❉ The New Orleans band’s grooves were central to the foundation of Hip Hop’s golden age.
“Whether it’s their early stripped back minimal grooves or the later slick funky soul that draws you in, this is a very fine collection.”
Anyone wishing to understand funk usually begins with James Brown and George Clinton – especially his Parliament incarnation – but there’s a third equally essential band and one whose name is nowhere near as familiar; The Meters. Formed in New Orleans, consisting of organist Art Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, plus neighbourhood friends in drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and bassist George Porter, The Meters developed a slower, looser style of funk which owed much to their roots in the American south and is now celebrated on a new exhaustive 6 CD set.
The band began playing covers in the local clubs around New Orleans where they were discovered by producer Allen Toussaint who put them to work as the studio band, playing on some classic southern soul tracks by the likes of Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas. Alongside this he offered them a deal to record their own material, recognising their sound was completely original.
Initially largely instrumental, The Meters’ sound is polyrhythmic and based around a wonderful interplay between the musicians which sounded unlike any other instrumental soul act of the time. Its roots owed much to the African heritage found in the music of their New Orleans hometown. The most striking difference is in Joseph Modeliste’s drumming which, when compared to much of the rhythms of the time, is loose and rubbery. It drives the whole unit with guitars and organ scuttling and swirling around the grooves.
The band recorded three albums and a number of singles in quick succession for local Josie Records, meeting with considerable success not only on the Soul chart but also the main Pop charts too. The opening two discs cover this period and include US hits such as debut Sophisticated Cissy, Cissy Strut, and, Look-Ka Py Py – the title of the second album.
Largely instrumental affairs, each of these albums many examples of their brand of southern funk which hugely influenced the directions many other artists took funk music. Another standout of this early period is The Handclapping Song which will be familiar to anyone who watches BT Sport’s coverage of Premier League football. Lovers of a classic break will find much pleasure in these.
In 1971 the band signed to Reprise Records thanks largely to producer Allen Toussaint gaining himself a deal there and the fact that their original record label had folded due to financial difficulties. With a bigger record deal, the band’s sound and ambitions grew. First offering Cabbage Alley sounds markedly different in its cleaner sound and the deployment of a number of vocal tracks courtesy of Art Neville, more percussion, and occasional piano. Yet despite these advances in sound and being a very solid album, musically, it flopped. Thankfully neither company or the band themselves seemed deterred.
What followed, in 1974’s Rejuvenation, is an absolute cult classic. Although not hugely successful at the time, the album takes all the new strides of the previous album and mixes this with some of their original musical interplay to stunning effect. Liberal use of brass throughout only adds to the quality. From the likes of Just Kissed My Baby and Jungle Man’s echoes back to their early loose funky sound through Hey Pocky A-way, People Say, and Africa’s more straightforward southern funk/soul, this is the jewel in this collection’s considerable crown.
Despite not making the huge impact it deserved, the band were asked to open for The Rolling Stones on their US, and later, European tour which prompted the band to recruit Art’s brother Cyril Neville as main vocalist for the band. On the subsequent album Fire On The Bayou, Cyril’s vocals are the centre of most of the record, the result feels like the most southern soul/New Orleans sounding record the band had produced. It’s another solid set but it is a departure from the more familiar sound. Even the instrumental centre-piece, the jazz heavy Middle Of The Road, sounds a fair way from their origins although guitarist Nocentelli really does show what a great player he is.
The final two albums that follow, Trick Bag and New Directions, both betray similar problems in that they can’t decide what exactly they want to be. Mixing styles, including a disco number, Disco Is The Thing Today which – unlike many following the trend – isn’t actually terrible, does detract from them feeling like cohesive albums. New Directions, their final outing, is the better of the two and helped no end by the production of David Rubinson and the rather inspired decision to employ label mates Tower Of Power’s horn section.
The band split after their final album here, in 1977 and that should have been that. Yet their music had an extraordinary afterlife. A generation of rappers found their laid-back funk sitting in their parent’s record collections and they quickly realised that The Meters had the perfect beats to take Hip Hop into the mainstream. To date their music has been sampled over 500 times on Hip Hop and R’n’B tracks and it’s fair to say that, alongside James Brown, their grooves were central to the foundation of what we now call Hip Hop’s golden age of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
Whether it’s their early stripped back minimal grooves or the later slick funky soul that draws you in, this is a very fine collection. Including outtakes only previously available on a set of individual American CD reissues from 2001, plus all the singles and albums, this is everything by The Meters. If you’re a fan of funk, southern soul, or a crate digging beat freak, this is the best ever way to discover these essential founders of funk.
❉ The Meters: ‘Gettin’ Funkier All The Time (The Complete Josie/Reprise & Warner Recordings 1968-1977)’ (6CD Boxset) is out now from Soul Music /Robinsongs, part of the Cherry Red Group. RRP £24.99.
❉ Peter Robinson is a contributor to We Are Cult.