I’m Back (And I’m Backin’ It Up!)

In the summer of 1978, I was eleven years old. One of my most vivid memories of that time was the annual trip to Six Flags amusement park. I don’t remember much of the day, but there’s one indelible moment that would impact me for the rest of my life. It has nothing to do with food, or the rides or roller coasters, but rather with a band.

I’m convinced that all eleven-year-olds are biologically driven to have some fad dance that they do. And as modern eleven-year-olds have dabbing and flossing and whatever else is currently happening, the kids of 1978 had something that I still think was much cooler: The Robot. I probably learned it from watching The Shields and Yarnell Show, but Michael Jackson was also really good at it, and I did love watching Soul Train.

The end of our day at Six Flags was approaching, it was dusk, and my family was gathered in a food court area that also had a stage. While we were there, a band came out and started playing. And they played this amazing thing. A thing that I had never heard before. A thing that went straight into my bones, straight into my spine, straight into my psyche.

I had gotten The Funk.

The band was playing Flash Light by Parliament-Funkadelic. I didn’t know that at the time, and it would be a few years before I identified the song. All I knew was that I heard it, and my inner robot HAD TO BE UNLEASHED!

In the middle of the food court, the robot appeared. I did the shuffle, the arms, the drop and crank up move. I was on fire. There was a group of teenagers nearby encouraging me, clapping and cheering. In retrospect, I don’t know if they were laughing at me or making fun, but at the time, it felt genuine and I was inspired to new heights of robot funkitude.

Once you have The Funk, you never really get rid of it. Yes, I went through my heavy metal phase, and my new wave phase, and my electro hip-hop phase, and my indie phase, and my industrial techno phase. But through it all, The Funk was there, lurking in the background, waiting to take over. Put on a funk record and I dance. Even in my adult years, it takes some restraint not to bust out a robot.

  1. I'm Back (And I'm Backin' It Up!) Ray Toler 7:34

Other Ray

In the first week of Song-A-Day 2016, I wrote I Get No Sleep, which would be the first appearance of… well, I’m not sure what to call him or how to describe him. In the same way Star Child appeared to George Clinton, or Humpty Hump to Shock-G, this persona came out of me, a mish-mash of influences including James Brown, George Clinton, and Dr. Teeth. Appearing most likely from the effects of sleep deprivation, he named himself as “Ray” in that first song, so let’s refer to him as “Other Ray” to keep things from getting too confusing.

Other Ray has The Funk. Other Ray is way cooler than I am. He has a band. He loves hand claps. His Bootsy Collins is Herbert Finkelstein, the funkiest bass player around (well, after Bootsy). Other Ray has few inhibitions and says what’s on his mind. Other Ray records his vocals in one take.

I don’t know if puppeteers or voice actors experience the same disconnect that I do when Other Ray shows up. It’s not like I’m someone else entirely, but it does sometimes feel like I’m watching someone else perform. What odd is that I never had that experience while acting on stage. I was playing a part, but never really being the part. I was never a method actor, though.

Other Ray showed up again in 2017 when one of the participants threw out a challenge: on the following Monday, do a disco song. Other Ray was an obvious choice for Gonna Funk All Night. That started off with a callback joke to the previous year, but ended up being, well, pretty awesome. In fact, both songs started out as being just silly little things, but became pretty bangin’ tracks by the end of it all. Yet another lesson for me – you don’t have to have deep or particularly intelligent lyrics if the music’s good.

There was no Other Ray track in 2018. I’m not sure if it was because I wasn’t in the mood or didn’t have the energy, but nothing ever really inspired me. When things started back up this year, I was thinking that Other Ray might not show up this time either. Maybe the joke had run its course, and it’s obvious from the initial subjects, styles, and performances that I was in a more subdued state of mind. You can hear things shifting over the days, though, and when it came time to do my final track, Other Ray showed up and took over.

And this year, he had a serious case of The Funk.

Production

In my earlier years, when I tried to do funky music, I always ended up with very complex, syncopated, and involved drums and bass arrangements. And it never worked. It wasn’t until I stopped and listened critically to the records I loved so much, dissecting each part, that I realized that the power of funk comes from its simplicity. It’s built on a foundation, and that foundation is… thick, unwavering.

So where does The Funk come from? It comes from the spaces in between and from everyone jamming on that thick, foundational groove. The sum result is called lots of different things, but my favorite has always been “sauce.” It’s the funk sauce.

From an arrangement point of view, I’ve found it to be very similar to New Orleans style Dixieland jazz. Everyone’s apparently playing a solo at the same time, but somehow everything comes together so that all of these solos end up being the same song. There’s a lot of give and take, trading off the spotlight, taking and giving focus.

At some point in the past, I read a review of a P-Funk album in which the author said that for George Clinton, the funk level was directly proportional to the number of people you could cram into the studio. That’s how I approached the instrumentation for this one. I knew from the beginning that the band would consist of at least

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Synth bass
  • Lead synth
  • B3 Organ
  • Clav

I also wanted to do horns and funk guitar but wasn’t sure if I’d have time to do it right (I didn’t, really, but I know what I’ll change), and a giant group of party vocals.

Like every other song this year, I didn’t get the idea for this song until the day it was made. As I was brainstorming, I was thinking about Other Ray not having shown up again, and that if he did show up, the song could be called “I’m Back!” That led immediately to me laughing that he could sing about the hard drive that I lost in December, and that if “I’m Back (And I’m Backin’ It Up!)” wasn’t already a funk song title, it damn well needed to be. The fact that it worked on so many levels meant that there was no way I could pass it up.

