WhatDaFunk Profile: Dan Prothero

(taken from the weekly WhatDaFunk newsletter; interview by DJ Rob Kowal)

Dan has given a good part of his life to the promotion of real funk. He produced not only Galactic's first two albums, but also great recent releases by Papa Mali & the Instigators and Robert Walter's 20th Congress. To learn more about Dan and the great work he does for YOU and the MUSIC, click www.fogworld.com.

Q: Was there a "Moment" for you in which you realized you wanted to make music a major part of your life? Describe it.

Music was always an interest and from time to time could qualify as a passion. What really changed things for me was spending time in england in 1987. Their "rare groove" craze was in full tilt, and there were clubs everywhere, both real clubs and warehouse parties, packed to the gills and playing great, obscure funk records from the 70s. When I came back to the states I took time off from college and traveled the country, buying records for english record collectors and keeping all the best ones for myself. From then on, its been just a matter of meeting like minded people and taking some initiative.

Q: Who do you look up to or idolize in your field?

Doing most everything for my label, my "field" is pretty wide. I have influences with my photography and record cover artwork (mostly Reid Miles and Francis Wolff who did all the Blue Note album covers), but my main passion is recording music. In that context, I do have some major influences and heroes. Of course the main one is James Brown; he laid the foundation for so much of what r&b, soul, funk, etc is about. Almost all his records are like instruction manuals on how to play and perform.

For being all that a producer can be, I really admire George Martin. Of course i'll never be able to write string charts and sit in on keyboards the way he did with the Beatles, but those records (abbey road and sgt pepper in particular) are still a source of awe and fascination to me, and they remain a high water mark for studio adventurousness.

I really admire producers that create a "signature sound", and there are a few that really had that: Larry & Fonce Mizell (produced records with Donald Byrd, Bobby Humphrey and Johnny Hammond among many others), Charles Stepney (Rotary Connection and Terry Callier), Roy Ayers (his own records), and Alan Toussaint (Meters of course, but also Chocolate Milk). Of course, as a pure engineer you have to give major props to Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded most of the classic Blue Note titles. More recently, I've been digging The Flaming Lips record "Soft Machine" and Tchad Blake's production on the new Latin Playboys record ("Dose"), as well as anything by Money Mark. Those guys are dropping some serious science on how to make an interesting, adventurous and coherent album, which is what I gravitate towards (although within a different genre).

But I have to also say, that the coolest part of being involved with the records I've made is that ive ended up really admiring and respecting the artists involved. I consider myself really lucky to know these musicians as people, even more so than the rewards of working with them as players. If I'm any kind of success at all, it's to be measured in the friendships earned and not within the music that's been released.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in order to be successful?

I can think of two off the top of my head:

1. to stop waiting on anyone else for approval or validation, and

2. to realize that making good recordings is about people more than technology (an ongoing struggle)

Q: What has been the biggest challenge of trying to make it happen in the Bay Area?

When I started my label in 1995, it seemed like suddenly all the local press wanted to write about was electronica. Although I love some sample based music and have actually made a lot of it, with my own label im focusing on musicianship, where (as much as possible) everything is recorded live, especially the drums. To be honest, it was such an uphill battle that I gave up on having much local visibility at all. At this point, my records sell better in Salt Lake City than they do in San Francisco -- thats a wierd thing, because I have never been to Utah, and I've lived here for over 10 years! Which is why its nice to see people like you trying to make the funk thing more diverse and local than just a full house at the Maceo Parker concert.

Q: What accomplishment/show/production are you most proud of in your career in the Bay Area?

Some events that I really considered milestones were Galactic's first show at the Fillmore, and the sold-out Stanton - Charlie - Skerik show at the Great American.

Q: If you could change one thing about the Bay Area music scene, what would it be?

When I first got here back in 1989, the club scene was gravitating towards the kind of funk oriented vibe that i'd seen in england a few years earlier, which was great. It was easy to find good local musicians interested in playing funk, and when we'd throw a record release party in the city and 600 people would show up... cool!

Unfortunately it was just a fad... a lot of the people that made up that "scene" (which encouraged a lot of musicians to move to san francisco and develop a funky sound) migrated to the drum n bass / jungle / electronica clubs when that became the "scene", and that marked the beginning of the end of clubs supporting music played by real human beings. It was really a bummer for me to see Nickie's drop the thursday night funk nite, I think that was running EVERY thursday for like 15 years when it finally ground to a halt around 1998. that was maybe the longest running RECORD COLLECTOR oriented OBSCURE funk night in the world...

Thankfully, that seems to be changing in recent years. This time around, its the result of people who come to see the live musicianship more than the scene. And of course, theres your revival of Thursday nights at Nickie's. On the other hand, this city is now too expensive for most musicians to live locally and take creative risks, and this will be a real limiting factor. Still, I think with a few dedicated people plugging away, we could have a more sustainable phenomenon than the "acid jazz" thing that was happening here in the early 1990s.

Q: What does "Funk" mean to you?

To me, funk is an attitude, a swagger, put to music. like most other good things in life, its not something you can explain. I've heard the word itself traced back to africa (where I think the word was "lufuki"); I've also heard that, originally, "funk" referred to the smell of sex. which is probably the best explanation of what it means, musically speaking.

Q: Who is your favorite musician/band and why?

James Brown. Listen to "Can't Stand It '76", that explains it better than I can.

Q: Do you have a favorite show you ever saw?

I can name a few highlights:

McCoy Tyner with Paul Humphreys on drums, Dave Valentin on bass flute and Steve Turre on sax and shells. That show blew me away. Totally inventive and experimental and accomplished, in the way that jazz shows are SUPPOSED to be. With all this talk about "jam bands" it's important to remember that real cats like these have been "jamming" daily, since before I was born.

Another recent show that really sticks is the first show I saw of Robert Walter's 20th Congress, with their NEW (current) lineup. They went through so many trials and tribulations and personnel changes, and suddenly (with George Sluppick on drums and Chris Stillwell on bass) it all just came together. Thats one of the best groove bands touring the country right now, and I can say that despite the fact that theyre on my label. Theres so much positivity among the band members that theyre writing new tunes left and right. Seems like they have a whole new set every month.

And I have to mention the Stanton Moore / Charlie Hunter / Skerik show at the Great American Music Hall. Three guys who were totally psyched to be playing with each other, but each wanting to show just how bad ass they are. They all played their butts off. And, almost as amazing as the playing, the show was sold out. It was nice to see that young musicians can play instrumental jazz music and 700 people will show up to watch.

Q: Who is the greatest contributor to funk as an art form and why?

James Brown. listen to his records, they speak for themselves. I own almost every one, and listen to them often, and in terms of funkiness they still go deeper than I can even imagine. Newcomers should start with Hell and The Payback, and work back from there.

Q: Who is the best up and coming funk act that maybe people have never heard of?

I can name a few: SUGARMAN THREE and THE DAKTARIS (both on Desco), and MOFRO (the next Fog City release).

Q: Who is the best Bay Area funk performer and why?

Well, Charlie Hunter lives in Brooklyn now so I can't name him. I think Etienne de Rocher is the best young songwriter in the area. He's not really a funk performer, but a lot of his recordings are funky and he's soulful as all get out. He doesnt play out much these days, although he's doing an acoustic series at the Cafe Du Nord over the next few weeks. I'm hoping to do some recordings with him real soon, which would be nice -- he would be the first bay area artist i've recorded in years!