Doing It to Death

Give it up for funk classicists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

On the back cover of the Soul Providers' (Don't Look Back) Behind the Shack, a slab of Brooklyn-spawned retro-funk released by Desco Records in 1998, you'll find the following note: "DESCO is seeking bands and musicians who are interested in recording HEAVY, HEAVY funk or Boogaloo. If your influences include Parliament, Stevie Wonder, or be-bop, you need not apply. When it comes to gettin' down, James Brown is the ground."

They weren't kidding—then or now. Desco splintered three years ago, but the label's successors, Daptone and Soul Fire, still adhere to the same basic principle: If it ain't J.B., it's BS. And when it isn't J.B., it's usually his greatest disciple, Fela Kuti. Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth writes the songs for the Fela-inspired Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Soul Explosion, a 1998 Desco album by the Daktaris, features mock African song titles like "Eltsuhg Ibal Lasiti"—"It Is All a Big Hustle" written backward. The records are packaged with the same spirit of good-humored preservationism (the art direction is frozen somewhere between Sam Cooke's death and disco's rise; the musicians work under names like "Bosco Mann," the alias of mastermind Roth), while the bands' charged live performances take their cues from the holy trinity: Brown's Live at the Apollo, volumes one, two, and three. (For a taste of Soul Fire's output, consult the new Soul Fire: The Majestic Collection, out last week on Fastlife.)

But if the Futureheads can get away with aping XTC and Wire, and Interpol can channel Echo & the Joy Chameleons, we can certainly make room for funk classicism. "I think we've had a lot of luck as far as people not being able to judge us on who we are but on how they like the music," says Neal Sugarman, a saxophonist for Daptone's flagship act, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who've issued two excellent albums, 2002's Dap-Dippin' With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the new Naturally. "At the beginning, we'd get people thinking they were old records. But once people looked at them closer, they'd say, 'Wow, where did this come from?' They didn't know if it was old or new. And they made unbiased decisions on it, not saying, 'Oh, this is a new record by a bunch of young white kids.' It was a record they already liked; when they found out, I think it impressed them more. Now I think we've gotten to the point where we don't have to disguise anything anymore, because I think we've already proven ourselves."

Even when Jones and her associates tackle material outside the super-heavy-funk canon, they cover it in cold sweat. Take the Dap-Dippin' highlight, a transformation of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" In the Dap-Kings' hands, Jackson's first hit with Minneapolis producer/writers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis turns into the kind of hard, horns-driven groove that J.B. might have cooked up for one of his female protégés in the late '60s.

"The whole thing when we put it out on a 45 was trying to make it sound like Janet had ripped it off from us," says Sugarman, who also leads the Daptone organ combo Sugarman 3. The gambit worked, according to Jones, speaking from her Brooklyn home. "We actually got e-mail from people who thought Janet Jackson had done a Sharon Jones cover—they thought it was from the '70s. That's our whole idea."

If that were the whole result, though, the joke would wear out pretty quickly. But especially on Naturally, the Dap-Kings wring new pleasures out of old sources, partly by tweaking them—see the sharp, militant vamp they lend to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." (The song was originally released as a 7-inch with a red, white, and blue label and the self-explanatory "What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?" on the B-side. Never accuse these guys of not keeping their concepts straight.)

Moreover, Jones can sing just about anything. A former corrections officer at Rikers Island and a veteran of cover bands and gospel groups, Jones met the Dap-Kings when she went to sing background for Lee Fields, a Desco shouter now on Soul Fire (Jones' now-ex-husband was playing saxophone for the session). Here's a singer who knows when to lay in the cut and when to belt. On the new album's "How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?" she fashions a classic performance that sounds as apt in 2005 as it would have on, oh, Aretha Franklin's Lady Soul.

Listening to Jones' yearning, melancholy vocal, it's hard to imagine that the 47-year-old Jones didn't write the song herself. "Actually, it is sort of a personal experience with me," she says. "Bosco [Roth] knows certain things that are going on in my life. At that time, I'd been in a relationship with this guy for, like, five years. He walked out the door one day and said, 'I'll be back, see you Friday.' And it was eight months before I heard from him. We're not together anymore, of course. Bosco came up with the idea of me telling him a little bit of my story." She laughs. "My words would have been more angry."

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play Chop Suey at 9 p.m. Wed., May 18. $10 adv.

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