We talk groove with the Brand New Heavies and now MF Robots funk drumming star, Jan Kincaid
With Brand New Heavies, keyboardist, drummer and percussionist Jan Kincaid took his love for ’70s funk grooves and combined them with the smooth sounds of classic soul and sophistication of acid jazz. Hothoused by London’s rare groove scene, the Heavies were originally instrumentalists inspired by James Brown and the Meters. In an era of sampled hip-hop beats, Jan got audiences on both sides of the Atlantic grooving, his tight pocket playing replicating, live, the feel of those ’70s grooves that were being sampled readily enough, but which few people at the time were seeing played on a real drum kit.
Chart success in the early-’90s with hits like Dream‘ Come True’, ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, ‘Spend Some Time’ and ‘Never Stop’ established The Brand New Heavies as fine purveyors of contemporary funky soul, and no less than Ray Charles was so impressed with Jan and the band that he invited them to play at a party celebrating his 50th anniversary in the music biz, an event at which Jan found himself rubbing shoulders with his heroes Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.
Perhaps the band’s most ground-breaking work was 1992’s HeavyRhymeExperience, which featured The Pharcyde, Gang Starr and Kool G, and by which time Jan was forging a reputation not only as a formidable drummer but as a writer, arranger and producer.
Jan’s latest band, MF Robots, presents a similarly funky slice of real soul, fronted by vocalist Dawn Joseph, who had been singing for the Heavies since 2013.
With authentic soul feel and 60s’ and ‘70s R&B to the fore, the ironically titled MF Robots (that’s ‘Music For Robots’, which it is anything but) is a triumphant album from a man who has been one of theUK’s finest, funkiest drummers for four decades. So, for Rhythm’s funk-inspired issue, we asked Jan about the nature of groove, his main influences, changes in the music industry and the key to great funk drumming.
Why did you decide now was the right time for a project like MF Robots?
“I was looking for a fresh challenge musically from what I’d been doing up until I started this project. Being associated with a band for many years is great on one level, but on another it can become a bit of a Groundhog Day with members wanting different things and some happy to just stay the same way. I needed a new energy to reflect my evolving musical interests and somewhere I could stretch out creatively with no boundaries… I think my partner in this, Dawn Joseph, felt the same way, so it just clicked and made sense.”
What is it about Dawn’s voice and performance that first drew you to her?
“Dawn’s a fantastic multi-faceted talent… she’s so creatively fearless in her songwriting and performance and vocally very diverse in terms of the knowledge she has to draw on. We both have a lot of knowledge and experience in how to put songs together and can work almost telepathically with a free flowing exchange of ideas which makes for potentially exciting music. Live she always gives 100 percent and has very high standards. Audiences warm to her very quickly and she can command an audience of all sizes. She’s a formidable force as a lead vocalist and always delivers it with a smile!”
The name ‘Music For Robots’ is presumably ironic, as it’s anything but and feels very organic.
“Yes indeed, it is of course ironic! It’s a bit of a dig at a commercial music industry that’s become very safe and generic – lacking in edge or any real risk-taking that has resulted in a lot of pretty bland, unchallenging music. All we’re trying to do is make vibrant music with a great energy, songs which you might remember beyond next week and with great musicianship, with personality and which makes you feel good. Music you want to come back to again and again.”
How has the music industry and music-making process changed since you started Brand New Heavies back in the day?
“There’s less money around for a start so record companies, if you want to go the traditional route, have less time to develop artists or for them to grow organically like say in the ’70s, which means it’s gonna be harder for say a David Bowie or Led Zeppelin to suddenly appear. So many artists became who they did after a few albums. Now you’ll be lucky if you get one shot. The business is increasingly run by accountants which is kind of anti-creative. There are pluses though: its far easier and cheaper to make and get your music out there thanks to music production software and the internet. I was lucky enough to be around at the start of this change so have a good perspective on it. Nowadays if you want to succeed, you have to be more than just a musician, you have to be able to market yourself, be media-savvy and immersed in social media.All of that gives you a better shot at success but of course you still need a good sellable product and some luck!”
MF Robots’ music is very upbeat, is it an antidote to the introspective singer-songwriter thing at the moment? The state of world politics maybe?
“Funny, but we were having exactly that conversation the other day. I think the record is very upbeat and I guess that’s how our music ends up. We’re both basically positive people who love what we’re doing. There is an awful lot of generic singer songwriter-type artists around, a lot of introspection and angst. I blame the times, the production-line mentality of labels and lack of creative A&R. It’s like, ‘OK, Adele and Ed Sheeran have been successful – let’s make another 100 of those.’ That’s the ‘industry’ part of it, it’s forever at odds with evolving creativity. We think people also need to escape how crap everything is in the news or politics, it feels great to let your hair down, dance, go crazy… get yourselves to a MF Robots show! We’ll shake you up, down and sideways with the funk – it’s okay to be alive, people!”
