“That’s the way the funks work”

Photo by David Carlo

Having a GPS and the luxury of a computer directing you from point A to point B is nice, but sometimes, Bootsy Collins likes to get lost.

“We lose our way. We lose the things that made us human in the first place. The things that created the experience in life — we’ve thrown those away because it’s much easier to look on the computer and say, ‘Oh, there it is,’” Collins tells Xpress from Cincinnati.  “So, you take the experience out of funkin’, you take the experience out of making love.

“Like, say when you’re with a chick, you have a chance to plan — let’s have sex at 8 o’clock next Saturday. Well what’s wrong with having sex right now if it comes up? If it happens, it happens. You just have to see what the funk is gonna happen.

“Funk don’t know what the funk, but the funk always finds the way.”

Collins’ latest album, Tha Funk Capitol of the World, brings the heart of funk home with a lot of big names. Apart from the intro, every song is suffixed with a featured artist, and the list of contributors is imposing, if not hilarious: Dr. Cornell West, George Clinton, Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson. Even Reverend Al Sharpton makes an appearance. The superstar-studded packaging might come off as a gimmick, but most of the guest artists are repeat collaborators and Collins’ friends or musical mentors.

The almost constant name-dropping and hero-worship can get a little tedious on the second spin, but Bootsy’s iconic smooth-yet-silly vocals and trebly, upper-octave bass grooves carry the album with a danceable rhythm. With such a daunting list of artists and cultural icons onboard the funk train, you might think that the genre has hit some sort of upswing in recent years.

“Well, the state of funk is pretty funked up,” Collins admits. “And it’s not because it’s just not happening. It’s because people aren’t exposed to it. We were exposed to funk on a regular basis, not just musically, but in our lives as we were growing up. We didn’t have a chance to preprogram and pre-this and pre-that. Everything was spontaneous.”

Funk has been a sort of fateful way of life for Collins. He didn’t pay for bass lessons growing up; no one sat down and taught him what it took to be a funk superstar. Musical pinups in Collins’ day were suave frontmen like James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. The bass was something you would pick up because you couldn’t play guitar.

“Bass players weren’t the coolest thing on earth back then,” Collins says. “It was the guitar player that was the coolest. There was nobody that really aspired to be a bass player at the time. People just kinda fell into it. That’s what happened to me.”

Collins’ first bass was actually an acoustic guitar — strung with just four bass strings. That’s what happens when the funk finds you, apparently — your older brother needs a bass player, so you make do with what you’ve got.

“That’s the way the funks work,” Collins says. “You just fall into it.” 

After that first performance with his improvised bass, Collins played in James Brown’s backing band for almost a year, along with George Clinton‘s Parliament and Funkadelic, and offshoots and side projects like Bootsy’s Rubber Band and the Sweat Band.

Now Collins is back on tour for the first time in almost a decade. The Funk U-Nity tour will take Collins and his enormous band, including a full horn section, several percussionists and backup singers, from the Montreal Jazz Festival in Quebec to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Sweden — and The Orange Peel.

It won’t be the funkstar’s first stop in Asheville. Despite being the site of one of his first gigs with Brown and several stops on the Rubber Band’s tour, Collins has a more powerful memory of the city — one that has to do with its peculiar smell.

“You know what — the first time we came to Asheville, I don’t know what it’s like now, but the first time we came to Asheville, it had this certain smell,” Collins says. “You might be too young to know about that smell. But I always knew when I was in Asheville. When I woke up the bus, it was like, ‘Ok, I know where we’re at.’ We always knew, coming up on Asheville — that smell just hit you and yep, Asheville, here we come.”

Onstage, Collins summons one of his many caricatures and equips them with a comical catch phrase — there’s Boo-Man-Chew (“Spreading hope like digital dope”), or Bootzilla (“The world’s only rhinestone rock star doll”). His shows are giant, upbeat celebrations.

“It’s kind of like a revival,” Collins says. “A healing process. You go in, you might be feeling down, and once you start getting funked up, you know, all of that leaves. And next thing you know, you’re feeling good about yourself. That’s what we’re promoting — feeling good about yourself. That’s what the funk is. We want you to come in, however you come in, dressed the way you wanna dress — but we want you to leave funked up.”

— Joseph Chapman can be reached at jchapman@mountainx.com.

who: Bootsy Collins (with Freekbot)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, June 22 (9 p.m., $36 advance/$38 doors. theorangepeel.net)

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