There was a time in Detroit when funk was king. With groups like Black Merda, the Propositions and the Lyman Woodard Organization, Detroit had a reputation as a place where people could come and lose their minds on a nightly basis. Those old enough to remember, or wise enough to buy a few key compilations, can attest that Detroit funk bands were among the best in the world.
Close to 30 years later, some area musicians who were still toddlers when funk ruled Detroit feel a debt still needs to be paid. Are they offering royalties to the forgotten funketeers of yesteryear? Of course not. But they are trying to keep the legacy alive by playing gritty, raw, musty, stank funk shows as frequently as possible to educate the masses and satisfy their own cravings. Meet Electric Otto’s Funk Factory, a cadre of Detroit musicians who live and breathe funk music 24-7. Led by Matthew MCR Ellison II, better known as Electric Otto, the group has been dishing out strong doses of funk to curious audiences since its inception in January.
Live, Electric Otto’s Funk Factory is an odd hodgepodge of free jazz (à la the Sun Ra Arkestra), early ’80s hip hop (à la Roxanne Shante) and basement funk that defies classification. “I call it neo-Detroit funk,” says Ellison, the group’s bassist and composer. “It’s influenced by all underground music period; techno, hip hop, the whole nine.”
Ellison, 32, who’s played bass guitar professionally since the age of 17, knows a thing or two about the soulful fusion of jazz and funk. Besides being classically trained, Ellison has studied under such greats as Donald Byrd, Harold McKinney, Wynton Marsalis and Underground Resistance guru Mad Mike Banks to name a few. He says his affinity for funk is hard to explain but considers his early exposure to funk legends Parliament and the J.B.’s (James Brown’s band) as a probable cause.
“I been into funk since I was a little fella,” says Ellison, who claims to be a mix between Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins and Motown bassist James Jamerson on stage. “I used to sit in front of 8-tracks and play James Brown, the Jazz Crusaders, Donald Byrd, and Parliament-Funkadelic all day long. The Electrifyin’ Mojo alone was a big enough influence on me. Some of the music he used to play on the radio shaped my whole life.”
Besides Ellison, the band includes Charles Prophet Jr. (saxophone), Bill Engelman (rhythm guitar), Stevie Szasna (lead guitar), Will Harris (drums) and Jacinta Shanae Ellison (aka the Bride of Electric Otto, on percussion and vocals). What’s refreshing about them, especially in a town saturated with hundreds of musicians per genre, is that the Funk Factory’s sound is distinctly its own. Playing original material by Ellison, the Funk Factory isn’t afraid to teeter between old school and new wave, as long as it gets the audience sweating like a sanctified sister in church, down South, in the middle of July.
Offstage, in contrast to some notoriously drugged out personas associated with funk, the Elecrtic Otto’s Funk Factory crew is mostly saved and sanctified. In between sets, Ellison even does Christian stand-up comedy, a hobby of his since his days in grade school.
In a show of solidarity, Ellison and a variety of other area funk musicians started the D-Funk Union, a pseudo labor organization dedicated to exposing the world to the gritty sound of the 313.
“I’ll never forget the time I asked Wynton Marsalis during a workshop when would live musicianship become popular again,” Ellison says with a laugh. “This was back when hip hop was just starting to get popular and everybody was using synthesizers instead of real instruments. He looked at everybody and said, ‘You’ve got to be the ones that bring it back, don’t wait for anybody else.’ So that’s what we do. We’re going to keep on playing and keep on growing until everybody can see what the funk is really about.”
Thursday, April 28, at the New Way Bar (23130 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-217-4876) with Midtown Underground and Terminology. Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]