You’ve taken a lot of influence from classic soul and funk, who are your drumming influences from that era?
“Oh wow, so many! I have a very large record collection – my favourites are not limited to funk drummers though. In no particular order: James Gadson, Zigaboo Modeliste, Harvey Mason, Clyde Stubblefield, Ndugu, Jabo Starks, Steve Gadd, Elvin Jones,Philly Joe Jones, John Bonham, Portinho, Airto Moreira… You can learn from all of them and many more!”
You’ve been lucky enough to have met some of your heroes like Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and Ray Charles – what were they like when you met them?
“Stevie Wonder was a mind-blower for me as a songwriter… we were at a Ray Charles all-star gala concert with literally so many of my heroes. And at the after-party I was introduced to Stevie, who knew [Brand New Heavies’ 1990 hit] ‘Never Stop’, my song which was a hit at the time… and he sang it back to me as I stood gobsmacked!
“The Heavies supported James Brown at Wembley Arena once, I was so excited to be there that during soundcheck I turned up the funk to 11 on the kit; he came out of his dressing room with his manager and when I finished playing I turned around and he was standing behind me, 20 feet back listening. I went over to say hello and he said, “Man, you can play funky!” That’s all I will ever need to know [laughs]!”
What exactly goes into making R&B sound modern and relevant, as you clearly have?
“I think you have to take the very best from the past and try and translate it into a modern context, whether it be sonically or applying a fresh way of mixing up your influences with what’s around and fresh. I don’t think there’s anything completely new out there but what’s interesting is the cross-influencing of so many musical styles. We throw our personality into the mixture, give it all a good stir and try and make it sound like what we’d want to hear if we were just the audience… I think having a certain raw edge to even sophisticated music, whether it be in a rhythm or a bassline also helps to keep it relevant. Put on a James Brown record, that rawness and economy in the music makes it sound as fresh today as it ever has.”
You did some of the album at your home studio and tracked some with a live feel – which approach do you prefer?
“Both actually – I absolutely love the freedom of playing live but when recording or making a record there’s so much I can do in my studio, lots of experimentation… ideas that only sometimes come at 2am. So having all of that to play with is great. Working with a computer in the recording chain means recording can become like a painting, growing organically. A bit of colour here, some shade there. When you have enough I’ll go back into the live studio and smash the rhythm over the top to pull it all together. Most of the drum tracks on the record are one take, played in this way.”
What is the key to great funk drumming?
“Feeling, without listening too much! Use the Force [laughs]. Feel is paramount, and economy. Funk is not about jumping through hoops, having three bass drums or 10 cymbals. It’s about screwing that stinky, nasty groove to the floor and holding it there. If you could dance and play at the same time you would! If you’re not feeling that, it’s not funky! It should make you pull a face, it’s so badass! The relationship with the bass player is very important too, as you need to be almost like one limb, one muscle. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Which of the tracks on the album are you most proud of, drumming-wise?
“I’m pretty proud of them all, really. I think they do exactly what’s needed. I had a programmed beat on ‘Sweet Harmony’ which I replaced with one take with a beat I made up on the spot. I’d been working on it for so long I just knew what I wanted to hear. That was very satisfying. ‘Whatcha Sayin” was a similar experience. On ‘Woo’ I wanted to do something I’d never really done before – a really hard-edged ’60s-style funky R&B rhythm that just won’t quit. On ‘Give It Up’ I went for dirty and added a James Brown B section. And I swear he was standing behind me whenI did it!”
What gear did you end up using in the recording of the album?
“Oh man, we went to town in the studio. Particularly on the drums. Mike Pelanconi, AKA Prince Fatty, is a master at getting my sound. I want gravitas… he’s got it in spades. He’s got a lovely vintage Neve desk and a shed-load of old and some obscure mics – vintage Neumanns, AKGs, Telefunken, some very rare Sony mics, that he’s collected over the years. I used my two vintage Sonor Kits, a Designer, Hi-Lite and a variety of Sonor snares, and of course my lovely Sabian cymbals. We used a claptrap as well on the more disco vibes. He has a lot of outboard gear to put stuff through to manipulate the signal and get the most out of themI. used Logic at home, and as well as several vintage synths, I played a Wurlitzer and a Rhodes. What fun!”
Jan on playing funk: “Feeling is paramount, and economy”