10 Best Songs

The 10 Best Kool & The Gang Songs

If you’re prone to checking out AcclaimedMusic.net, you may have noticed that Kool & The Gang have but one song in the top 6000: 1980’s “Celebration,” nestled at #3383, between Fuck Buttons’ “Olympians” and Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” The Gap Band have three songs on the list; the O’Jays have four. Chic’s absence from the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame has been decried as a tragedy for years running; the Gang have been eligible since 1994, but any advocacy on their behalf — they’ve never been nominated — is a murmur. But perhaps more so than any act of their — or any — era, Kool & The Gang entered the canon via their eminently sampleable discography. On their official website, they claim to be “the most sampled band of all time” — I’m not sure if anyone keeps tabs on that sort of thing, but it feels about right. Tone Capone made a couple of horn blats from “Jungle Boogie” even more elephantine on Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It.” The halftime strut of Nas’ “N.Y. State Of Mind” walks on the deep-pocket groove of a live break on “N.T.” The nearly subliminal keys and synth whine on “Summer Madness” are an industry unto themselves, with one or both appearing on classic cuts from Rodney O and Joe Cooley, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Aaliyah, and (most famously) DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Even after clearance issues made sampling a high-priced hobby, Kool & The Gang were still never far from musicians’ fingertips: namechecked by Kevin Barnes and Rogue Wave, covered by My Morning Jacket, haunting (with a host of other funk/disco luminaries) Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

The secret to Kool & The Gang’s pollination is contained in their lifespan: not just that their catalog stretches across 44 years, but that they worked in so many styles, from soul jazz to hard funk, touching on disco before finding their commercial groove as a pop-funk act. The “Kool” in Kool & The Gang is bassist/singer Robert “Kool” Bell, who founded the first incarnation of the group with his brother, Khalis Bayyan (born Ronald Bell) when they were in high school. Originally known at the Jazziacs, the Jersey City act cut its teeth in local jazz clubs, later earning its R&B apprenticeship as the live band for a number of local soul acts. By the time they issued their self-titled debut on De-Lite Records in 1969, the rechristened Kool & The Gang were a sterling instrumental combo in the mold of Booker T. And The MG’s. By the early ’70s, the funk had taken over, and K&TG notched their first major pop hits: “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie,” and “Hollywood Swinging.” In 1979, they won their only Grammy by virtue of their appearance on the Saturday Night Fever juggernaut. That year was more pivotal for a couple other reasons, however: the Ladies’ Night LP was the debut of lead vocalist J.T. Taylor, as well as the band’s first record produced by Brazilian bossa nova/samba/fusion legend Eumir Deodato. Ladies’ Night was the Gang’s first Top 20 album, yielding their first Top 10 hits in five years. The follow-up record featured “Celebration,” their only chart-topper. Their arrangements largely eschewed the harder stuff in favor of lush keybeds and Taylor’s bright, direct tenor, and the change paid off handsomely.

The band was still charting high until 1987. By then, though, Taylor had gone solo, and the combination of hip-hop and New Jack shooed Kool & The Gang’s brand of black pop off the mainstream airwaves. 1989’s Sweat was a quixotic attempt to adapt to the times, but with Taylor (and now Bayyan) gone, the result sounded like the work of a completely different act. Kool & The Gang rounded up a bunch of never-were rappers to fill out their reworked hits on Gangland, and we’re done talking about that. But like any act of their caliber and longevity, they can always earn their meals on the road. K&TG made industry headlines in 2012 when David Lee Roth tapped them to be the opening act for Van Halen. Despite the fact that the pairing only made sense in Diamond Dave’s mind, they were quite well-received. Kool & The Gang weren’t stylistic swashbucklers like Ohio Players or the Parliament/Funkadelic nexus; they didn’t define their era like Nile Rodgers. Instead, they left a clutch of pop evergreens and a catalog crammed with party starters. That’s something.

