International Skyping with JJ Whitefield of Poets of Rhythm

Phillip Mlynar

Poets of Rhythm

Photo by Julian Rosefeldt

Towards the end of a Skype-enabled interview with JJ Whitefield, the German-raised and based funk instigator asks if I want to hear an unreleased song that samples one of the funk groups he's been a part of over the years. He says one of the major labels — he forgets which — paid handsomely to use an abrasive loop from a track called “Serengeti Stroke.” He finds the song in the annals of his computer, hits play, and over a stripped-down backing a female R&B singer begins to warble in high-strung tones. “This was when Amerie was big with the R&B vocals over really rough '70s style drums,” he says.

Whitefield's grooves were cut much later than that though, in the mid-'90s, when he and some pals from school had helped to kick-start what has become known as the funk-soul revival. “Serengeti Stroke” is credited to the Pan-Atlantics, but JJ's main charges were called The Poets of Rhythm. (As a group they were fond of releasing one-off 45s under a stream of entertaining band names.) Now a compilation released in October on the Daptone label rounds-up the Poets' story — which includes a record digging pilgrimage to New Orleans and a dalliance with DJ Shadow's Quannum label. Get acquainted with the great lost funk band.

Where does the Poets of Rhythm story officially start?

In the mid-'80s the singer of the Poets of Rhythm, Bo Baral, was originally from Germany but his family lived in South Africa. When he came back to Germany he was in my class. At first we didn't hang out too much but then a couple of years later we found our interest in music and together we discovered the '80s p-funk stuff like George Clinton and totally freaked out on this. At this same time I was deejaying school and private parties, playing like '80s dance stuff. But then I became interested in the back catalogs of George Clinton and all the side projects he had. We were musically traveling back in time then.

What was your first reaction to hearing George Clinton?

The whole craziness blew my mind back then. It was stuff you couldn't hear on the radio in Germany.

Were you making your own music at this point?

Yeah, it was around the same time. I was playing classical — violin and guitar — but the school I was in was very arts oriented. I switched to guitar at 14-years-old and my mom forced me to learn classic guitar before I got my electric guitar, but a year later I got one and started playing with people from school, like a school-band style. That's when I met Boris, the singer, and we got more serious and bought a four-track tape recorder and went into my mom's basement every day and borrowed keyboards and drum machines from other people and tried to do our own p-funk-style songs.

Were they any good?

I mean, back then we thought they sounded good! I still have all the tapes but I haven't listened to them in 25 years. We recorded plenty of music, writing songs and programming drum beats. It wasn't straight p-funk style, 'cause George Clinton had very big arrangements with all the horns and stuff, so we had more of a stripped-down style.

Do you remember any of the song names?

Once we had this audio engineering school here and they had to do like a term paper thing and we professionally recorded one of our songs. It was called “Hot Burning.” That's the only title I remember. That was the first time ever we were in a studio.

When do you move backwards from the p-funk into the earlier New Orleans funk music?

I was so into p-funk that I'd get the p-funk fanzines, like the hand-written ones with the discographies listed in them, and there was this one that mentioned Bootsy [Collins] and from that I also found out he was playing with James Brown. I knew James Brown before but I'd never made the connection like that. So I tried to collect all of the James Brown discography and complete it which was really hard in Germany at the time 'cause you'd be lucky if you found one 45 in a second-hand record store.

Was there a specific record store you'd hit up to collect funk records?

Yeah, there was one where the owner would buy lots of back stock from warehouses in the States. So when I got up on the names like The Meters, I'd find original albums there. It was heaven for me. The only disadvantage was you couldn't listen to the records 'cause it was very air-conditioned in there and they wanted to preserve the quality. So while I was researching the records the first English bootleg rare-groove funk compilations came out and I was just buying them at the regular chain store, checking out the names, then going to the second-hand store and looking through all the stock to get them. He actually had two boxes of original sealed Meters' Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin' albums that he bought from the States. I bought so many I traded them back to America!

In 2000, Boris and me went to New Orleans and the same records were there all beat-up selling for $150! We bought almost all of the boxes from him. I'd been to the States a couple of times by then and the 45 thing really started, with the obscure funk 45 stuff, and the first stop was New York and then New Orleans. In New Orleans we found crazy stuff 'cause nobody was interested in it other than a couple of people in England in the rare groove scene.

Did people in New Orleans think it strange that these guys were coming over from Germany and buying up all these random funk 45s?

I think they didn't really care! I mean, we went to the Sea-Saint Studio to see Allen Toussaint and try to explore the history of all the music that inspired us. Some people were friendly in the record stores but most of the people didn't even bother us.

What was Allen Toussaint like?

Ah, he wasn't there, unfortunately. We had a nice chat with his daughter and there was a production going on when we went there. We saw the control room and took some pictures in front of the studio signs and that was about it, but at the time for us it was the greatest thing ever — just to see the place where all his great music was recorded.

What's the first thing you did when you got to New Orleans?

We found a place to stay and then I remember we got ripped off straight away. There's all these trickster that are out with the card tricks and we didn't know anything about hustling and stuff. We got ripped off for $50 right away! We went to New York first — Boris's sister was staying there — and we stayed in Brooklyn a couple of days and then on Christmas Eve we took a Greyhound from Brooklyn to New Orleans. It was winter in New York but then in New Orleans you're hit by the smell and the change of climate and the gumbo and the jambalaya — we were just blown away. We went to see live music every night and went looking for records every day.

What sort of bands did you see?

I think we even saw George Porter, the bass player of The Meters, playing in some new band somewhere.

How was the record digging in New Orleans?

