In Session With Professor Bootsy Collins

“THY KINGDOM COME, THE FUNK has begun, on the one,” professes Bootsy Collins.
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"Thy kingdom come, the funk has begun, on the one,” professes Bootsy Collins. And while Bootsy is more dedicated than ever about preaching the gospel of funk, he hasn’t gone church— he’s going back to school. As the anchor for James Brown and Parliament/ Funkadelic, Bootsy was one of funk’s founding fathers. Now, he is the founder of Funk University. F.U. is an online educational experience designed by Professor Collins and his faculty to funkify the life of intermediate to advanced players all over the planet.

Funk University is also the name of Bootsy’s forthcoming CD, which was in the final tracking stage at press time. “It’s going to represent what we’re doing at Funk University, so it’s a combination of things,” explains Collins. “It represents a lot of the funk that I have been known for throughout my career, from straightahead, JBs-style grooves, to plucking and popping with lots of groovy effects. Some of the guest professors are on it as well, including Victor Wooten and Thee-Ram- Jam. One thing led to another so we said, ‘Why not just tie it all in?’”

Collins is king when it comes to cool effect tones, and while he’s having more fun than ever tweaking gadgets, he’s also playing more straightforward than ever in his lengthy solo career, which started with the 1976 motherlode, Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band. “Doing the Superbad soundtrack got me back into playing bass lines with a straight tone,” says Collins, “and that’s what I dig about my new Warwick signature bass. It sounds good all by itself. I hadn’t even thought about bass in that way for so long.”

It seems that you’ve got a lot of bass on your mind lately. Tell us about the concept of F.U.

I ran into Cory Danziger from a company called SceneFour, and he was so into the online thing, which I hadn’t really thought about. We had been considering a physical school with real buildings, but Cory said, “No man, we should create a virtual campus.” When we got together and talked, it all just made sense.

How involved are you personally in the teaching and the material being put forth?

I am totally involved and committed. Cory comes here to my studio. First, we run through the idea for the planned lecture, and then we start videotaping segments to go up for the next month.

One of the first classes is about getting down on the one. How do you teach that?

First of all, we talk about where it came from. Funk University is about music, but at the same time it’s about the history of bass, where it’s at now, and where it’s going. I want to show the evolution of bass. We start with the one because that’s pretty much where funk, as we know it, started.

Are you talking about James Brown, or before?

Yeah. For me, it would have to be James Brown. My experience stems from him, and that’s how I learned about how the one benefited me. The funk isn’t just about what you’re playing—it’s really about what’s behind your playing.

In the video lecture on the one’s evolution, do you pick up your bass and say, “Here’s how I play ‘Sex Machine,’ and here’s ‘Chocolate City,’” and so on?

Exactly, that’s the idea. Then the professors offer different approaches because everybody has their own experiences with the one. So you not only get my take, you get a different master bass player’s take on it as well. A double dose of funk is always a good thing.

How did you choose the faculty?

The funk works in mysterious ways! [Laughs.] John B. Williams and I were in Germany at the beginning of the year, and we talked about James Jamerson, who was my first bass hero. I remember how he started on upright, and then he changed over to electric bass. Everybody was hating on him because he changed. But Jamerson said, “Forget that, man—I want to try this electric bass regardless of what you’re all talking about.” They didn’t start loving him until he started making the electric bass talk. That’s the kind of thing I want to be known for, and what I want to do with Funk U.

“Don’t try to be like us professors—be better than all of us,” is what I encourage. In doing so, come up with your own idea. You might think, “Electric bass guitar is cool, but I’m going to develop something else that produces bass sounds.” My only concern is that you be creative, and take it to the next level. If you know the history, then you’ve got a strong foundation to stand your funk on.

Is that kind of fearless experimentation the theme of the James Jamerson course?

Yeah. That’s not the only thing we talk about, but Jamerson’s switch from upright meant a lot to us electric bass players at the time, and most players don’t even have a clue about that. I feel it’s my duty to at least put such information out there so that current bass players know from whence it came. Each of us only goes back so far, which is one of the main reasons we brought John B. Williams into the picture. Upright bass is being so overlooked now, and it was really the starting point. We can’t forget that.

F.U. has a comprehensive gear section. How do you teach about gear?

I’m starting off with the pedals I used way back in the day, and it’s going to grow until I interject what I’m using today. It’s kind of like merging the two worlds, and demonstrating how I make it work. My design is to enhance whatever I’m playing. I’ve always heard a lot of different sounds in my head—more than I could get out of straight bass. That encouraged me to try and get it from other stuff. When I got with Funkadelic, synthesizers were coming on board. I really wanted to get into sound, and I did. I just started messing with stuff.

