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Trouble Funk

Reviewed on this page:
Straight Up Funk Go Go Style - Drop The Bomb - In Times Of Trouble - Do The Whop - Say What! - Trouble Over Here, Trouble Over There - More Than A Mouthful - Hard To Beat - P.A. Classics Vol. 1 - Funkin' The Classics - All The Way Live - 35th Anniversary Live

Trouble Funk wasn't the first go-go band (Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers were), but they were the foremost ambassadors of Washington DC's only homegrown musical genre. Over a polyrhythmic base using timbales and other Latin percussion and funky bass, go-go uses chanted vocals and little splashes of horns, synth, chunky rhythm or scorching lead guitar. It's an extraordinarily supple, extensible form - you can play anything from an MOR ballad to a car commercial over a go-go beat and make it danceable. Led by Tony Fisher and cousin Robert Reed (with lots of help from Reed's brother Taylor and James Avery), Trouble Funk has a harder edge than most go-go acts, plus creative arrangements and a top-notch rhythm section. Most remarkable, though, is their deep catalog of indelible hooks, which they dole out sparingly - hinting at them throughout a tune, but only unveiling the full monty at the very end - in songs that are mostly verseless, all call-and-response chorus and breakdowns, like early 70s James Brown. Because of these qualities, Trouble Funk was heavily sampled in hip hop's first decade, famously on LL Cool J's "Rock The Bells."

The story of Trouble Funk includes a lot of label and contract problems, so they were largely locked out of the studio twice during their most fertile creative period. Those difficulties led some of the band's key members to leave for more stable careers, and the flow of recordings slowed to a trickle by the end of the 80s. Fisher is still heading the band today, with a mostly new cast; "Tee Bone" David and Taylor Reed turn up for the bigger shows, one of which I caught in 2013. It's a lot easier to find discographic information on the band than it used to be, but this excellent interview with Big Tony was the most helpful resource I've come across. (DBW)

Tony Fisher, bass, vocals; Robert "Syke Dyke" Reed, trombone, keyboards; Taylor Reed, trumpet, keyboards; James Avery, keyboards; Chester Davis, guitar; Timothy "Tee Bone" David, percussion; Mack Carey, drums and percussion; Emmett Nixon, drums; David Rudd, sax; Dean Harris, trumpet.

Circa 1976, a very young Tony Fisher was in BlackSmoke, a mediocre funk band on Chocolate City led by Michael W. Fisher.

Hollyrock (1980)
The group followed up its first 12" single ("E Flat Boogie") with a four-song EP: apart from the title cut and "Boogie," you'll also find "Pump Me Up" and "Roll With It." Originally released on their own TF Records, but then distributed by Jamtu, as were the next few releases. (DBW)

Super Grit (1981)
An EP featuring vocal and instrumental mixes of the spellbinding "Super Grit" and the underdeveloped "Get Down With Your Get Down," plus "Latin Funk" (a rare co-write by guitarist Chester Davis). Also in 1981, the band's signature hit "Drop The Bomb" and the melody-free instrumental "The Beat" were released as 12" singles. (DBW)

Straight Up Funk Go Go Style (1981)
A double-12" recorded live in DC - nearly one-hour of ceaseless grooving. The show starts slowly, as the band spends all of Side One getting comfortable: there are some introductions and chanting, but not much music apart from the percussion base. Most of Side Two is a gargantuan version of "Drop The Bomb." Sides Three and Four capture the feel of a go-go show better, as there are loads of hooks, quotes and call-and-response choruses, constructing a non-stop dance suite without ever attempting to play a complete song. A valuable document of the state of the genre at the dawn of the decade, though Trouble Funk's later live recordings up the ante considerably. You didn't hear it from me, but the whole album is available as part of Anthology Of Go Go - Non Stop Mix By DJ Cash Money as "Revvin Up Live" parts one through four. (DBW)

Drop The Bomb (1982)
As she had with hip hop, Sylvia Robinson was quick to spot the commercial potential of go-go, and signed Trouble Funk to Sugar Hill Records. But the relationship was seemingly doomed from the start, and this bare-bones LP was the only fruits of the collaboration. Worse yet, the title track was simply lifted from Straight Up Funk, and "Pump Me Up" lacks the punch of its earlier incarnation. The single "Hey Fellas," with an irresistable horn lick, is the only worthwhile cut here - the CD includes a single version plus "Super Grit" as bonus tracks. (DBW)

The fallout from the Sugar Hill fiasco left Trouble Funk with few opportunities to record. They set up their own label, D.E.T.T. - connoting Dyke (Reed), (manager Reo) Edwards, Tony (Fisher) and Taylor (Reed), but also a nod to the group being in debt - and took some emergency measures: putting a random fan (Slim) in front of a microphone to see what would happen ("It's In The Mix"), and cutting Afrika Bambaataa-ish singles as Tilt ("Arkade Funk") and Arkade Funk ("Search And Destroy"). (DBW)

