Funk Archeology 

A great new Bay Area comp sheds light on the obsessive world of crate-digging.

Meet DJ Riddm: funk enthusiast, East Bay history buff, record store proprietor, and perhaps most prominently, the man behind the fantastic new Luv 'n' Haight release Bay Area Funk. The album is a grab-bag worth grabbing -- an unprecedented roundup of locally produced soul and funk classics that combines Riddm's various obsessions, and might help make them yours.

First and foremost, Riddm is a crate-digger, a devoted music fan who eschews mainstream pop hits in favor of sublime rarities few people today are intimately familiar with. The term stems from DJs scouring through record bins in out-of-the-way mom 'n' pop shops and dusty warehouses in search of hard-to-find breakbeats, much like an archaeologist on a dig. For someone like Riddm, finding a piece of rare vinyl in mint condition is like discovering the Rosetta Stone. He recently paid $30 on eBay for a 45 by a funk artist he'd never heard of, just because the song had "Oakland" in the title. "I knew it had to be good," he says.

The fun of crate-digging is "basically trying to find music that most of society has slept on," he explains. "The whole point is to unearth tunes that no one's done anything with in a long time, that haven't really been exposed."

Crate-digging itself is a long-standing DJ tradition. In the early '70s, first-generation hip-hop pioneers jealously guarded the "sureshot" breakbeats guaranteed to rock a party, going so far as to wash the labels off their discs so rival crews couldn't see what they were playing. In the '80s, the 25-volume Ultimate Breaks and Beats series inspired a wider appreciation of these seminal break records. By the early '90s, West Coast-based independent retail stores like SF's Groove Merchant were doing a brisk business selling old funk, soul, and jazz records to folks too young to have heard them the first time around.

One such individual was Riddm, who started out collecting classic hip-hop, but graduated to rare grooves and breakbeats. Once bitten by the crate-digging bug, he quickly became completely obsessed and started buying everything he could get his hands on. (One suspects a big reason he opened his Funky Riddms store in Berkeley was to maintain the flow of old vinyl.) As his digging expeditions mounted up, Riddm began to develop a particular affinity for singles by Bay Area artists from the '60s and '70s: "Once you get a certain amount of albums, you have to go to the 45s," he explains.

Riddm discovered the region's funk quotient went far beyond nationally known local acts such as Tower of Power and Sly Stone. One of his favorite scores was a song released by Marvin Holmes on the Ladybug label called "Find Yourself." Riddm loved the tune, but since the label was based in Los Angeles, he had no idea Holmes hailed from Oakland. Once he found out, the DJ was feelin' the record even more.

One night after a DJ Shadow show at the Fillmore, Riddm met Holmes in person. The old-schooler hipped the young buck to other artists of that era who laid the Bay Area's funk foundation long before Sly, T.O.P., or Con Funk Shun came on the scene. From that point on, Riddm made it his personal mission to find more chestnuts on 45 by local artists from the late '60s and early '70s, including several extremely rare cuts: "A lot of guys only put out one or two 45s, but they're excellent."

Riddm puts his diggin' instincts to good use on Bay Area Funk. The album's sixteen funk, soul, and R&B tunes shed light on a gang of overlooked local artists from the '60s and '70s, such as Holmes, Little Denice, Rodger Collins, and Johnny Talbot. As the compilation shows, one distinguishing characteristic of the Bay Area funk scene was a strong blues influence; another was the use of familiar landmarks, like Collins' "Foxy Girls in Oakland," which shouts out East 14th Street and suggests that the impact of such pulchritudinous Oaktown females could be felt fifteen miles away in San Francisco.

Holmes' two selections on the album are similarly stellar. On "Find Yourself," he emphasizes that people can have self-esteem without a fancy car, while the impactful "Oomph" proves fairly self-explanatory.

But what really makes Bay Area Funk stand out among all the other similar old-school comps is its exultation of the crate-digging aesthetic. The album's groovy track selection goes fathoms beyond trendy, retro-themed VH1 specials and MTV-authorized collections, which tend to have the same songs you've heard a million times before. Chances are most listeners aren't too familiar with a song like Charles Leonard's "Funky Driver on the Funky Bus," but that doesn't mean you can't file it on your shelf right next to more famous funksters like James Brown, George Clinton, and the Ohio Players.

What comes around, goes around, and the recycling of the funk is just fine with Holmes. "I think it's great, as far as I'm concerned," he says from his home in Richmond. "It's amazing," he adds, noting that he was blown away when he saw that vinyl brokers were selling super-rare funk 45s on the Internet for upwards of $1,000.

Oakland's funk forefather proceeds to drop nugget after nugget about the Bay Area's vibrant scene back in the day. Holmes recalls that he opened up for artists like Smokey Robinson, David Ruffin, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. He claims he was a member of an early version of the Family Stone headed by Sly's brother Freddy, and that members of T.O.P. and Con Funk Shun used to come to watch his band play "because we had all the gigs. We were working seven days a week, maybe ten gigs a week. There was the Sportsman, the Showcase, Esther's, Sweet's Ballroom, the On Broadway, the Ivy. It seemed like every corner was a club."

After Sly and Jimi changed the game, Holmes got with the program and traded in the suits he wore onstage for wilder outfits. "I had fur on the bottom of my pants and all that kinda stuff," he says, somewhat nonchalantly.

Say what? Didn't that get a little warm onstage? "We wore all that crazy stuff. That's what was happening then."

"The Bay Area had real funk," Holmes continues. "Everybody in the Bay Area was deep off into that James Brown rhythm. That was the heart of the West Coast funk. When Sly Stone came out, that was a different type of funk. Sly was really innovative. He changed the rhythm that was happening. The hardcore funk that everybody followed, that was West Coast style.

"If you were gonna be successful here, you had to have that type of rhythm that was based on guitar playing. Nobody used pianos back then. The East Coast, they would use pianos, more like jazz playing. The East Coast was more known for that, rather than that strokin'. That's why they called it the Oakland Stroke."

Thanks for clearing that up, Marvin.

The only question remaining: Does enough material remain for a Bay Area Funk Volume Two? Riddm, for one, is somewhat skeptical. He notes that Dis Joint -- another SF-based, crate-digger-owned label -- is also releasing a local funk compilation, so he isn't sure how much quality material remains out there. And though there may have been hundreds of local funk bands, precious few recorded extensively, and even fewer of those recordings still exist.

Still, one gets the feeling he won't stop digging until he's unearthed them all. For vinyl archaeologists, that's what it's all about.

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