Trouble Funk

  • Trouble Funk
  • Drop the Bomb (Sugar Hill) 1982 
  • In Times of Trouble (D.E.T.T.) 1983 
  • Saturday Night. Live! from Washington DC (Island) 1985 
  • Trouble Over Here Trouble Over There (Island) 1987 

Trouble Funk belongs to Washington DC’s go-go scene. Go-go is a throwback to percussive, endless-groove funk that sacrifices structure, production and slickness for loose feeling and community involvement. The bands — basically fluid rhythm sections with a few added frills — do their thing while the musicians and audience yell a whole lot of nonsense (like “Let’s get small, y’all” or “Drop the bomb!”) The funk is solidly Southern, with a strong James Brown flavor and tons of sloppy percussion. In no other North American music does the cowbell play such a major role.

Chuck Brown, father of go-go, developed it from drum breakdowns which he used in clubs to link Top 40 covers. Not surprisingly, he found people were grooving more on these bridges than the songs. Go-go has grown concurrently (though not as popularly) with hip-hop, and offers a spirited group alternative to beatbox isolationism. The unsophisticated grooves began to break out nationwide in ’85, and Trouble Funk were quickly established as one of the genre’s leaders. (They were, however, eclipsed in 1988, when E.U. had a huge smash with “Da’Butt,” a number originally created for Spike Lee’s School Daze.)

Drop the Bomb is a seminal go-go album because it was released by Sugar Hill, home of the uptown rap set. Virtually all prior go-go releases were on Washington’s local T.T.E.D. (aka D.E.T.T.) label. Bronx DJs used to find the discs and soak the labels off to keep audiences (and competitors) from learning what they were playing; Drop the Bomb gave everyone a chance to get go-go. It also produced two classic tracks: the title tune and the monster 12-inch, “Hey Fellas.” Both are wet, sticky and great for dancing. Spin them and you’re part of the party.

In Times of Trouble is like two separate albums. The two sides of studio material have nowhere near the juice of the debut. The other two contain long live jams that sum up the scene. The band maintains a low-tech groove, and the four lead singers move the jam along with a lot of assistance from the crowd. It’s not like the Godfather of Soul’s side-long live medleys because Trouble Funk doesn’t do songs: just a hot bottom, some rolling percussion, a couple of tag phrases and a lot of audience participation. The ultimate funk spirit of these sides is intoxicating. Saturday Night continues the fun with six long, generic demi-instrumentals (and a couple of shorter shards) wisely cut live in front of an enthusiastically cooperative crowd. Cue it up and move!

The title of Trouble Over Here is prophetic, as T-Funk rides off the rails in a fit of misguided stylistic ambition. With production and performing assistance by Bootsy Collins and Kurtis Blow, the studio grooves are gussied up in defiance of the band’s traditional limber unpretentiousness. The familiarly mobilizing rumble’n’shuffle bottom is intact, but the attempt to turn the grooves into songs busies up the business and blunts the infectious impact.

[John Leland / Ira Robbins]