Roots 'n' Rap
Diggin' in the Crates, part 2: The Meters / Josie Records
There's no mistaking Hip-hop's distinctive beat -- boom-bap, original rap --
whether it's backing up Heavy D and his Boyz or Sinead O'Connor. And
when you start to search for the roots of this beat, the telltale trail takes you to
one of two places -- Memphis, where Booker T. and the MG's Al Jackson Jr.
sent out a whiff of those funky onions, or else a bit further down south --
N'Awlins to be precise -- where Joseph "Ziggy" Modeliste put sticks to skins
and plugged in the original live wire of fatback funk with the Meters.
Modeliste's driving, funk-hop beats are without peer, and have made the
Meters' Josie Records singles among the most sought after by DJ's for years.
But the ultimate history of the Meters is as old as Crescent City itself, and is
tangled up with that first family of funky southern soul, the Nevilles. So let's
take it on back:
The Neville brothers had been making music since the mid-50's, when Art
Neville's vocals on "Mardi Gras Mambo" kicked off his career with Hawketts.
By the mid-60's, though, he was looking for new avenues of creativity,
forming a band fronted by brothers Aaron and Cyril that was then known as
the Neville Sounds. It was this band which brought aboard Modeliste, along
with George Porter Jr. on bass -- and which inspired Art to switch to a
Hammond B-3 organ. Guitarist Leo Nocentelli filled out the instrumental
sound with his combination of well-timed solos and burning bits of rhythm.
Honing their skills with regular live gigs, it was this instrumental backbone
that caught the ears of producer Allen Toussaint, who brought them to his
Sansu label, where they became the in-house band, much as Booker T. and
the MG's had up at Stax. At Sansu, they backed up artists such as Lee Dorsey,
Betty Harris, Irma Thomas, and brother Aaron. In 1969, they signed a contract
with Josie Records and became The Meters, turning out more classics that
year than most artists do in a decade, among them "Sophisticated Cissy" (Josie
1001), "Cissy Strut" (Josie 1005), "Ease Back" (Josie 1008), and "Look a Py-Py"
(Josie 1015). Another standout cut from this period is 1970's "Chicken Strut"
(Josie 1018), which was picked up by DJ Mark the 45 King for Queen Latifah's
"Wrath of My Madness."
What was it that made these tracks so potent, so suggestive, so effortlessly
funky? Modeliste's drum style is part of the answer, but the true reason is
deeper than that: everyone in the Meters played rhythm. Unlike many other
bands of the time, who played all over the beat, the Meters accented the
drums and built their sounds within Modeliste's percussive parsing. The
result was something wholly new, and though they couldn't have known it
at the time, it was a hip-hop DJ's dream come true. Any Meters album is a
breakbeat album; as Porter describes it,
I guess the reason why our tracks are used so much in the hip-hop thing is
that they were serious rhythm tracks waiting for a melody. It was like having
a window without the curtains because we had nice big, gaping holes in the
(qtd. in the _Funkify Your Life_ booklet)
Seeing the Meters live around 1970 must have been something like seeing
hip-hop _in utero_; many of these classic tracks (such as "Cissy Strut") started
out as "break songs" -- that is, instrumentals played just before the band took
a break, during which Art Neville would tell the crowd to stick around,
they'd be right back. It had all the ingredients of hip-hop except a tuntable.
Within the next couple of years the Meters branched out further, filling out a
new prescription for funk that was so far ahead of its time there was no other
pharmacy that could dispense it. In 1970, way back before Bootsy Collins, the
Meters were already exhorting their audiences to "Stretch Your Rubber Band"
over a dense conjunction of pumping drums, thumping bass, and alternating
keyboards and guitar riffs. "A Message from the Meters," recorded that same
year, brought social commentary together with funky backup in a way that
foreshadowed everyone from George Clinton to Grandmaster Flash.
The mid-70's saw more expansion for the Meters, and a major-label contract
with Warner Brothers/Reprise. For better or worse, this contract meant what
it still means for all too many groups: less control of the final product.
Nocentelli, putting it politely, notes in retrospect that "at that time, Warner
Brothers was very, very inexperienced in terms of R&B." The group put in
long hours in the studio, only to see the results rejected by Warners' staff
(check out the Rounder records compilation _Good Old Funky Music_ to
hear some of the "outtakes" from these sessions -- some of the funkiest
grooves ever committed to tape). Eventually, under pressure from all sides,
the members of the group went their separate ways, though they have re-
united on occasion, and a version of the group tours today with Art Neville
as "The Funky Meters," (George Porter is the only other original group
member to remain in this new configuration). Nocentelli and Modeliste
have gravitated to Los Angeles, where Nocentelli bases his own namesake
band; the two have also joined to provide backup for artists such as Earl King
and Maceo Parker. Modeliste took a turn on drums on Nicky Skopelitis's
Laswell-produced _Ekstasis_ album, besides his regular gig with the Nervis
Brothers band. If you listen to his drumming on _Ekstasis_, you can hear that
it still packs every ounce of funk that it did twenty-six years ago, even when
buried under new-agey funk-rock guitar.
In part on account of their relative obscurity, the Meters are in the odd
position of having samples that are more recognizable than the originals.
Besides the "Funky Chicken" loop on "Wrath of my Madness" mentioned
earlier, the Meters have turned up in all kinds of surprising places. As far
back as 1970, "Look-ka Py Py" generated a Jamaican cover version (by the
Hippy Boys), and the cross-currents between the islands and the Meters
remains strong (check out 1972's "Soul Island" for the other half of the call-
and-response). Del tha Funkiehomosapien took a slowed-down loop of
"Same Old Thing" for his diss track "Same Ol' Thing" (on 1991's "I Wish my
Brother George was Here"). Jam Master Jay cut a snippet of the same track on
Run-DMC's "For the Maker" on their _Down with the King_ album. And K-
Cut picked up "Ease Back" (along with a snippet from Wilmer and the Dukes,
another Sansu records act) to help Queen Latifah demonstrate "The Way
We Flow." In fact, the more you start listenin for them , the more Meters
loops you start to hear -- Salt 'n' Pepa, Heavy D & the Boyz, Das EFX, Ice Cube,
and Big Daddy Kane have all wrapped their rhymes around a Meters track or
Luckily for all of us, Rhino Records earlier this year issued the first anthology
to cover the Meters' recordings for both Josie Records and Reprise in real
depth. The title is _Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology_ (R2 71869),
and it fills 2 cd's to the brim with uncut N'Awlins funk. For those interested
in searching out more, the various Charly records releases include most of
the Meters' early recordings, as well as other configurations of the Neville
Brothers; you could start with _Legacy: A History of the Nevilles_ (CD NEV
001-2), which includes a generous helping of the Meters. Rounder Records
has also done its share, both by re-releasing the Look-ka-Py-Py album
(Rounder CD 2103) and by issuing the studio tapes that form _Good Old
Funky Music_ (Rounder CD 2104). Those interested in a sample of what the
Meters sounded like live can also check out _Uptown Rulers! Live on the
Queen Mary_ (Rhino R2 70376), a sonic treat recorded in 1975 at an industry
party for Paul McCartney and Wings (with whom the Meters had recorded
on _Venus and Mars_).
I'm indebted in this article to Don Snowden for his extensive liner notes to
_Funkify Your Life_, as well as to Gilles Bacon and Clive Anderson for
discographical and historical information.