Funk is not a genre known for restraint or minimalism. It's generally at its best when it goes as far over the top as possible. So it's no surprise that the most exciting new project in funk is the 100+ member Big Ol' Nasty Getdown. Born out of a jam between members of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band in 2007, bassist John Heintz, joined forces with guitarist John-Paul Miller and trombonist Derrick Johnson to form a studio project they called The Big Ol' Nasty Getdown (or BONG for short, an acronym they claim is unintentional, but that's like a ska band not noticing how all those extra S's and K's got into Skaptain Skameriska). As the project grew, the core trio pulled in more and more artists into their orbit eventually attracting legends of funk, ska, jazz, and RnB including Norwood Fisher of Fishbone, Michael Ray of Sun Ra's Archestra and Kool and the Gang, Gift of Gab of Blackalicious, Patricia “Choc'let” Banks of Graham Central Station, Garry “StarChild” Shider of P-Funk, and of course the immortal King of Funk himself, George Clinton.
Words by Nathan Leigh
The band's debut album “Volume 1” opens with a bang. Afro-Cuban percussion rings out while P-Funk's Michael Payne delivers a rambling ode to Funk before a killer horn section kicks in. The band shows no restraint in hyping itself as “the biggest, baddest, bombastic dose of pure funk you'll ever hear,” but on that opening track the stratospheric hype actually rings true. The track “The Big 'Ol Nasty Getdown” captures a genuine excitement and sense of fun. It's a rare moment when seasoned session musicians seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, not just sitting anonymously in the background.
Album highlights like the Laura Reed fronted ballad “I Will Wait for You,” the mid-tempo jam “Platinum,” featuring a haunting spaced out verse by P-Funk's Kendra Foster, and the Reverend Desmond D'Angelo led “Room 2012,” and the triumphantly bizarre “The Beauty of Pretty” hit that sweet spot. When BONG finds the balance between the undeniable technical proficiency of its members and the defiant celebration at funks soul, they strike gold. It should come as no surprise, then, that the best moments come with the most active involvement of P-Funk members. “Volume 1” contains some of funk legend Garry Shider's final recordings, and thankfully they did not go to waste.
“Volume 1” is not without its missteps and moments of self-indulgence. The interminable ballad “Wake Me Up,” could easily be a quarter of its length, and hemorrhages singer-songwriter lyrical cliches. Meanwhile songs like the unfortunately titled “College Funk,” and “Away From the World” lean too heavily on the musicians virtuosity in the absence of memorable melody. (Note to songwriters: be wary of naming your songs things that could be used as criticism of them). It should be no surprise of course, that a project created to celebrate the 30 year history of funk should fall victim to some of funk's worst bad habits at the same time that it captures the inventiveness and excitement.
The penultimate track “It's So Hard To Go” ends with the unintentionally poignant coda “It's so hard to go / I wish you'd stay by my side” sung by BONG's assembled vocalists, including Garry Shider. In the context of a celebration of funk's history, it could easily be retroactively interpreted as a farewell to one of the funk's luminaries, as well as a fitting end to the album. It's an ode to wanting the show to keep going, a funk version of Jackson Browne's “The Load-Out / Stay.” So it's one of the albums strangest and most self indulgent choices that they end with the left-turn of the Agent 23/Gift of Gab led “Amplify.” Big Ol' Nasty Getdown samples themselves (the vocal refrain comes from “Platinum”), and ditches the horn-led funk of the last 10 tracks for a G-Funk inspired hip-hop track. It's an interesting choice, given Dre's long history of mining George Clinton's riffs for some of hip-hops biggest hits, but in the context of “Volume 1” it's jarring. No matter how good Gift of Gab's verbal jiu jitsu is, the sampled drums, and electronic manipulation seem out of place on an album which if about anything is about organic performance and groove.
Missteps and questionable choices aside, BONG's “Volume 1” hits some exhilarating heights during it's 58 minute run time. They set the bar impossibly high with their hype and member roster, but tracks like “Room 2012” and the eponymous opening truly capture the magic of some of funk's greatest legends teaming up for one Big Ol' Nasty Getdown.