10. “Country Junky” (from Good Times, 1972)

Within the catalog of such a posi group (and on an album titled Good Times), “Country Junky” stands out as perhaps the meanest thing Kool & The Gang ever recorded. It’s a shaggy-dog tale of a heroin addict from the sticks on a trek for that big-city dope. Spangled with frantic clavinet, punctuated by a yawing, proggy brass passage, the Gang follow our hero down the road ways. Ten miles out and twenty seconds from the close, the story looks to peter out: “But something happened! Something happened. The junkie took out his work and he got ready to do it … junkie. Poor, poor junkie!” A rest, then two punchlines — “He OD’d,” and a cornpone guitar figure to close. The other down-home touch (that introductory chuckwagon harmony) is similarly jokey; you won’t find this on the Country Funk series, but even a goofy, stanky showcase like this speaks to the Gang’s stylistic facility.

09. “Celebration” (from Celebrate!, 1980)

The Gang knew what they had here: This was the first single from an album titled Celebrate!, the cover of which featured — just like their previous LP Ladies’ Night — three women and no Gang members. (The set is some sort of sanitized Playboy living room; the couch appears to be made of Mylar, and one of the models is dressed in what I can only describe as red vinyl pajamas.) “Celebration” took four months to hit #1 and hung around on the charts for 30 weeks, with neither stay to be surpassed in their history. The song’s genius is its simplicity: Nothing’s overdone save the conjugation of the title (only the pre-chorus doesn’t feature some form of the verb to celebrate). The synth strings are modest, the party atmosphere (a hallowed pop trick from “Barbara Ann” to “We’re A Winner” to “This Is How We Do”) isn’t coercive. Even the choppy, clean rhythm guitar — a holdover from disco — is sidelined for large stretches. This is plastic funk at its finest, like when England decided to produce its own Northern Soul singles: communal and corny and cheery. It still reminds me of West Palm Beach Expos victories; sharper pencils may have encountered it on the unauthorized Old Tunes compilation by Boards Of Canada (allegedly). A sort of Avalanches anticipation, the track begins with a pitched-up voice whipping between channels; gradually, the familiar electric piano and yahoos enter. At that point, it’s essentially “Celebration,” finally scuffed into rave form.

08. “Too Hot” (from Ladies’ Night, 1979)

Time was not kind to the Saturday Night Fever alumni — and when I say “time,” I mean “two years.” KC And The Sunshine Band were a disco steamroller through 1977; they were banished to the middling reaches of the Hot 100 until they hit paydirt with a couple of anodyne ballads two years later. In 1982, Tavares scraped into the top 40 with the slow jam “A Penny For Your Thoughts,” but that was it for them. Yvonne Elliman took the Gibb Bros. composition “If I Can’t Have You” to the top of the chart, but she had just one more Top 40 tune afterward, the mighty “Love Pains.” MFSB charted just one stateside single after 1977, which limped to a peak of #94 on the R&B charts. The Bee Gees managed to stave off the disco backlash through Spirits Having Flown. But while no one knew it at the time, when Ladies’ Night was released, the Brothers Gibb were a few months into a US chart slump that would last almost the entire ’80s. Perhaps, then, Kool & The Gang were fortunate that their contribution to the soundtrack (the high-stepping, mad-campy “Open Sesame”) wasn’t a bigger hit. When they convened to record Ladies’ Night with new lead singer J.T. Taylor, they were planning to cut “a street opera kind of thing,” they told journalist David Nathan at the time. But after enlisting fusion luminary Eumir Deodato as producer, they decided that the theme, such as it was, should just be “partying.” In that context, “Too Hot” is the closing comedown, in the vein of Curtis Mayfield’s wrenching divorce anthem “Give It Up.” The song is, famously, quite cool: Nearly subliminal electric piano undergirds Claydes “Charles” Smith’s nudging, laconic fusion licks. No blame is assigned, no accusations are made. Like “Give It Up,” things are just over, and the willful chill of the arrangement points up the singer’s pent-up rage. George “Funky” Brown’s loping backbeat keeps things danceable — barely — and the piano cracks a downbeat joke as the chorus ends.

