Wednesday, December 19, 2012

drummage, 3

Most of the drumstuff I’ll be posting is stuff I’ve heard on the radio recently.  That's one of the best things about living in LA –  being in the car, listening to the radio a lot.  Hearing new things--Top 40, chart-(t)rap, modern rock, NPRoisie (the latter a distant fourth)--but also rehearing things you’d once loved but hadn’t revisited in decades, and rehearing things you never  gave the time of day but suddenly click, or at least intrigue. Radio is a great machine for jolting you out of looking in the same place for your bliss. But equally it reintroduces you to bygone bliss you’d somehow mentally mislaid with the passing years.

An example: the other day I heard The Gap Band on some old school black pop station: “Burn Rubber On Me”, which is filed in my memory as “Jolene” (the song’s addressee). Then the same day, I heard another Gap Band tune, one I didn't know: "Early In the Morning”.  Now I wouldn’t say the Gap Band were any kind of immense musical presence in my life but they had a bunch of great tunes, three of which ("Burn", "Oops Upside Your Head", "Humpin'" ) were sizeable UK hits.  And In "Burn" and "Early" particularly, there's this thing they do, a signature drum move. It recurs at points through the tunes but it’s also right at the start: like revving up, or the firing of a starter pistol.

As with “Gonna Make You A Star”, I don’t know what you call that: it’s not a break,  it’s not  a fill either, I don't think. It’s more like a retriggering: the beat breaks up a little but also comes down even harder (and Ray Calhoun is already beating the shit out of the skins).  There's a jolting effect, a bit like when ER personnel clamp those defibrillators on the chest of someone in cardiac arrest to zap their heart back into motion. Except that in the Gap Band’s case, the patient is in rude health, so it's somewhat superfluous.

The other thing I like about those Gap Band tunes is more generic. They feature a particularly heavy form of the drumming hallmark of black club music at a particular point (end of the Seventies, into early eighties), what I think of as the crunch-thwack snare. As a postpunker-turned-funkateer, I used to be obsessed with records with that sound. 

Trying to trace it back historically, you start to hear it coming through with acts like Confunkshun and  Hamilton Bohannon (worthy of a post in himself), taking over with Slave and Steve Arrington solo, but also with one-hit disco-funk wonders like Yarborough & People’s, with pre-codpiece Cameo and countless others...

I thought maybe I was imagining this or misremembering it, but when looking up info on the Gap Band -- and in this age of archival overload, there's still areas that are underdocumented and barely analysed, amazingly -- I found this entry on Gap Band's 1980 album III:

"This record signalled a seismic change in the funk landscape: Parliament-Funkadelic, Ohio Players, Rufus and Tower of Power had split up; War and even Earth Wind & Fire were losing steam;  Kool & the Gang had gone pop;  James Brown and Sly Stone were approaching self-parody. Disco, often unduly blamed for the death of funk, was fading away. The Gappers came up with a new electrofunk approach on the single "Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Treat Me Bad)": crunching Moog bass line, crashing programmed snare, no horns, and a tortured, pleading vocal straight out of  Stax - it was their first R&B #1. Together with Dazz Band's  similar "Let It Whip" and maybe George Clinton's  "Atomic Dog," it's practically a subgenre unto itself - though in fact a bigger influence on Prince's  early 80s sound than the more frequently cited Rick James. "

Dude says "crashing programmed snare"--I'm not sure about that, though. The size of the snare sound, the width and breadth of it as it slashes across the audio space of these recordings, is clearly adulterated in some way. At first it's probably just a case of close-miking and reverb, soon it feels like  production or mixing magic is being applied (maybe prototypical forms of gating, that mid-Eighties electrofunk hallmark?).  But it still sounds plausibly the handiwork of particularly muscular drummer who’s really really into his work. It swings in a way that drum machines couldn't really manage at that point, I don't think. 

Who started it? Parliament-Funkadelic? Certainly the P-funk aligned Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” (coproduced by Bootsy Collins, made at the very end of the Seventies, released in 1980) is a particularly thwackalicious example of the "practically a subgenre unto itself". The drummer is Lester Troutman, with percussion from Larry Troutman. The beat is outwardly mechanistic and unchanging, but every snare hit is inflected slightly differently: I don't know if that's Lester's playing or EQ-ing. (Incidentally a lot of drum tech scholar types says it's a clap not a snare -  a live clap, a hand-clap, with the scrunchy smeary thickness and subtle differences coming from the heavy layering of claps. But however it's made, the sound serves the function of a snare, as far as I can see). 

Dude also mentions "Atomic Dog", where the downstroke is so imposing and prominent as it slices scrunchily across the sound space. (Apparently that's an effect caused by playing the drum track backwards).

Dude also mentioned Dazz Band, "Let It Whip", another song I hear often on oldies radio here. The snare-thwack is present but a little muted.

As we get further into the Eighties, postdisco/boogie/electrofunk takes over and it's a less band-oriented sound (Gap Band, Dazz Band), it's more about producers + a mix of players and machinery. The thwack-snare fades out, the Linn and the Synclavier come in;  the drums get into that busy hyperactive Swiss Watch feel rather than the suspended trance-like groove of "More Bounce"/"Atomic Dog" .  It's the start of that period when black club records sound like Cupid & Psyche and Jam & Lewis.