In Times Of Trouble (1983)
I don't know how the band was able to release an album under their own name, but they did - a double-LP (one disc live, one studio) in fact. It's surprisingly wide-ranging: In addition to colossal dance grooves like the near-instrumental "Spin Time," the horn-driven "Say What" and "In Times Of Trouble," the studio disc has two versions of the frantic "Funk 'N' Roll" and even an unexpectedly touching, yearning ballad ("Freaky Situation"). The live disc was recorded at the Paragon in DC. Right from the opening "A-Groove," it's a mesmerizing non-stop jam including half a dozen stunning riffs never used on a studio track ("Grip It"; "4th Gear"/"Give Me A Quick One"/"Sleep On It") and a smoking version of "Let's Get Small" that builds to one of the best breaks I've ever heard. Island later released just the live disc as Saturday Night Live From Washington D.C. - with apologies to Chuck Brown, E.U. and everyone else, if you listen to only one go-go LP, make it that one. (DBW)

Do The Whop (The Go-Go Allstarz: 1984)
A half-hour live set - released under yet another false name - spread over two 12" sides: Side One is titled "Do The Whop," and after a slow start builds to a punchy version of "Graveyard Groove" (based on the Munsters theme). The other side is titled "Impressions," a reference not to the Coltrane tune but to some mediocre celebrity impersonations - the material is strong ("In Times Of Trouble"; "Everything Is On The One"), and the band is a force to be reckoned with even though they never rev up to fourth gear. (DBW)

I'm not sure how all this went down, but promoter Maxx Kidd set up his own T.T.E.D. label, convinced Island Records that he represented the entire go-go scene, and duly delivered them Trouble Funk, E.U. and Chuck Brown - none of whom had recorded for him before. In 1985 Island released Go Go Crankin' and bankrolled the production of the film Good To Go - based on Kidd's life story. Indeed, the story of those negotiations would make a great movie, but I'm informed that Good To Go is definitely not it. (DBW)

Say What! (1986)
Next Island released an LP recorded live in London, with versions of the band's biggest hits ("Drop The Bomb"; "Let's Get Small"; "Pump Me Up"). It's mostly the same material from Saturday Night Live and though brick-solid, the performances aren't as exciting: Pick this up if you can't find (or somehow get bored with) SNL. Also in 1986, Trouble Funk released an amazing live version of "It's In The Mix (Don't Touch That Radio)" - backed with "Still Smokin'" - as a 12" single: if it were my record company, I would have gotten that stuff onto Say What!. Less memorably, they also appeared on hip hop pioneer Kurtis Blow's "I'm Chillin'." (DBW)

Trouble Over Here, Trouble Over There (1987)
This has got to be one of the most disappointing collaborations of all time: Finally back in the studio, backed by a prominent label, and working with the funk superhero Bootsy Collins. But it's a flop, as the band abandoned go-go in favor of mild, mildewed R&B; the tunes are mundane ("Woman Of Principle"), and too many overdub layers smother any spontaneity. Bootsy brings in late 80s cohorts Steve Jordan, Vickie Vee and Mico Wave, and wrote "Trouble" and "New Money," which are decent but forgettable. But the one excellent track is the one that recalls Trouble Funk's old sound, the hook-filled ode to their percussionist "Hey Tee Bone." (DBW)

More Than A Mouthful (Big Tony & The T.F. Crew: unreleased, rec. 1986/1987)
Trouble Funk and Island fell out at this point, which was extraordinarily poor timing as go-go was briefly a nation-wide sales phenomenon. Unable to use their name, the band apparently intended to release an LP called More Than A Mouthful as Big Tony & The T.F. Crew. That didn't happen, but they did put out a number of 12" singles over the next year or so: "Let's Party" (which features Whodini's Master D); "Bust The Beat"; "Burnin'"; "More Than A Mouthful" (the last two credited to Trouble Funk's Big Tony); and were heavily involved in the Skibone featuring Tommy Ski single "Take It To The Top" (with C.J. on flute). Each of those is better than anything on Trouble Over Here, but the best of the bunch is a 12-minute medley titled "Back Doing What We Do Best 'Live'" consisting of the Newcleus hit "Jam On It" plus "Private Eye," "Go-Go Craze" and "Lunchem On Out." I believe Robert Reed left the band at the same time; he recorded as "Syke Dyke" during this period, though only one track ever surfaced (1988's "Street Freak"). (DBW)

