It seems like just another fraternity beer party. There's a band on-stage and cerveza in the keg. Prepped-out college types are toasting the home team's latest gridiron exploits and boasting over the spoils of a recent panty raid. Everybody's had some juice, and the crowd is feeling a wee bit loose.
For a long time, no one pays much attention to the tunes Tone Def plays, but then the Phoenix group slips into a number by the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, and suddenly there's electricity in the air. What looks like the makings of a huge fight is actually an anarchic slam dance. As James Brown's ballad blares, inebriated fraternity brethren crash into one another with the same brute force they usually reserve for the fourth quarter. This curious display of frat frolicking catches the musicians off guard, but they don't miss a beat.
About three weeks later, Tone Def checks out the Sun Club. Guitarist Charles Bond fingers lengthy leads, Keith Jackson thumbs funkified bass lines, drummer Derric Butler rocks steady, Mike Bailey shouts classic soul, and no one's out on the floor. No one, that is, except for a rather hysterical patron spilling beer and slam dancing with himself in such a swept-away celebration that it makes you think maybe the Godfather's just been released from prison. The rest of the audience remains seated until the second-to-last song of the set, when a few more drinkers finally figure out the funk and try to catch the tail end of an hour-long groove.
IN ITS MERE eight months on the Valley bar scene, Tone Def has forged a reputation for pumping up as many club hoppers as it confounds. Depending on the venue, the night and what mood the band is in, the audience either likes Tone Def, doesn't like it, or has no idea what's going on.
And there's not just one reason Phoenix has greeted Tone Def with everything from a punk pit to stony silence.
For one thing, Tone Def pours a solid funk foundation and builds with styles as varied as punk, blues, metal, reggae and R&B. Which ones show up has everything to do with the aforementioned human/site variables.
On its covers, too, Tone Def embodies at once the familiar and the unexpected. The band boasts a repertoire of about sixty songs that stretches from James Marshall Hendrix to the Reverend Al Green and prides itself on interpretations that don't immediately bring the original versions to mind.
"We'll learn a song, and then forget the structure of it," Bond says. "You know, play the basic form, but expand it, make it bigger. A lot of times, when it's real good, we change the whole beat. And when people jump up and dance, it usually turns into a funkier groove.
"We used to just stand there and play, and concentrate on making the music right. Everybody has done that already."
Given Tone Def's often-chaotic song arrangements, it may seem like a near miracle that the band hasn't floated into the outer reaches of the art-rock world. But the quartet wisely anchors itself with the kind of straight-ahead funk it grew up on--heavy doses of P-Funk, Ohio Players, Isley Brothers, and Motown. "The Funkadelic thing is a big part of our sound," says Bond. "It's that hard-driving thing. It's a funk band with a rock edge or a rock band with a funk thing. It's not like we're meaning to do it. We just all find a rhythmic thing within us that's happening."
But funk isn't always a universal language. The group routinely plays in places where people think you must be talking about the Scotch when you mention J.B. So the members have taken it upon themselves to educate clubgoers in some of the finer points of vintage funk. For instance, Mike Bailey's particularly fond of Funkadelic lines like "Shit/Goddamn/Get off your ass and jam."
"I think a lot of people really missed it when it was really happening," Bond says of the George Clinton-Ohio Players glory years.
It's possible, then, that some of Tone Def's audiences just haven't caught on to the untouchable, spiritual energy George Clinton has made a career of celebrating. The band members, meanwhile, easily spin off one interpretation after another of Clinton's psyche-funk theories.
Bailey defines funk as "a condition of the mind."
"It's medicine for the body," adds Butler.
"Funk is what you smell when you take your shoes off," Bond says. "When you get a place crowded with people and they're all gyrating, dancing, here comes this smell, man."
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Nowadays, funk can also mean money. Lots of it. Especially when it's combined with other genres. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Royal Crescent Mob, and Mary's Danish have mixed up their funk with rock 'n' roll, punk, hip-hop, and just about everything else, grabbing a major share of the alternative market this year.
But Bond says Mary's Danish mixes in more disco than actual funk, and it's clear that the Peppers spend more time planning out their songs than just busting loose.
"We're not trying to latch onto being like the Chili Peppers or anybody else," Bond claims. "What we do is where we come from."
The guitarist theorizes that it's only a matter of time before Tone Def and all its audiences start sharing brain waves. "We play danceable stuff," Bond says. "More people need to catch on to it. A lot of people are starting to find out we're versatile, and you can dance to any beat. That's what we're trying to get across. It's like going to a music appreciation class or something.