Fiddle About

Detroit's Amp Fiddler brings funk, soul, and decades of experience to his acclaimed debut

Amp Fiddler disagrees with the name of the genre he's been squeezed into, which in his case is neo-soul. His point is that after two decades of session work as a keyboardist with George Clinton, the Brand New Heavies, Lucy Pearl, and others, what he's doing now as a solo artist can hardly be called new. Plus, at 46, he's old enough to remember what soul was the first time around, so when he's shown sporting a combed-out Afro and a super fly leather coat and turtleneck ensemble in his "I Believe in You" video, he looks more like a Black Panther who's just now coming off the lam than a time-warping, vintage-obsessed hipster.

For those who must categorize his music, Fiddler offers the non-temporal "electric soul." His clarification is apt, because chronology gets blurry on his debut, the much-buzzed-about Waltz of a Ghetto Fly. He sings and uses simple, aphoristic turns-of-phrase in his lyrics, á la Sly and Stevie circa 1969. The sounds he conjures from his keyboards can be watery on one song, like those favored by modern-day deep house producers, while, on another, they may ooze in thick dollops of mid-'70s Parliament squelch (his own membership in P-Funk, as lead keyboardist, lasted from 1984 to 1995). And when he decides to build a hip-hop beat -- using a drum machine in the studio and a drummer at shows -- its straightforward funk flows like a '90s Tribe Called Quest joint.

In pinning down Fiddler, time is meaningless, but geography is all-important. He was born Joseph Fiddler in late-'50s Detroit, right on the cusp between the two generations that made that city famous as the origin of a unique sound. When he was growing up, Motown ruled the airwaves, and Stevie Wonder was proving the viability of the soul singer/songwriter. When Fiddler left town to tour with P-Funk in his 30s, the next wave of Detroit artists was taking the city's warm, heartfelt grooves and making them cold, creating techno. More recently, Eminem and Slum Village established that incredible hip-hop could come out of the Motor City. Clinton, who contributes a mumble rap to the title track on Waltz, has argued all along that these later sounds were not so much distant cousins as children of the funk, but no one's connected the dots between them as convincingly as Fiddler.

In his music, which he often refers to as a conversation, Fiddler uses "Detroit" as both an adjective and a verb -- as a description of a certain mature, restrained soulfulness and as a way of putting a song together. The latter involves a laxness of production values that allows for little mistakes in the final cut. For Fiddler, it's the occasional (ghetto) fly in the ointment that gives a recording its kick. He left the ringing of a phone in the background of the house-y "Love & War," and from his hotel room in Barcelona while on tour, he gives another example from a session he and his band recorded between shows. "Today we did vocals and someone said, 'Amp, I made a mistake. That one little note was a little late.' And I said, 'You know what? I like imperfections. Remember that I'm Raggedy Amp, and everything doesn't have to be perfect.' Life is not perfect, so why should we try to make it that way?"

Most folks find that the number and diversity of people they meet steadily diminishes as they get older. The opposite happened for Fiddler, who in his 40s fell in with a circle of collaborators who were pushing the boundaries of contemporary Detroit music. "I had been hanging out with Moodymann, Eddie Folks, and other guys who had been making house music," he says of the period after he finished touring with Clinton and Lucy Pearl. "I was also kicking it with kids from Slum Village and different rappers from the neighborhood. So I just started writing over whatever kind of music I heard or collaborated with, and I thought it would be interesting to have all those things on one record, because we live in such a melting pot in Detroit. But what tied them together was the melodic and the vocal."

Indeed, he managed to transcend simple pastiche by filtering all these influences through his own style: Waltz has a D'Angelo one-man-soul-jam feel to it, with Fiddler taking an hauteur's control over almost everything, from singing and playing keyboards to writing and production. And because of his unusually long gestation period as a solo artist, there's a musicianship that's much advertised but often lacking in neo-soul. This is R&B for grown-ups.

Fiddler says that if he had followed the standard R&B career path -- releasing his own album as soon as he had the musculature to pull off an unbuttoned shirt -- the result would have been "a terrible record. At 20, most musicians are still guessing and green and can't play." Having watched Clinton captain a crowd on an outer-orbit-bound funk voyage every few nights for a decade, Fiddler picked up the intangibles of playing to an audience, which have been earning gushing reviews of his European shows.

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