Hard To Beat (1989)
Released only in the UK, a compilation of hard-to-find material. Side One is credited to Big Tony & The T.F. Crew ("Go-Go Lady," written and produced by Harvey Scales; an edit of "Back Doin' What We Do Best") though "Do The Whop" (also trimmed) was originally released as Go-Go Allstarz. Side Two is credited to Trouble Funk, though much of it is from the same Allstarz disc ("Graveyard Boogie / All Aboard"). Also in 1989, Fisher and Reed produced a single for T & A (Tara R. and Asia T.), "Definitely Dope" - it's an enjoyable blend of go-go and hip hop, but good luck finding a copy (I heard it on MixCloud). (DBW)

In 1990, Trouble Funk put out a 12" single with Brown, "Guess Who's Back" - the only time the two legendary acts worked together, I believe - backed with "Return Of The Bomb," sort of a "Trouble Funk On 45." (DBW)

P.A. Classics (rec. 1981-1989?, rel. 1992)
A vault release, featuring live recordings which were already several years old. Most of the songs had already been performed on Straight Up Funk ("Graveyard Groove") or Saturday Night Live ("Grip It"), with the exception of an unexceptional "Jam On It" (the Newcleus hit). The band's good-time energy and offhandedly confident musicianship is always a pleasure ("Here We Are (The Pocket)"), but as live TF recordings go, this is way down the list. (DBW)

Classics Vol. 3 - Back In The Day (1994)
I had this on CD but I think I lost it somehow - I believe it's more 80s recordings. (DBW)

All The Way Live (2000)
This doesn't capture the band at its best, but it's an interesting addition to the catalog because it's their most recent collection of mostly new material: Apart from "Pump Me Up" and "Super Grit," and the "greatest hits" medley incorporated into "Rock Da Clock" (based on the Bill Haley hit), nearly all the material is new. The sound relies more on keyboards than horns ("Make It Mellow"), often with a jazzy feel ("Doc's Groove"). I could be wrong but I think this is a "fake live" recording: the crowd noise sounds dubbed-in. (DBW)

Funkin' The Classics (2001)
Purportedly a collection of unreleased 80s tracks, mostly covers: Average White Band's "Cut The Cake"; "Devil Went Down In D.C." (based on the Charlie Daniels hit). But I wonder: "Da Trouble Beat 2001" has a suspicious title and repeated references to Y2K, while "Latin Funk" sounds like the same take that was released back in 1981. Whatever the provenance, there's some wonderful stuff here ("Funky Stuff") and some that's merely decent (their take on Herman Kelly's 1977 "Let's Dance To The Drummer's Beat," which E.U. had rocked live). (DBW)

Trouble Funk Live (rel. 2008)
Several quite long live cuts, being sold on Amazon for $0.99 cents apiece. I don't know anything about the sourcing of this material, except that three of the tracks comprise the entire Saturday Night Live LP ("Hey Tee Bone"/"Let's Get Small"/"Say What/Whip It"). I sure wish I knew where "Oooooh Shake" (in two parts) came from: The two cuts add up to a half-hour-long boisterous good time, with a lengthy performance of "Tell 'Em 'Bout The #3," loads of the blessedly squiggly synth heard on "Drop The Bomb," and a magnificent closing riff. Robert Reed died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, but I haven't figured out the discography well enough to determine which were his last recordings with the band. (DBW)

Live At The "Howard" (2013)
The go-go scene has been well documented over the years by "the tape recorder crew" (which is a nice way of saying "bootleggers"), and I can't tell whether this two-CD show, available on Spotify, is an official release or not. It's fun, with guest appearances by Sugar Bear and Sweet Cherie Mitchell-Agurs (musical director of Bela'Dona), and more typical of the band's live shows than 35th Anniversary Live. (DBW)

35th Anniversary Live (2014)
Available on DVD or as a double CD. I reviewed this show so you know how much I loved it (and if you don't believe me, on the DVD you can watch my bald spot enthusiastically bob up and down). The generous set list is an impressive reminder of how many magnificent riffs they've come up with - including some I'd never heard before, shoehorned into the mammoth opening "Start This Thing Off Right" - while the long list of returning original members make it an event rather than just another fine show. There are flaws, and they're more evident on disc: Heartwarming as the appearance by Syke Dyke Jr. is, he's painfully off-key; veteran guitarist Chester Davis is rock-solid but his younger replacement isn't having a good night; the loose jams ("Gimme Da Groove") are less enjoyable when you realize they could have played "Hey Tee Bone," "In Times Of Trouble" or "Super Grit" instead. But those minor annoyances just point out how strong the overall presentation is: The show is a testament not only to the band's longevity but to their continuing importance, and to underline that, the album concludes with the quality comeback single "Hump Day." (DBW)

Unfinished Business (2014?)
A new studio album is due this year. (DBW)

Let's get small.

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