We recorded everything in Detroit at United Sound, which Motown used a lot as well. “Plug in and play, man,” is what the engineer there, Jim Vitti, always used to say. He hated to see me coming because he already had everything set up. I destroyed that. It took about a year before he realized that I was onto something. In that way it was just like Jamerson’s experience. In the beginning, everybody was against me and all my pedals. Once they saw how it worked and sounded, they couldn’t wait to get me in the studio because it was so much fun.

Generally speaking, how would you compare old pedals to new ones?

The old Mu-Trons and Big Muffs were all slightly different, so you had to work with them. To me, that was fun. It helped push you creatively. Pedals are so preset and consistent now that they all sound the same. At F.U., we’re trying to get away from the domestication of sound. I’m not knocking manufacturers, but I want musicians to avoid getting locked in on a particular sound that everybody’s using. Find your own.

What’s big in your world gear-wise right now?

Actually, the combination of pedals is so exciting to me—as much as playing. I’ve always had fun onstage dancing around with all my pedals. Comedians always say that timing is the key—you have to be on point. It’s the same thing with playing the bass and using pedals. You can’t just step on a pedal and expect people to react. It’s about making the pedals say something. That’s really a gig in itself, but I enjoy it. I’m sitting in front of some pedals I’m recording with right now.

Do you tweak them all day, or do you have some basic formula you work from?

I have my basic ones that I know, and I experiment by adding new ones to my signals. I’ve got four lines coming out of the Space Bass, so that’s four lines of different effects going into different amplifiers, which means four channels in the board. When I play one note, there are four different sounds rather than just one straight bass note. It’s incredible. People wonder how I get so many sounds without overdubbing. Well, it all comes out at the same time, and it’s all about capturing that one performance.

The song usually tells me what bass sound I need, so the pedals I use depend on which ones work well together, and the tune itself. I might even come up with the riff after I got the sound. Or I might have a great bass idea and throw it down raw before I forget it. In that case I’ll figure out the sound later, and then I’ll play it again with pedals.

How many of the four signals do you usually wind up using in the mix?

It’s usually all four, and we run the four signals direct in addition to the miked speaker cabinets, so it really takes eight channels to create the wall of funk.

That sounds like a lot to manage.

I’ve gotten so good at it that I pretty much know what’s going to be used when it’s going down, and I only hook up what I plan on using. I set up a day in advance. The beauty of being off the road right now is that I get a chance to play with my new stuff; you have to see how it affects what you’ve already got. To me, that’s exciting because it’s unpredictable. It keeps you reaching. When you actually start playing, you can go to the moon and back if you want. I’m trying to lay down sounds that will make people scratch their heads ten years from now. To me, that’s more exciting than playing a great bass line.

That’s understandable, considering all the classic bass lines you’ve laid down. What do you teach Funk U. students about bass lines?

We actually encourage them to get back to playing bass lines. Players have gotten away from traditional bass-line grooves because of the advancement of the plucking and popping technique, but I want to instill with the kids that it’s equally important to be able to create bass lines that people can walk away humming. The young generation probably doesn’t even think about bass lines the way we thought about them, because it’s a new day. But just like I don’t want them to forget about the upright bass, I don’t want them to forget about the kind of bass lines and bass grooves we played back in the day, because so many of them are just classics. They too can come up with classic bass lines if somebody nudges them in that direction.

Funk U. offer courses by the month, by sixmonth semesters, or by the year. How does one graduate—is there an end?

There’s no end to the funk!

Can a student flunk the funk?

Even if you don’t grasp it as others have, I don’t think you can flunk the funk. The only way to flunk the funk is if you fail to try.

THIS ONE GOES TO INFINITY

BOOTSY ON HIS WARWICK INFINITY SIGNATURE BASS
“The big difference between this bass and other signature models I’ve done is that this time I paid closer attention to the sound of the bass itself,” explains Bootsy Collins. “Before, I was so caught up in creating other [processed] sounds that I never even really considered what the actual bass sounded like. The sound I was looking for was pretty much in the Infinity model already, but I wanted to be able to do the James Brown thing as well as the Bootsy thing. Warwick tweaked the bass to allow me to get the best of both worlds. It’s surprising for a hollow instrument to deliver such full body and pack such punch—it’s a rumble in the jungle, for real. I recorded about 90 percent of my new material with it. On a song that’s a tribute to James Brown, you can hear me seamlessly switch from fingers to thumping. It sounds incredible, and I’m not using any effects. The Infinity makes me want to play raw. Out of the 15 songs I’ve recorded, about a third are just pure, raw bass. I’d lay down an idea and think, ‘What pedals might make this sound Bootsy-fied?’ A lot of them said, ‘leave me alone.’”

STUDIO GEAR
Bass Warwick Bootsy Collins Infinity Signature Bass
Rig SWR Mo’Bass, Hughes & Kettner BassBase 600, Warwick Hellborg preamps and power amps, four custom-made 4x15 cabinets with Electro-Voice speakers
Effects Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer, Musitronics Mu-Tron III, Gig-FX SubWah, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, Chunk Systems Octavius Squeezer, Akai SB-1 Deep Impact, MXR Bass Blowtorch, ModTone Extreme Metal, Boss RE-20 Space Echo. “I used all these pedals on the new record, although I never use a single pedal by itself. I always use a combination of pedals in order to create my own unique sounds,” says Bootsy.