07. “Fresh (12″ Remix)” (originally from Fresh, 1984)

In the popular imagination, there was disco, there was Disco Demolition Night, and then there was no more disco. But even if not a single Bee Gees record had been detonated, the genre was bound, like most everything in the ’70s, to find another form. While Kool & The Gang had settled into a comfortable (and successful) groove as a funk unit, by 1978 they were casting about for a new direction. After 1977’s The Force stiffed, the Gang switched to lush, midtempo disco on Everybody’s Dancin’, the cover of which featured the band decked out in Juicy Fruit leisure suits, posing in front of a mirrorball. None of the singles charted. While working on their follow-up they met the aforementioned Eumir Deodato, who was working on his own album. Deodato was skeptical about joining forces, but he was looking to get back into dance music — in 1973, his funky rework of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” hit #2 on the Hot 100 — and he set about breaking down and re-assembling the project. In a 2005 lecture moderated by Red Bull Music Academy’s Torsten Schmidt, Deodato recalled tracking the Gang’s groove with a stopwatch. Dissatisfied with George Brown’s — George Brown’s! — fills, he concocted a lie about the tom mics being off, recording the drummer with a diminished kit. The result was Ladies’ Night, the group’s best-charting album, and the record that brought Kool & The Gang into the post-disco era. More spare and synthesized than its antecedent, post-disco pointed to a club future marked by a different kind of glamour. Deodato’s tenure with the band rejuvenated their career; though he left after helming four albums, his template for success remained. “Fresh” was released in the middle of a seven-single, Deodato-free Top 20 run. There’s not a horn to be found, just existential synth twinkle, processed snare smack and Robert Bell’s searching bassline. The 12″ remix played up the bass and the unrelenting beat, tricking the production out with congas, a fine callback to disco’s heyday. J.T. Taylor’s lovestruck reading becomes something more insecure, more obsessed. Around the 2:35, he sings “I’ll do whatever/ To make her mine,” and that last word hangs in extended echo, an aural picture of impotence, soon wiped out by a syncopated falsetto chant of “she’s so fresh.” It takes Taylor a minute to recover. The long version of “Fresh” was in Larry Levan’s arsenal at Manhattan’s legendary Paradise Garage, along with the 12″ remix of “Misled,” also taken from the Emergency LP.

06. “Summer Madness” (from Light Of Worlds, 1974)

For now, this track is inextricably linked to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s #4 pop hit “Summertime” (Will Smith’s final verse ends name-checking the source material), but it was a legit chart hit in its day. It took a couple of years, though. It was originally released on 1974’s Light Of Worlds, a funk/fusion record that marked a sharp turn from the chart-busting funk of Wild And Peaceful. Tucked deep into Side 2, “Summer Madness” has no chanting, no singing. There’s barely any summer, although you can spot the ghosts of balearic sunsets. The most famous element is that aerial Arp 2600 whine: a heightening effect that pays off at the close. In between, there’s pooling Rhodes, Robert Bell’s rough-timbred bass, and Charles Smith’s hanging fourths. (And also maybe a flubbed hi-hat strike around 1:14.) The song had an otherworldly self-possession and legs to boot. Kool & The Gang promoted it on Soul Train in Feburary 1975; the next month, it was the B-side to “Spirit Of The Boogie,” hitting #35 on the Hot 100. Sly Stallone used it as diegetic music for Rocky’s fish-feeding scene. Charting instrumentals was not a new thing for the group, but “Summer Madness” was their biggest achievement on that front. (The ’70s were a sort of last gasp for hit instrumentals: Between R&B, jazz-funk, disco and discofied soundtracks, a total of 250 instrumental tracks charted in the decade. In the nearly 35 years since, we haven’t broken triple digits.) Kool & The Gang recorded a sequel of sorts on a followup record, the synth-washed “Winter Sadness,” but it was “Summer” that hung around in the consciousness of the public, and a lot of hip-hop producers.

