JZ Festival: Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band talk James Brown and Mainland Shows

By Andrew Chin, October 15, 2014

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The JZ Festival turns ten this year, and they're pulling all the stops with a stellar line-up (see highlights for Day One and Day Two.) Playing both nights is funk ambassador Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band. A fundamental part of the group is Frank 'Kash' Waddy, who's partnered with Bootsy on a formidable rhythm section since they were kids. On a rare break from touring, we chat with Waddy about his first shows on the Mainland, being fined by a dancing James Brown, turning down Jimi Hendrix, the mighty Mothership and converting new generations to take a walk on the funky side.

Will this be your first time in China?
It is. It’s pretty exciting because we've been to so many places because we've been doing it for so long, so it’s definitely exciting to go somewhere new and different.

What was the last country you went to the first time?
(thinks for a bit) Georgia. That was amazing.

What can people expect from your Shanghai set?
It’s just a great show. There are some things we always have to play, and then we mix and match.  We put a lot of time into making the show interesting and entertaining for everybody. We've updated it. We've got some good funk in there.

No VPN? Listen to Bootsy Collins on Xiami.

Are there costume changes?
The band pretty much stays on stage while Bootsy gets a break and does a costume change and show the crowd something different.We have some lighting effects, not a lot of props. It’s going to be entertainment. We put a lot of work into it.

You and Bootsy have had a long musical partnership. How did you guys meet?
Bootsy and I grew up together as kids playing music in Cincinnati, Ohio.

What kind of music were you playing?
It was funny. We would do the popular stuff, but we also always felt it was important to do original stuff. We would always try to sneak our own little things into it as well. That was before we knew a  lot about songwriting. We did know that we want to inject some original material.

Was it always funky?
Yeah, yeah. We are funk. Before we even thought this was going to be our genre, we were just us and that turned out to be funky. That’s us and that carried over to James Brown, then to Parliament-Funkadelic and evolved into Bootsy's Rubber Band. We've done stuff with Sly Stone. So it was kind of written in the stars.

Before you hooked up with James Brown, what kind of shows were you playing?
We were scuffling. We were doing whatever we could do. We would drive out of town and we had a couple spots in  Cincinnati whenever we came back. People in town would flock out to see us because they knew that we worked hard and put on a good show. But before we met James Brown, we were scuffling. The only thing that kept us motivated was that we had so strong a love for music. So all the obstacles didn't matter.

In fact, we made USD15 in total the night before we first played with James Brown. They called it a benefit, just to make it legit. But that’s okay. We had a little station wagon that we drove in and loaded all the equipment. The following day, Bobby Byrd (the man credited for discovering James Brown) rounded us up in a limousine - our first time in a limousine. They took us to the airport, and we had never looked at the direction of the airport when we were on the road. Our first flight was a Lear jet. It was crazy. We flew into Georgia and played a sold out show. 

It was the biggest crowd we had ever seen and the biggest stage we had ever played on. It was funny. Because we we were so used to small stages, we all huddled up in this one little area on this big stage. It was kind of cute. We weren't even realizing that we had all this big space to utilize. We did the show off the cuff. James had come up to a couple shows and we jammed a couple times, but we hadn't rehearsed the show. He came out the song and would go “one-two-three” and tell us the key and bam, we would do the song that way.

Afterwards, he hired us. We made USD15 the night before and now we’re in his dressing room haggling about amounts. He would go, "USD250, nah USD275, nah USD300,” and each time he would quote a number, we would write it down on a piece of paper. In essence, it rounded up to USD500 and he went, “hey, you guys keep writing down stuff. What you writing?” We went, “well, Mr. Brown, we have to figure out what each of us are getting,” and he went, “nah, that’s what each of you are getting.” He realized the amount he quoted was supposed to be for all of us. It was priceless.

We used to drive in a station wagon, now we had a Golden Eagles bus to travel on and a truck full of brand new Vox equipment. Only James Brown and The Beatles had endorsements with Vox. To say the least, we pinched ourselves literally for a month. We couldn't believe it. It was literally a dream come true with us.

No VPN? Watch on Youku.

What was it like working with James?
Oh man, James was the man. He was all power. He could do no wrong during that period. He was in total control of his destiny. He had his own management, his own record label, his own pressing plant and his own radio station. So he would press a 45 and send it to radio station and they would break it nationwide within two weeks. He was in control. He was one of the ones that had it all. 

Did he ever try to fine you?
We were a bit of trouble for James. We weren't phased by all the stuff - the other guys were older that he kept on point - but with us, everything was funny. When James tried to be a hardass, it would be funny to us. He fined (guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins) one time for missing a show. And his fining process was that he would incorporate it into his dance. He would dance and fine someone at the time. So he did that with Catfish and he looked back, and we were dying. We were cracking up. We loved it. And he never did it again.

You guys were in the JBs for less than a year but so much of the drum breaks on songs like 'The Grunt' have become classic hip hop samples. How do you feel about that?
Well, first of all, it’s extremely flattering. To be naive is a wonderful thing. Those guys were hooked on our music before they knew who we were. And when they did get hooked on that music, they started sampling like crazy.

What we did have to do was make them understand it was a business. We had to make them understand that you don’t just take the music, sample it and use it without doing the business and licensing. They thought that we were giving them a hard time but then they realized how they had to go about doing it,  and things became great. They sample us because they love the music.

