Music News

Racial Harmonies

1989 will go down in history as the year racism came into vogue in pop music. Guns n' Roses, Public Enemy and an ugly rash of skinhead bands have taken command of the public ear and commenced to babble on about the superiority of their own races. As these groups reach millions of ears worldwide, there seems no end in sight to all this bigotry.

But 1990 will be remembered as the year racial harmony got stylish if Bad Mutha Goose and the Brothers Grimm have their way. This racially harmonious, two-tone tune machine from Austin believes in the need to lead by the deed. And it does so with a seven-member funk team that stands for equality and unity.

BMG and the BG even cover the Impressions' "Mighty, Mighty," a tune written in the late Sixties at the height of the civil rights struggle about "spade and whitey" creating a new and better world. And the Mutha offers up a healthy dose of anti-apartheid commentary on their own "One Man, One Vote."

"Living is living by example," says bassist Michael "Freaky" Fogle after the group's show at the Sun Club last Thursday. "We're all up there together, and it just shows that yeah, we can do this and be together and have fun."

But the group doesn't just see in black and white, says vocalist Denia Ridley. She insists the band is reaching out to everybody. "Black and white power also means red power, yellow power, et cetera," she says.

The band has parlayed its message into a large and faithful following--at least in its hometown. Besides winning the Austin Chronicle's Best Funk Band and Best EP awards for 1988-89, Bad Mutha's music and audience have sparked the interest of at least three major-league record labels: CBS, Warner Bros., and Geffen, according to the band. In a special joint agreement, each of these labels has shown more than a passing interest in the band's latest studio demo by putting up $1,000 apiece to ensure the tape wouldn't fall into the hands of outside record companies, says guitarist Tim Kerr.

But Fogle says that the group's proclamations on such "radical" ideas as racial equality and changing the powers that be can make the majors skittish. The record companies, he claims, "are real happy with the status quo. A bunch of white folks and black brotherhood and being together and fighting the power and getting rid of the status quo makes them nervous. They're scared to take a step into something that isn't proven."

But Bad Mutha manager Jan Mirkin says the band is probably just growing restless because the labels haven't responded immediately. She downplays the link between the group's outspokenness and its unsigned status. "Some labels probably feel like the songs aren't commercial enough for Top 40 radio," she says by phone from Austin. "I'm sure other people are intimidated because they take such strong, controversial stances. I don't believe that's the only reason Bad Mutha Goose hasn't been asked to sign a major-label record deal."

But Bad Mutha Goose's reputation as an uninhibited, unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable entity that caters to a new and diverse crossover audience still has to look attractive to majors. A core listenership is there, says the band, and it's growing. So while the industry doesn't seem quite ready--at least for right now--to take the next logical step forward, Bad Mutha Goose believes the time is right for their brand of two-tone funk to take a stand. But unlike the flower children of the 1960s, they're not envisioning a movement based on some utopian pipe dream. They're talking day-to-day, slice-of-life reality.

"We're not saying that bullshit hippie stuff of `everybody assimilate, and we're all one under the sun,'" opines Kerr. "We're saying everyone has to [stick together], but keep your integrity, keep your history, and keep your pride."

For this band, the best way to spread its message is with the funk. "It doesn't actually sink into them unless they can see it or feel it happen," says Fogle. That explains why Bad Mutha took a few extra minutes during their Sun Club show to gather everybody onto the dance floor before even cranking out the first note. It gave the crowd a chance to get closer to the groove-making and pick up on some of the band's lyrics, such as "Free your mind/To free yourself," the chorus to a tune on their recently recorded studio work.

As Bad Mutha Goose spreads the gospel of groove and unity, it's clear the band is as peculiar musically as it is lyrically. With three singers, a guitarist that doesn't play leads, a bassist, a keyboard player, a percussionist and a drum machine, the group is different from most any funk band on the scene today.

Unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who play more loud rock n' roll than actual funk, Kerr says he and his group do the real deal--they play the whole funk and nothing but the funk. He compares Bad Mutha to Sly and the Family Stone without the sugar-pop, or even pre-Funkadelic Parliament.

On a typical tune, the band might start out with some movin' groovin' on the bass, then gradually add a little scratching guitar, beat in some jungle percussion on the congas, and round it out with some James Brown horn sounds on their digital sampler.

But while Bad Mutha Goose kicks out the message and jams in small clubs around the U.S., major-label groups like Guns n' Roses and Public Enemy are still reaching the masses. Though it may seem like the group is fighting a losing battle, Kerr takes consolation in saying that those bands and their followers are only making the same mistakes countless generations have before.

"You can't have this separatism stuff," he says. "It hasn't worked yet, it's not going to work. All you're doing is repeating history, instead of taking a step forward from the whole thing."

The band blames racism in part for encouraging stereotypes it says are inaccurate and misleading. "It's like the good guys wear white, the bad guys wear black," says Fogle. "Darth Vader was in black. But then again, one thing I always like to point out was that the storm troopers wore white."

Speaking of storm troopers, Bad Mutha's home state of Texas, infamous for its rednecks, also has its share of Nazi skinheads. Kerr, a member of early Austin punk-rock legends the Big Boys, has seen the skins grow and multiply among kids too blinded by racial rhetoric to see the light. "The thing that's scary about it is that it's there and it's survived and there's an audience for it," he says.

By the same token, Bad Mutha frowns on black groups that promote racism. "I think Public Enemy is great," says Kerr. "The only thing wrong with Public Enemy is they stopped. They act like there was never that last chapter to the Malcolm X thing. Because in the last chapter, he's talking about where he saw white Muslims, and he started re- evaluating what he was doing, and he said, `Well look, you have to work with everybody.'"

If there's one thing Bad Mutha Goose is trying to do, it's to pick up where Kerr claims Malcolm X left off. The guitarist concludes with this statement: "Take each person as an individual, and go from there."

Vocalist Alvin Dedeaux chooses to dispatch his advice, shall we say, more succinctly. "There's a lot of assholes out there," he says, "but you shouldn't decide they're assholes before you get to know them.