05. “Get Down On It” (from Something Special, 1981)

One thing Kool & The Gang never lost was their knack for chants — even after J.T. Taylor signed on, the band still knew their value. The nasal delivery of the title is the most famous bit here — the dual emphases on the preposition is a canny touch — but the exhortation to get your back up off the wall is just as sticky. Like so much of their ’80s output, “Get Down On It” is as cuddly as it is canny, the kind of self-possessed pop-funk that’s sustained Pharrell’s solo career. From the cheery chants to the yakity brass bursts, it’s pure confection cut with deliberate, slightly grumpy bass synth. Even as Kool & The Gang distilled their post-disco sound into an even leaner pop-funk, they remained the spiritual inheritors of disco’s mission of fun for its own sake. I’m not going to sit here and insist that that’s the highest aim of music, but it’s a diminished worldview that doesn’t make room for it. (One thing you don’t have to make room for is the promotional video clip, which has more artifacts than the Tutankhamun exhibit.) Though they initially made their mark as a funk act, Kool & The Gang spent a good part of the ’60s as a soul revue explicitly patterned on Motown. And Motown, of course, was an immaculate machine, the source of not only so much crucial music, but so much smooth music. From Holland-Dozier-Holland’s godly symphonies to teenagers, to Michael Jackson’s ecstatically composed post-disco hits, from Marvin Gaye’s acts of auteurist compulsion to Smokey Robinson’s launch of quiet storm, Motown at its best consistently united artistry and appeal. Kool & The Gang recorded for De-Lite for the majority of their career, but they learned all the right lessons from Berry Gordy’s empire. “Get Down On It,” like so much of the Gang’s output, was infectious and impeccable, with the band in a tight gyre around the central hook. They stopped going out on limbs once they attained stardom, preferring to tend the roots. And clearly, there’s value in that.

04. “Hollywood Swinging” (from Wild And Peaceful, 1973)

That opening fanfare alone — buttressed with George Brown’s masterful kick and thumping snare — is a pantheon pop moment, the curtain drawing on some laid-back self-mythologizing. Written and sung by keyboardist Ricky West (né Richard Westfield), “Hollywood Swinging” is a chill chest-thumper. The singer goes to a Kool & The Gang show, he contracts the showbiz bug, and now he’s a “bad piano-playing man.” Never mind that West was an old hand dating to the days of the Soul Town revue, or that his keyboard prowess is limited to a padding, backgrounded riff. It was funk’s best boast until the Undisputed Truth claimed that “Poontang” sold “one million ten days after it was on the street.” (Coincidentally, “Poontang” also references Hollywood fame — musical, not erotic, for what it’s worth.) Though the brothers Bell were the leaders, at any given time Kool & The Gang boasted a number of capable songwriters, any of whom could compose a tune written to his bandmates’ strengths. Robert Bell’s bass thumps against the ground, predicting John Deacon’s work on “Another One Bites The Dust.” The vocalists tear into the title, carried off on a cloud of echo. And Charles Smith’s super-clean four-stroke jangles keep the whole thing aloft. They’re the coquettish gestures that carry Ma$e’s “Feel So Good,” a chipmunk-cheeked classic in a field defined by artists putting themselves on. DJ Kool seized on the intro for “Let Me Clear My Throat,” the livest pop hit ever and a fluke smash on both sides of the Atlantic. Similarly live was Austin funk-punk legends Big Boys’ 1982 cover on their crucial Fun, Fun, Fun… EP. There’s even less piano than on the original (that is to say, none), but Randy “Biscuit” Turner invigorates West’s origin story with the help of marching-band horns and a bellowing fuck-up chorus. As for the original, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: a Top 10 hit and their first song to top the R&B charts. They kept at the raw funk for a bit, but they were never ones to stay in one place for too long.