STAGE GEAR
Basses Space Bass, custom F Bass
Rig Alembic F2B preamp, two Crown Micro 5000 power amps, two Crown Micro 3600 power amps, eight custom-made cabinets with Electro-Voice speakers: two 4x18s, two 4x15s, and four 8x10s
Effects, Alembic Super Filter, Roland Space Echo, MXR Digital Delay, Pro Co Rat II, Electro- Harmonix Big Muff distortion, DOD Thrash, DigiTech Grunge, DigiTech Whammy Pedal, Boss BF-3 Flanger, DOD Envelope, two Mu-Tron IIIs, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer

FUNK U. FACULTY
Professor Collins has assembled a diverse online faculty for his Funk University, including upright vet John B. Williams, groove goddess Meshell Ndegeocello, Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher, fretless whiz Steve Bailey, global groover Bakithi Kumalo, rap-’n’-bass ace Divinty Roxx, Public Enemy bassman Brian Hardgroove, fellow space funkster Thee Ram Jam, and P-Funk/Bootsy drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy. Below, several staff members offer their thoughts on the educational endeavor. —Chris Jisi

Divinity Roxx: Rhyme & Time
When Bootsy told me about his Funk University, I was trying to figure out how I could be one of the students. When he asked me to be one of the professors, I was elated! Bootsy is a legend who revolutionized the bass and funk with his unique style and unparalleled showmanship. He was one of the first bassists to successfully front his own band, and he has always been one of the most creative minds in music.

“For my part, I’ll be teaching the art of rhyming and playing bass, with an emphasis on the funk of hip-hop music, my specialty. Most people find it hard to even talk while playing bass, so the idea of being able to hold down a groove and spit rhythmically on top of it is especially challenging.”

Steve Bailey: F.U. Booster
“I have much passion for music education and for innovative, outside-the-box methods to deliver that education. Combine that with a chance to reply “F.U.” when my academic colleagues ask about my latest endeavors, and I couldn’t resist this opportunity! I’ve known Bootsy for a while, and the thought of collaborating with such a wonderful energy and spirit, in an educational setting, is quite an honor. Bootsy is one of my heroes, plain and simple. His influence transcends all musical styles. He is both an iconic bass hero and a wonderful human being.

“Funk is not a technique like thumb slapping, nor is it restricted to frets, so I teach some slippy slidin’ fretless fingerboard funk, emphasizing fingering efficiency and fingerboard knowledge (for interesting bass lines), and then I throw in a few artificial harmonics and chords. Good left- and right hand technique makes for consistency, which is a FUNdamental ingredient in the Funk!”

Bakithi Kumalo: Zulu Grooves
“I originally met Bootsy at a NAMM show, and afterward he sent me some files of songs to play on; he said, “Put some African grease on them!” He’s been a hero of mine since I heard him on James Brown and P-Funk records in South Africa, and struggled to figure out what he was playing. He’s got such a driving, unique, pure funk style, almost like a guitarist.

“I’ll focus on South African Zulu grooves and some of my special techniques, as well as driving home the importance of groove and tone. You need to have a solid foundation to funk.”

Thee Ram Jam: Outasight Insight
“I’ve been a lifelong funk disciple, and Bootsy has been kind enough to guide me and participate in my projects over the years. When he asked me to join his Funk University faculty, it was both joyous and humbling, and a true honor.

“My role is to share some of my musical insights in technique, harmony, and groove, while helping students to develop their own styles. So far, the online interactions have worked well, with many talented students seeking to further their knowledge of funk. There’s a real family and community feeling among all parties involved.”

CORY DANZIGER ON F.U.’S “ON THE ONE” COURSE
“We have Meshell Ndegeocello, John B. Williams, Thee- Ram-Jam, and Norwood Fisher. Victor Wooten is just about to chime in on our lesson about the one. It’s interesting how each player sees it differently. Meshell doesn’t see it as “the one” per se, as much as she just hears consistent downbeats: 1–1–1–1. John B. Williams tells you exactly how he sees the one as it relates to jazz in his experience, and then he uses blues examples because it’s important to understand that in order to understand how the one plays into jazz.”

Related

Warwick Introduces the Bootsy Collins Infinity Line of Signature Basses

The Warwick Bootsy Collins Infinity Signature Bass is as original as Bootsy himself. Bootsy Collins is the legendary bassist who left his mark on the world with James Brown in the '60s on such classics as "Sex Machine" and started a funky revolution in the '70s with Parliament and Funkadelic. Now you can bring on the funk just like Bootzilla has for the past four decades.