It was crazy. I stayed there for a week and I'm pretty sure I brought home 200 45s. It was all the Eddie Bo stuff, all the obscure small labels like Salt's “Hung Up” — that's one of the rarest and most sought after funk 45s and we found a whole box there but we only bought four copies, one for each of us and then two for friends. We didn't know what it was at the time. But two or three years later Keb Darge and the deep funk thing started; I played it for him and he wanted it immediately. For that reason I went back to New Orleans thinking maybe the box was still sitting there — 85 copies worth $1,000 each! — but it was not.

Did you change your own sound after taking your trip to New Orleans?

We'd already moved in that direction. The stripped-down four-piece funk band style was much easier for us to do than the expansive George Clinton style with the ten-piece horn section. So that was our blueprint. Going to New Orleans made us go deeper into that sound though.

So what was the first official song you guys released?

Okay, it's called “Funky Train” and the flip-side is “Hotpie's Popcorn.” It was on our own label, self-produced and self-recorded. We were about to release a 45 before but the bass player quit on the night of the studio session. But with a new band we recorded these songs with no intentions — it was just for fun — and I think it came out in June 1992. A friend of mine took a copy to Hamburg and gave it to a guy who had just founded this record label, Soulciety. The basic dream of all American funk bands was to record a 45 and get an album deal out of it — it basically happened to us!

What do you remember about the “Funky Train” recording session?

I remember I wrote the song on the way to school on the train. Then the bass player we hired, 'cause the other bass player totally quit, he worked in the studio and that was our chance to get some off-time in the studio. That was 25 years ago! It wasn't easy to get the sound we wanted back then. The studio had good old analogue equipment but when I hear the sound now, it's very far away from the sound I wanted to get back then. The studio back then was called Paradise Studios, outside the suburbs of Munich.

Who came up with the name Poets of Rhythm?

I think it was on the train ride as well. First we called the band Hotpie & Candy. Then we weren't satisfied with the name any more and we were back from the rehearsal room and I'd just got this Charles Wright album called Rhythm and Poetry. So we were sitting on the train thinking about names and throwing words in, but I took the words from that record and then we changed it around.

Why did you keep changing the name of the band for all the 45 releases?

Basically Boris and me were the makers of the band so all the ideas came from us — it was a mix between the George Clinton and James Brown thing, like how each musician had their own name and project under them and had their own record like Lyn Collins and Bobby Byrd and Bootsy and the JBs. The other thing was we got in trouble! After we put out the album, they demanded more Poets of Rhythm stuff but we didn't want to because they had different expectations about how to market and promote us. We didn't want to support that so we just put out different 45s on our own name. From there we just recorded songs with no conceptual boundaries — whatever we thought the kinda style was we made up our own band for just that recording.

At what point did Desco get involved?

Well right now the second 45 was '93 and Desco was founded in '95. That was about the time they called me to do a record for them. I knew Philippe Lehman — he did funk compilations in France — and he got in touch. But the second official Poets of Rhythm album we tried to do for Desco, they rejected it.

Did they tell you why they rejected the album?

Yeah, 'cause it was too experimental for them. That was the reasons. They knew what we did on the first album which was pretty much like James Brown, the hard late-'60s funk style, but later we were more like into afro-beat and psychedelic so the whole thing was much more experimental. He told me ten years later now he really loves the album and thinks he was stupid back then to not put it out! But then I got lucky and got into contact with Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow and they had just founded their label, Quannum, and Lyrics Born came to Germany 'cause he wanted us to back him up for some songs. I played him the rejected Desco album and he was like, “Wow, that's great, let's put it out.”

The album was actually a little short for Quannum. We planned it as a single vinyl album but at the time the hip-hop standard was a double vinyl album, so we recorded four more songs in 1999. It finally came out in 2001.

What was it like to work with DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born?

The stuff we did for Lyrics Born, he was totally on the '80s boogie trip back then. We recorded some disco funk for him. It was cool, just hanging out with other people from other countries in the same studio. With Shadow, he did “I Changed My Mind” with Lyrics Born. We mixed it in the States. But working with the rappers was a different perspective. Lyrics Born brought his MPC and I'd never seen that before. But Shadow was already a big time funk collector back then. Lyrics Born had a lot of records but I think he was all over the place by then. He was into the disco-boogie thing back then.

What happened to the Poets of Rhythm after the Quannum release?

So many different influences were coming into the music and there were lots of fights in the studio. It created a mess which came out well, musically, but the process was hard. It was hard to keep it together. When Desco rejected the music we felt like maybe no one liked our music any more. When Lyrics Born said he wanted to put out the record, we recorded some more songs and brought in some more musicians so it wasn't just the same heart of the band. I went to the States for a year and that was basically it.

Do you know if anyone's ever sampled the Poets of Rhythm?

Yes from the Whitefield Brothers [another group], from the Poets, maybe. I remember in the '90s there was some breaks compilations where they just sampled some riffs and put some new drums on, but that wasn't exactly rappers. Then also in recent times with the Whitefield Brothers with Now-Again [Records]. The weirdest thing was we once cleared a sample that was like 2005 and we made one 45 in the mid-'90s called “Serengeti Stroke” and it was the first thing we put out with African influences. It's really rough; we recorded it on a four-track in the basement and it's just the drummer, Boris and me. I got an email from Sony or someone who had produced a record for some R&B artist — a girl singer but I forget the name — and it was never released but it was when Amerie was big with the R&B vocals over really rough '70s style drums. So they sampled us and made this weird R&B track with the craziest lo-fi recordings sampled from us. That's the only thing from the early days that I know got sampled.

Was the song any good?

I mean, it kinda was like Amerie and at that time I liked Amerie, but now, I don't know.

Did you get paid for the sample?

Yeah, it was officially cleared and we got cool money for it but the song was never released.

Poets of Rhythm's Poets of Rhythm Anthology: 1992 to 2003 is out now on Daptone.

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