"To be blunt, I think most of the music being made today is shit."
- Phillip Lehman
- Founder, Soul Fire Records
For some reason, it took a French DJ (who also dabbles in graffiti) to find the rawest, roughest, skankiest funk albums the law allows. If you prefer the wife-abusing, gun-toting, PCP-smoking Godfather of Soul to the grinning, shuffling, "I Feel Good" medley-singing Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Philip Lehman has a few albums he'd like to play for you.
Music can lose its edge, bands can grow soft, even record labels can let themselves go, as Phillip discovered with his previous venture, Desco Records. Soul Fire, however, is much tougher than its predecessors, celebrating not only the nastiest, white-hot Satan funk of the past, but also showcasing a batch of new bands that have eerily captured the pistol-whipping essence of the raw funk that most people thought had vanished thirty years ago. "Just four cheap microphones and a two-track analog machine -- that's all it takes," according to Lehman. It also helps to record with exceptionally high levels that keep the music riding the tasty edge of potential distortion.
I used to fantasize about winning the lottery and spending the money on an arduous quest for rare old funk singles, traveling across the US and Europe to haggle in the basements of vinyl-hoarding mole men who never go outdoors except to bid on dusty crates of unidentified albums at warehouse liquidations. I'd be a cross between Indiana Jones and Bootsy Collins, and when I would occasionally open my vault to the public, it would result in a jubilee of group ass-shaking, sustained by a river of malt liquor and acres of barbecue ribs. In that sense, discovering Soul Fire records was actually a bit anti-climactic, since it meant that all I'd need to do with my lottery winnings/paycheck/plasma money/whatever is simply hand it over to Mr. Lehman's label and greedily run off with whatever he dispenses. Yes, Philip Lehman and Soul Fire have nailed it so dead-on that my little odyssey would be redundant at best.
The Soul Fire website at soulfirerecords.com is a dog's breakfast of new, old, American, European, and African funk jewels, and, fortunately, it's not stingy with the audio samples, either. The 45RPM archive section seems to taunt listeners by not showing prices for any of the singles. You can hear it, but you apparently can't have it. At least there are plenty of other items for sale, and some of them are even available on CD. Give yourself a few minutes to hear Lee Fields, The Whitefield Brothers, Speedometer, and J.D. and The Evil's Dynamite Band. If you can't decide, you can go with Volume One or Volume Two of the label's rough funk compilation, "Grazing In The Trash".
Despite what most of the big-label compilations would like you to think, funk is not just about flutes and violins playing "Kung Fu Fighting", Bernie Worrell's meandering keyboard solos, or that goddamned "Theme from Shaft". If you find yourself in New York City, you may want to head over to Soul Fire's office at 63 East 82nd Street for the rest of the story.
Update: The Soul Fire website appears to have gone sideways sometime in late 2003, strongly hinting that Mr. Lehman may no longer be in the record business. Neo-funk fan boards mention a rather abrupt departure by Lehman, who apparently left a web designer in the lurch (and unpaid) for work on a web site that was supposed to broadcast streaming funk audio 24/7. It's really unfortunate, but at least there are other labels, such as Daptone, to help pick up the slack. As for Soul Fire, many releases are still out there for sale on collector sites known for selling rare funk vinyl out of dusty crates, so my advice to you is to just keep on looking.