Funk Beta Kappa
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Blood Sugar Sex Magik
BY BRAD TOLINSKI
FUNK MUSIC IS a form of geometry. It thrives on the subtle relationships between angular guitars, curvaceous bass lines, aggressively jagged drum patterns, sex, spit and blood. The theorems for the genre’s sophisticated series of equations can be found in James Brown’s astonishing string of souped-up, mid-Sixties r&b smashes (“I Got You,” “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud”) Sly And The Family Stone’s butt-shaking hippie pop (“Dance To The Music,” “I Want To Take You Higher”) and almost any effort by George Clinton’s outrageous psychedelic collective, Parliament/Funkadelic, whose 1978 album, One Nation Under A Groove, continues to serve as the genre’s high water mark.
In recent years, machines and computers have been brought in to create and calculate a new math, mutating funk into such exotic, gritty forms of calculus as hip hop, new jack swing, go go, industrial and dance hall. But a few brave souls have eschewed digital accoutrements, ditched the drum machines and sequencers, and remained true to the ways of their elders. The reigning prince of the traditional school of Super Badness is Prince, who uses electronics sparingly. Not too far behind, however, are some unlikely torchbearers: the four skinny and hyperactive members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who altogether disdain most modern technological advancements.
Since their self-titled 1984 debut, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have evolved from a crude, enthusiastic punk outfit that borrowed liberally from P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and James Brown guitarist Jimmy Nolen into a truly original and committed funk unit. The transition has been gradual, but the band has studied with the best, including Clinton, who produced their 1985 release, Freaky Styley, and Michael Beinhorn (Herbie Hancock, Gil Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx), who produced the Peppers’ highly regarded Mother’s Milk.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik is an exhilarating, transitional step forward for the band, in terms of total conception and sheer musicianship. The hard-hitting one-two punch of the album’s opening tracks, “Power Of Equality” and “If You Have To Mk,” the loopy “Mellowship Slinky” and the whacky “Sir Psycho Sexy” are impeccable. Each song pinpoints that almost-impossible-to-hit sweet spot between precision and feel that lies at the heart of all great music. And guitarist John Frusciante’s disciplined rhythm playing, imaginative voicings and colorful orchestration demonstrate that he is far more than just an adequate foil for Flea’s ingeniously crafty, bass-generated pulse.
When the band catches fire, they more than match Clinton’s very best by actually bringing a new and vital equation to the table: the Peppers’ extensive background in metal, hardcore and thrash allows them to expand and add to funk’s rich tradition. This is what keeps the band from being simply a well-meaning pastiche or—worse yet—a bad parody of a funk group.
Not everything is rosey in Pepperland, however. The band occasionally sounds under-rehearsed when they attempt to sound spontaneous. The distinction is slight, but once again, the difference between a great groove and a flaccid one can be infinitesimal. Funk is an exact and exacting science; even the slightest loose end can put a nasty kink in the proceedings—just ask James Brown, who used to fine his musicians for every fluffed note. Over-exuberance, sloppy performances and heavy-handed riffs sink both “Suck My Kiss” and the title track, while “Funky Monks” fails in its attempt at a gut-bucket feel—it’s merely repetitious and dull.
Happily, most of the album’s left-field experiments hit the mark, more than making up for the clunkers. The very effective “Breaking That Girl” is an almost Elizabethan acoustic swing ballad, while “I Could Have Lied” is an engaging, acoustic-driven mood piece reminiscent of Neil Young. And “The Greeting Song,” which actually quotes Heart’s “Barracuda,” is one of the year’s best straight-ahead, main-stream rockers.
All in all, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, a noble, entertaining experiment, establishes the Red Hot Chili Peppers as one of America’s most ambitious and eclectic bands. They gracefully acquit themselves in the field of funk, proving that they are up to the challenge of mastering one of the most demanding, unforgiving forms of modem music. While Blood Sugar is not the great album that the Peppers have long seemed on the verge of producing, it is a welcome sign that they are one step closer to achieving that goal.