Lessons Through Funky Time: Tony Cook Interviewed

Tony Cook knows the first hand meaning of funk and digs up this side of the 80s with his new anthology, Back To Reality. He talks to Marisa Aveling about working with James Brown, and why he's honoured by his own legacy

It was around 1972 and a 15 year-old Tony Cook was on his way to the music store in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia, when James Brown pulled up beside him in a limousine. A month earlier, the youngster had played an impromptu set with the Godfather of Soul at a block party, backing him on the drums. Evidently Brown was impressed enough with the teenager’s chops to remember who he was, stepping out of the car to inquire as to his age. When Cook told him, Brown said he was too young but to come and see him after he graduated, giving the boy $20 to buy him a new pair of drumsticks as a reminder gift.

Years passed but Brown stayed true to his word, eventually making Cook the drummer of the J.B.’s. It was a position that he held off and on for 30 years, right up to the funk master’s passing in 2006.

Under Brown’s stern hand Cook remained busy in the late 70s, providing the rhythm for his signature funky jams, but in 1979 the drummer began dabbling in his own music production on the side. "Working with Brown was an honor, but I wanted my own identity," the now-53 year-old musician explains from his home in Orlando, Florida.

In 1980 Cook followed an opportunity to work with soul singer Precious Wilson and producer (and Boney M mastermind) Frank Farian and relocated to Europe, which eventually led to his signing with the newly formed Osceola Records in London. He started his first serious foray into producing and formed his own group, Tony Cook and the Party People, releasing a number of funk-focused singles. Throughout the decade Cook travelled back and forth between the US to the UK, continuing to work on a variety of funk and R&B projects.

One of his most renowned cuts created during this time is ‘On The Floor (Rock-It)’ – the so-called ‘Granddaddy of all house records’ that emerged in 1984 as reworked by two New York DJs. After hearing the track’s solid beat and static grooves years later, Stones Throw’s Peanut Butter Wolf was compelled to release Back To Reality – an anthology of Cook’s work recorded between 1982 and 1986 – earlier this year. "’On The Floor’ was recorded as the first official Tony Cook and the Party People release off of [Brooklyn-based label] Halfmoon. But the other tracks, I recorded them for different side projects," Cook explains.

The album’s collection features American singers Vanessa Jean, Vernon Cheely and Tavell and represents a time when disco was slowly being phased out, while Cook’s own funk background remains strongly present. The tracks emerge with a sound that incorporates both R&B and boogie-funk into the mix, all then of them violently upbeat in a relentlessly smiling manner.

Music has proven itself to be cyclical, and Back To Reality is timely in the sense that a number of present-day producers (like LA’s Dam-Funk, who funnily enough features on the record) are trying to create modern-day versions of Cook’s sound. "Music just goes around," he says. "What was good 30 years ago, all a sudden, is good and fresh again 30 years later."

You’d been a session musician for a while before you started producing your own music. What did you put into your own work that you had learnt from the other musicians you’d been working with?

Tony Cook: Well, it would probably be different things. Like working with Brown, I really learnt things that he would do his way, and then working in this other studio, I was around people that he had and I would do things their way. But I tell you who really influenced me, who had a lot of influence on me as far as producing, was Frank Farian. When I moved to Germany in 1980, I started working for him and Precious Wilson. My main job was working for Precious Wilson and I was in the studio with Frank Farian a lot of the time, and I liked his style of recording. He was German and didn’t speak much English, but he didn’t have to. He could relate to us, and we could understand what he wanted. Of course he had people around him who could speak fluent English, so they could tell us more what of what he wanted, but he could communicate that to us and it didn’t matter whether he spoke English to us or not. He had a certain way of putting tracks down that I admired.

When you went to Europe and the UK, what kind of difference did you notice in terms of the music that was coming out there, as compared to the US?

TC: There was a lot of reggae at the time. And working with Farian in Germany, we was doing a bit of disco, but in England there was a lot of reggae at that time. And I liked the feel that was coming from that, and I tried to incorporate some of the feel into what I was doing, but I was trying to maintain that funky feel with my music. In England, when I was there that time, there were some musicians around that could play funk and R&B, but it wasn’t many. But then at the same time, sometimes you could take a musician that plays with a different style, certainly the reggae the musician, and put him with a funky musician, and then you could come up with something different.

So how many of those reggae musicians play on the songs on Back To Reality?

TC: Well I have to think about that. Those songs on Back To Reality, most of those – in fact all of those – were done in the States. Those were R&B musicians. Now as I think about it, some of my early Osceola stuff had some reggae musicians on it. Like I had a record called ‘You Took My Heart’ on Osceola and ‘Do What You Want To Do’, [and] a reggae player played on those songs.

So we might hear them from you in future.

TC: Yes! They’re out there anyway. But the tracks from Back To Reality, all of those were recorded in the States.

I think my favorite track is ‘Burn Me Up’.

TC: ‘Burn Me Up’! [laughs] Yeah. That was a track we put down and we really didn’t know what we was gonna do with it. But it was a good song and those tracks like ‘Burn Me Up’, see, we recorded those tracks but then we got offered other projects, so we never got back to ’em.

So you could have recorded more songs like that, but you didn’t have the time?

TC: Right. And, you see, when Peanut Butter Wolf asked me did I have anything that hadn’t been released, I thought about those tracks and I knew I had a reel of stuff that we never did finish. But then I had forgotten about some songs that were on the reel. I pretty much had an idea of certain tracks that were on the reel, like ‘Heartbreaker‘ and ‘Mighty Fine’ or ‘Later For Dancing‘. So then when we pulled the tracks up, what caught me by surprise was ‘Burn Me Up’ and ‘What’s On Your Mind’. And ‘What’s On Your Mind’, we had recorded it but then we didn’t re-record the vocal, and Wolf had been talking to me about adding Dam-Funk on the project. I met Dam – him and myself hit it off real good – and that was the perfect track [chuckle]. We needed a vocalist on the track and Dam, he put his vocals on it and it just fit real good.

Tony Cook – What’s On Your Mind feat. Dam-Funk by stonesthrow

So listening back to the reel, this was the first time you’d heard some of these tracks in a long time?

TC: Long time, long time. Yeah this was the first time I’d heard some of ’em since I would say, ’84, ’85 [laughs].

Are you still creating music nowadays?

TC: Not as much. I am doing a few projects here and there. When someone asks me about doing something I’ll do stuff, and I do have a project that I’m kind of working with right now. But not as much as I used to back in the days. See, back in the mid 80s when I moved back to the States, I had a local studio in Augusta, and that’s where all the talent around town used to come to – so if you wanted to put a track down and you didn’t have too much money, you could come to my place and I’d put it down [laughs]. That was a good thing round the time [in] the community; there was a few other studios that other people would go through, but most people would come to me for different stuff.

So how do you feel now that there’s so much interest in this same sound you were creating all those years ago?

TC: I’m surprised and deeply honored by it.

Back To Reality Is Out Now On Stones Throw. More on Tony Cook here

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