Mr. Dennis Coffey
“Listen – Scorpio MP3″
The end of the week is upon us at last. I’d like to breathe a sigh of relief but if I did I might pass out from exhaustion.
This is much more emotional than physical. It’s just one of those times that I couldn’t be sicker of working for a living, and find myself reeling from encounters with epic stupidity that boggle the mind (the product of boggled minds??).
I ought to be thrilled that Friday is here, yet all I want to do is take my fevered brain out for the weekend and soak it in a big bowl of ice water until it returns to it normal, withered self.
Normally, any sane person would react to such a state of affairs by shutting down and backing away from the keyboard slowly, but as you well know, I’m not that person, so here I sit (tap, tap, tap…).
I was driving home from work this afternoon, trying not to get killed on the Garden State Parkway (a triumph of oxymoronics…), mulling over what I had digi-ma-tized and thinking about what to post this evening.
My first thought was to load up something of an uplifting nature, guaranteed to lift the spirits and mellow out the collective unconscious with some soulful good vibes.
Then – after considerable thought, when I probably would have been better of paying attention to the great hordes of maniacal beach-bound tourists swarming around me in their Hummers – I decided to take a different tack. While I normally would respond to having my psyche dented and scraped all week by throwing a little positivity back into the mix, I decided instead to hit back (figuratively at least…).
Back in the day, when I was but a wee lad of nine summers, I first heard today’s selection, and in a then typical forest for the trees moment, wrapped my mind around its monumental guitar riff (which attacked the ears like an atomic mutation of the Batman theme) and ignored the world/life changing drums.
Now, I don’t think I’d be telling tales out of school by admitting that at the age of nine I was not the funky old soul you see before you today. Like any self-respecting kid of 1971, my ears were attuned to pop radio candy, and pretty much ate up anything I heard that wasn’t immediately identifiable as “wimpy” garbage (and even then I remember liking the odd Bobby Sherman and/or Partridge Family record). So, when I look back and remember jumping up down with my next door neighbor – who in a strange twist of fate was also named Larry – to Dennis Coffey’s ‘Scorpio’, much as we had to the Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ the year before, and then I lose myself in the uber-break today, I am verily stunned that I all but ignored it back in the day.
It is entirely possible that WABC-AM in New York was playing some drastically truncated version of ‘Scorpio’ that was in essence breakless, but it’s more likely that my nine year old ears (and the rest of me) were unprepared to absorb and react to so powerful a groove in any meaningful way.
Now, some thirty-six (cough…cough..) years hence, with hip hop almost as old as ‘Scorpio’ itself, and years of funk and soul collecting under my belt, I could probably quote the break back to you chapter and verse at a moments notice (though it’s safe to say that nobody needs to hear that).
Anyway, if you don’t know – and you should so get to Googling – Dennis Coffey spent the years leading up to ‘Scorpio’ as one of the hardest working session guitarists on the Detroit scene, working as a Funk Brother at Motown and adding memorable licks to a mountain of amazing records on Ric Tic, Revilot, Invictus/Hotwax (that’s his guitar on the Spinners ‘It’s a Shame’ and Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’ to mention but a few).
Coffey’s ‘Detroit Guitar Band’ is on first glance a slightly deranged guitarist’s vanity project, until you drop the needle on the wax. The ‘Evolution’ LP does have it’s moments of axe-man self-indulgence (what album of the era doesn’t?), but it also sports some very solid funky heaviosity, the ne plus ultra of which is the mighty ‘Scorpio’.
I mentioned the history of hip hop earlier, and the ‘Scorpio’ break is one of the building blocks of the music’s early years (as well as a popular sample later on*). Back in the day when Flash and Kool Herc were spinning parties in the Bronx and rocking doubles, extending the breaks for the b-boys, ‘Scorpio’ was a major ingredient in the mix.
The record opens with Coffey’s wild kung fu/spy movie gee-tar whipping things into a frenzy. Though the funky backing is there, nobody could have been expecting what was about to come next. At around one minute ten seconds the guitar drops out and the bass drum drops in, and the listener bears ear-witness to the sound of history.
While Dennis places his axe in a dry ice-lined casket (to prevent it from bursting into flames) the entire Funk Brothers percussion juggernaut (Pistol Allen, Jack Ashford, Bongo Brown and Uriel Jones) steps to the front of the stage and whips out the mightiest break in all of recorded time.
The ‘Scorpio’ break is – like some of the best beats of the James Brown organization – a brilliant combination of clockwork precision and deep, deep soul. Not to mention the fact that the production by Mike Theodore picks up every nuance, balancing the delicate interaction between the four percussionists perfectly, giving the hi-hat, snare, congas and tambourine equal love and letting the groove within emerge to blow some minds.
I’d even go as far as to say that the ‘Scorpio’ break is also a monument to tasteful restraint. This is not five or ten seconds of funked up drum bashing by some inspired but long forgotten amateur, but rather a perfect storm of rhythm laid on you by some of the heaviest players ever to lay wood (or hands) on skins.
I can’t imagine anyone giving this record a close listen and not being carried away in a percussive reverie, all nodding of head, tapping of foot, or dare I say down on the rug spinning around in that grey area between Curly Howard and the Rock Steady Crew.
The drums are pretty much on their own until about two minutes ten seconds when someone in the background says ‘Well, well, well!’ and the bass joins the party for almost another minute and a half (?!?!?) of rumpshaking bliss before Coffey (who had to have been in the background doing the robot dance or some such) straps on his still smoking guitar for a reprise of the main theme.
This is some heavy, heavy, HEAVY shit, and in the end the perfect antidote to the brutality of the working week.
Thank you Jack Ashford, Richard Allen, Uriel Jones and Eddie Brown.
Thank you Dennis Coffey.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
PS Head on over to Fufu Stew for a very nice new mix by my man Vincent.
*Records sampling ‘Scorpio’
Busy Bee’s “Old School”
Double D & Steinski’s “Lesson 3”
Geto Boys’s “Do it Like a G.O.”
House of Pain’s “All My Love”
LL Cool J’s “Jinglin’ Baby”
Lord Finesse’s “Keep it Flowing”
Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic”
Professor Griff’s “Bro Kemit Splitting Atoms in the Corporate War Zone”
Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”
Queen Latifah’s “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children”
Roni Size’s “Share the Fall”
and, of course
Young MC’s “Bust a Move”