on my family and hearing about how the system works. It's crazy stuff."
So Allensworth and the rest of his crew don't really talk about building a mighty revival of funk, à la third wave ska or neo-swing—it's enough for the music to just keep them out of trouble. And besides, they like to keep to their anti-creed of funk for the people, be they workingmen or jewelry-clinkers: they'll give their fans the good times they're looking for.
"We're just happy to play our instruments," says Allensworth. "A lot of our stuff comes out on the good vibe—it's pure, it's from the soul, and there're no gimmicks."Natural Afrodisiac performs at Kozmos, 17208 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (562) 592-2200. Oct. 18, 9 p.m. $10. 21+.