As long ago as 1991, Norman 'Nobster' Cook had identified Ashley Slater as a man he could do business with. Twelve-piece funk act Microgroove had signed to Island, and Norm's magic touch was enlisted to re-fashion a track from their debut LP The Human Groove. While Ashley went through his flamboyant paces, Norman infused the mix with his own sense of Boy's Own mischief. And if their breathless press release is to be believed, a couple of hours later, Norman 'emerged from a sweaty vocal booth to declare that he was in love, and wanted to have Ashley's babies'.
For several memorable years, Microgroove had secured support act billing with jazz and funk artists of the stature of Gil Scott-Heron, with whom I remember seeing them at London's Town & Country Club. With their matching orange boiler suits they cut something of a dash, but even these were outshone by front man Ashley, who stalked the stage with a kind of bestial territoriality. And as if Ash's antics weren't pneumatic enough, a turbocharged brass section of fellow refugees from jazz ensemble Loose Tubes pumped it up further, with the funkiest and fruitiest of trombones and tubas.
Ash & Norm may never have cross-fertilised literally, but their artistic and spiritual union has spawned a bastard son in the form of Freak Power. What began as a two-man concept has been fleshed out to form a five-piece band, enlisting the talents of Izit drummer James Carmichael, ex Mac-Pac keyboardist Cyril McCammon, and fresh-faced young bassist Jesse Graham. It's also afforded Norman the opportunity to develop his guitar skills, while the chrome-domed Ashley swanks and preens, ever the showman.
With such a pedigree, it is perhaps not surprising that Freak Power find themselves swept up in the acid jazz explosion. Their single 'Tune In, Turn On, Cop Out' pops up on the TV-advertised 100% Acid Jazz compilation with which Telstar are targeting every Christmas stocking. The publicity is welcome, but as Ash explains, it's a mixed blessing: "Sure we've taken elements from acid jazz, but we've also created our own sound. What I've realised from seeing a lot of acid jazz bands, is that there are quite a lot of people out there who are serious about playing jazz, but jazz with a beat. That isn't really where we're coming from".
Like Microgroove before them, Freak Power have an attitude. In fact they almost redefine attitude, their press releases and song titles exhibiting the sort of drug-addled, freaky-deaky Weltanschauung for which Sly, George and Bootsy became notorious. Were Freak Power aiming to be a Parliafreaka-delicament thang for the 90s?
"We're not out to resurrect anything. At the same time, nothing you ever do is going to be 100% original. You might have some twisted little quirk, but anything you do is only ever going to a new combination of old elements".
Loose Tubes made few compromises to the dancefloor, and according to Ash, nor did Microgroove pay many dues to 70s funk and soul: "I recorded The Human Groove without ever hearing any of those funk tunes. Probably it would have turned out better if I had. It took one of the engineers to identify our antecedents: He slipped me a copy of Sly & The Family Stone's Fresh LP, and it blew me away!"
But the naive charm of The Human Groove had tickled Norman, even if much of it sounded to him like a demo tape. He and Ash touched base, and the fruits of their collaboration were presented to Island's 4th & Broadway dance label. With a clutch of Beats International hits under his belt, Norman's new venture was exciting some interest.
As it turned out, Norman had alighted from the Beats International Express with an excess baggage problem, at least as far as Ash was concerned. Nobster had become a control freak, and the burden of living in the great man's shadow was too much. As the press-release confessional continues, "Ashley kept bursting into tears and leaving the room for long periods without explanation. Finally he mumbled through his tears that he wanted all his little friends to join them, to form a complete band."
It transformed Freak Power from a studio project to a gigging band, which not only gave it organic life, but also gave Ash the chance to do what he likes best; get out there and press a bit of flesh. Having supported Galliano, Mother Earth and US3, they take to the road with JTQ through October and November.
"You might have some twisted little quirk, but anything you do is only ever going to be a new combination of old elements"
The re-recorded album Drive Thru Booty is due for release on the 7th of November. Just like Tower Of Power, Ash and fellow freaks went 'Back To Oakland' to record it. In time honoured style, the tightest horn section in the history of R&B even smiled benignly on the proceedings, in between joints.
Their creative input may have been welcome, but Ash was troubled by their use of a weed he'd rather see confined to the police, armed forces and government agencies. It's a controversial stance, but mandatory consumption of hallucinogens by our legislators is a measure whose time has come, he insists. A manifesto in the tradition of Timothy Leary, fellow Californian and grand-pappy of LSD, who favoured spiking LA's water-supply with the stuff.
Ash may have hung up his trombone for Freak Power, but the tempos and BPMs remain the antithesis of rave and techno. They're not the sort of rhythms the dancefloors favour nowadays, for all their funkiness and sensuality. But in the wacky world of remixing, anything is nowadays possible. If Cyndi Lauper or Jimi Hendrix can get a 90s makeover, one of Freak Power's elastic grooves is easily time-stretched from rump-twitcher to full-tilt dancefloor assburner. Ash and Norm are by no means averse to the idea, 'though as a gigging band they're not about to cook up some studio confection they can't always recreate live.
The groove really starts to bungee-jump for Drive Thru Booty's companion volume, Fried Funk Food. The remix LP is a device which is as cost-effective for record companies as it is artistically liberating for bands, allowing them to rework tunes from the main album, and indulge the left-field fantasies which a commercially-minded producer usually seeks to discipline. In Freak Power's case it's yielded a collection of ambient dub excursions which propel the band into another genre altogether. Ash explains: "There's a whole blunt beat/dubby jazz thing that's happening at the moment. The remix album concept was used by Norman for Beats International, and it throws up all kinds of interesting tangents."
There've been some changes between concept and production, but Freak Power have assembled a wealth of talent to take on tour with JTQ. As you'll hear on this month's Re:Mix CD, it's been a melting pot of styles from the beginning. Ashley's tears were not shed in vain.
Drive-Thru Booty/In Dub-Fried Funk Food is released as a double set on Island Records on November 7th.
On The Re:Mix CD:
6 Freak Power: Crunchie
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #5.
Interview by Magnus Schofield
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