Their music theory was if you had money, you go and buy processors and samplers. They thought they weren't doing anything wrong, because they thought everything was cool because they were coming up with their stuff at home through the equipment they bought. We had to make them understand that they had to follow protocol. Once they realized that, we were on an even keel. It’s a thing where if you know more than the next man, it’s only fair you have to give them direction. As time went on, what happened with them is they started complaining about the younger hip hop artists taking their music. So that’s how that works.

Parliament's been praised for its business savvy, such as each individual members able to get their own deal and having their own record label...
Well, we dealt with the hand that was dealt to us. We got in wherever we fit in, so we weren't handed the same situation that others were getting. We had to do it in different ways. One thing we did was when we realized that we couldn't get stuff played because we had to rely on marketing, we came up with our own label. We opened up a new door. Once we got the label, that led to everyone getting their own production deals, which parlayed into everyone getting their own labels. 

Other black artists watched how we did the things we did, so they could have a direction to go in and have a frame of reference. But we did a lot of things out of necessity - it wasn't handed to us. It just so happened, the moves turned out to be rewarding.

How was your songwriting evolution going from James Brown to Parliament-Funkadelic?
James’ sound was like a military, (hand drums 1-2-3) type of thing. It was a little bit too much for us, because we were so young, wild and free. We did it, because we respected James and loved him like a father figure. He taught us a lot.

A lot of people don’t know this but Jimi Hendrix wanted us to be in his band. After the Experience, Jimi wanted a more black act and we had a mutual friend who loved us. He checked us out one time and she came back and told us Jimi wanted us to be his band; but she said, “the only way we could do it is if we quit.” As an artist, you can’t take players from another artist. I kind of wanted to do it but it was a gamble, so we didn't take the offer. The irony is, we wanted to free up from the James Brown thing and do something more open which is why the Jimi thing was so interesting, but a couple years later, we ended up in Parliament-Funkadelic. So we got the same freedom of expression, creative expression and personal expression. We got to be ourselves and figure out who we were and how we wanted to present ourselves and collectively as a group.

What we did, when we got to George Clinton, we took the theory and the professional discipline we got from James Brown. George was always a smart individual and he saw the effects of how that worked, and he thought, “oh man, that’s what I want,” because he was looking for a new band. It worked perfectly.

No VPN? Watch on Youku.

Parliament-Funkadelic was known for their wild shows, with things like the Mothership. Is there any one that stands out?
All of our shows were wild. All those experiences were wild. We were freed up that way in our minds. That’s just what we went for. We had the discipline instilled from playing from James Brown. We knew how far not to go, but at the same time, we could flex our muscle. We could go pretty far out. When we came up with the Mothership and all this stuff, we were the first black act to actually invest in ourselves. Before the Mothership thing, most black acts would come on stage with three-piece suits on and would go around and dance. We were watching the Rolling Stones and those cats. We thought “those guys invested in themselves,” so we got the guys who designed the Rolling Stones stages. They came in, saw what we were doing and helped us with the concept of the Mothership, the outfits, the whole stage look. We revolutionized the game. It pissed a lot of other black acts, because now they had to invest in themselves when they weren't accustomed to spending money on their act like that. We raised the template for great shows.

What's your favorite Parliament album?
Oh man, I really like so much of the stuff we did. Chocolate City, Funkentelechy vs the Placebo Syndrome,Cosmic Slop, Up for the Downstroke. Most of our stuff followed us from the stage to the studio, so we were digging that music from playing it. We already knew the effects of it before recording it. We also wouldn't over produce our music. It was so easy with all the effects, all the knobs but the next thing you know, you have this big overproduced project that you couldn't emulate on stage. That happened to some groups, but we  were always focused on sounding better live than on records. 

What’s the longest show you ever played?
I've had a couple marathon shows of four hours no break. One time, I played in New Orleans for five hours and forty five minutes. I was so locked in and when we got done, the whole place had tripled. Now, another time that was mindblowing was I wind up in Japan and I was the only drummer for both groups - Bootsy's Rubber Band and Parliament-Funkadelic. I didn't know it was going to be that way when I got there, but I knew I had to hold down the duties for both groups. For five or seven days, I played six hours a night. It was crazy. I thought I was going to be dead-on tired, but it was the opposite. The adrenaline had me so keyed up, I couldn't get to sleep until I ate breakfast in the morning. I couldn't come up short for either group, because I couldn't, as we say, fake the funk.

How gratifying is it to see a new generation of fans?
It’s great because they've tried to water music down with all this digital stuff. For awhile there, all the music on the top with hip-hop was done on sequencers and MPCs. What it did for the newer generation of listeners was they grew up on and thought that was music. Through trial and error, they had gotten introduced to live music. Once that happens, now they know what it is and they want more. So it caught on with the younger generation. If you look on stage, hip hop artists used to go on stage with a DJ and a hype man, now they’re going on stage with a band. The audience has got to see that they’re at least coming to see a band. And that’s because we stayed trued to the game, and kept going and kept going, and it finally caught back on again. And it’s going to keep on doing that. You aren't ever going to beat live music. It’s organic and a route to it all. Just when you thought it was on to the next best thing, low and behold, here’s the stuff that feels good, because nothing else moves the people like this does. It’s a beautiful thing.

// JZ Festival, Oct 18-19, RMB260-320/day or RMB480/weekend pass. Expo Park, tickets.

[Cover image by David Oppenheimer, source: Performance Impressions.]

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