03. “Sport” (from Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention, 1973)

In 1986, J.T. Taylor related his opinion on hip-hop to Spin’s Tom Ward: “I mean, I don’t begrudge the cats makin’ the money — but what are they gonna do when the fad’s over? And this idea that you can be successful as a musician without learning your craft, I think it sends kids a bad signal.” But once Kool & The Gang put copyright law to work, they became a bit more sanguine toward rap. And as industry veterans, they knew that sometimes you don’t get paid the first time either. Hustlers Convention was an album-length morality tale written by poet (and Last Poet) Jalal Nuriddin. As Nuriddin told Red Bull Music Academy’s Phillip Mlynar last month, he wrote the poem in 1970. It eventually pricked the ears of the Last Poets’ producer, Alan Douglas, and he set about recruiting funk players to flesh out the spoken-word recording. Some of those players were Kool & The Gang, who had been recording in the same studio: Douglas tracked a wah-heavy instrumental anchored by George Brown’s dope minimal backbeat. Kool & The Gang’s contribution was spread across three different tracks, but leadoff cut “Sport” was the one that captured the imagination of the cratediggers. Brown’s drums were a perfect match for the boom-bap, and made appearances on Golden Age classics like Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, and — at three-quarter speed — Del The Funky Homosapien’s No Need For Alarm. The Gang never got paid for their appearance, and the threat of a lawsuit from their camp caused United Artists to pull Hustlers Convention from the shelves. Which, obviously, is a fucking shame. Forget the concept of proto-rap — the Poets aren’t crazy about the tag, and it keeps stuff like this from standing on its own — the LP is a linguistic, dramatic, conceptual gem, at turns celebratory and condemning, delivered with a joy that transcends the patchwork creation story.

02. “Jungle Boogie” (from Wild And Peaceful, 1973)

The lack of a proper lead vocalist couldn’t keep Kool & The Gang off the charts; here, the vocals are largely the work of roadie Donal Boyce, who turns in a masterclass of camp timbre. Growling and snapping, hocking and scatting, Boyce comes off like some trickster funk deity, playful and taunting all at the same damn time. Everyone’s in their element, a fact recognized by EPMD thrice over on Strictly Business, sampling George Brown’s rocksteady backbeat (“Strictly Business”), the War-like titular chant (“You Gots To Chill”), and the pachydermal brass riff (“You’re A Customer”). The horns are the special sauce here, pushing a wicked chart on the intro, then aping the killer clavinet-and-bass melody that’s got more hangtime than Ray Guy. For a lot of acts, this would have been their one otherworldly moment, their “Little Green Bag.” (Like “Little Green Bag,” “Jungle Boogie” was tabbed for a Quentin Tarantino film. It follows the “Royale with cheese” dialogue on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack album, but in the movie, it’s a criminally muted soundtrack for Jules and Vincent’s cross-cultural note-sharing.) For Kool & The Gang, it was their first Top 20 hit, and their highest-charting R&B single yet. They’d never pulled off anything so gonzo, and never would again. But it’s a funk landmark, with nary a second wasted.

01. “Steppin’ Out” (from Something Special, 1981)

Kool & The Gang had bigger cuts, for sure: songs that still define an era of clubgoing (and these days, wedding attendance). “Steppin’ Out” is the club, all polished surfaces and the black-orange sky lurking outside. Textually, though, the song doesn’t even step over the mat. Taylor takes up residence in the high end of his register, emitting words of devotion like curling smoke. I assume they (and producer Eumir Deodato) were taking notes from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. “Steppin’ Out,” like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” is its album’s opening cut, a possessed disco glide sung in falsetto. The brass intro sounds like a regal introduction, but it’s more of a throat-clearing. The real work is done by the Rodgers-esque guitar, fidgeting during the verses, sustaining a one-chord riff during the refrain. The result is a portrait of devotion writ existential. “I like the way you move/ You dance so smooth,” Taylor sings, “Tonight it’s just me and you.” Like they did for all their ’80s singles, Kool & The Gang filmed a promotional video; Charles Smith tries to stay obscured by Robert Bell, but his headgear still pokes over. (Between this and the Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” clip, the slouch hat is begging for a comeback.) For long stretches, the band is partially obscured by pixelation, like they’re wearing corporate logos or flashing their junk. But the directorial incompetence produces one bit of magic: the visual echo added to the players, trailing to a moving vanishing point like something out of Interstellar. It’s a lovely haunted touch to a simple shiver of a song.

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