I wrote the lyrics first. Other Ray is able to write lyrics that I would never in a million years try to pull off. (“I slipped on some dropped soap”). I came up with a few couplets about bad things that had happened but everything turned out ok. By the time I finished with the fourth verse, I had some idea of the groove formulating in my head, but nothing concrete. It was becoming clear, though, that Other Ray needed an antagonist.

Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk doesn't want you to dance.
P-Funk’s Sir Nose D’voidoffunk. Probably hangs out with the God of Hard Drives.

The God of Hard Drives is, well, let’s not call him a rip-off, but rather an “homage” to the villain of P-Funk mythology, Sir Nose D’voidoffunk. As light cannot exist without dark, The Funk cannot exist with out D’Void. He doesn’t dance. He exists to keep everyone from The Funk, just as the God of Hard Drives exists to punish those who do not follow adequate backup practices.

So with the lyrics written, and the structure largely set, it was time to set out and create the final groove that, in concert, would end up being a 30 minute jam that would close out the show.

I picked the funkiest tempo (100 bpm), found a fantastic beat, with several basic fills available, and laid down the drums. One absolutely critical part of the P-Funk sound are the claps. It’s just this SMACK that cuts through everything. There are plenty of online forum discussions trying to figure out how it was done, but it mostly comes back to being just a bunch of people clapping, possibly with some white noise from synth underneath to give even more substance. The claps on this track are about 8-10 passes of me clapping mixed with the clap sound from the Vermona DRM1. I first put down a temporary bass loop so I could record other parts and then go back to give it proper attention.

I had been dealing with a multi-day migraine, which was still with me, but getting a little better. Recording started late, probably around 9pm, so wanted to do as much “noisy” stuff early so I wouldn’t bother Mary after she went to bed. I decided to do the intro sketch before doing anything else, warning Mary that I would be making a lot of strange noises. She wasn’t bothered, but the dogs apparently weren’t happy with me stomping around and yelling.

I also knew that I wanted female voices in the party vocals, so Mary got co-opted, put in front of the microphone, a bourbon put into her hand, and asked just to shout along with what I had already recorded. The chorus is somewhere between 15 and 20 people, significantly elevating the funk multiplier. It was still pretty bare bones at this point, but I was starting to hear the entire arrangement in my head.

Other Ray’s vocals were recorded with the temp drum and bass track. A huge part of what makes these big ensemble recordings work, especially in funk, is everyone supporting, reacting to, and playing around the vocal. In typical fashion, Other Ray recorded his vocal in one take, making up everything except the primary lyrics as he went along. And he even changed a few of those on the fly.

Moving on to Herbie, I worked out some of his licks, recorded a full-track take, then went back and fixed a few of the places where I had screwed up too much to let it go.

You cannot talk about P-Funk without mentioning the wizardry of Bernie Worrell. Like George Winston, I can watch him play, look at transcripts, and still not get how he did what he did. He was a master of dancing around the root without touching it until that perfect moment when it would have the most impact.

The main lesson I learned over the years from listening to Bernie is how to let the groove breathe. He could play amazing licks, but he also knew when not to play. There are several moments throughout the song where everything stops just in time for that SMACK of a clap to cut through. That’s part of the sauce.

The low synth bass is another essential part of the mix, so I spent about as much time on it as I did on Herbie’s bass parts. In all, the drums and bass lines took up about half of the production time, because if the foundation isn’t solid, nothing else works.

I tried to stick with period-available instruments that were used. Pro tip: playing organ on a weighted keyboard is not optimal and can lead to blisters and bruised knuckles. Those slides are brutal when the keys fight back. The clav was a little better, but would still have been easier with a synth-action keybed. The horn parts turned into a bit of a pain because I didn’t have the synth set up to work quickly. There was a lot of back and forth between the tracks. It would have gone a lot faster if I’d taken 15 minutes up front to configure a multi, but that’s a lessons-learned thing.

The main thing missing from the track is guitar. I just didn’t have time to do it, especially with my rudimentary guitar skills. I definitely want to go back and add that, as well as adding the horns into more parts of the song, especially the bridge.

This track was fun to do, and I think that comes across in the performance. It’s one of my favorites for the month. And it has an important message:

Back your hard drive up!

Lyrics

Note: in the spirit of Other Ray’s past performances, I have transcribed his entire performance. I have been told that it’s far funnier if you don’t read the lyrics prior to your first listen.

All right, fellas, just like we talked about on the bus, right?
I’m gonna count it off, here we go.

One, two, three, unh!

Ohhh yeah! We are BACK!

Awww, Herbert, thanks for getting the Milwaukee Handclap Enthusiast Ensemble back in the house.
And the horns! I… How did you find them? That’s amazing! Ohh!
And the synthesizers, and… everything!

Ohhh!
I got a sad, sad story to tell everybody, though.
I had a little… I had a little accident.
It was all my fault. And I got nobody to blame but myself.
So listen, and take heed!

I was walking a tightrope
I fell off but I had a net
I slipped on some dropped soap
I didn’t hurt, but I sure got wet

I got into a car crash
But I was ok ‘cause I was belted in
(Wear your seatbelt, kids)
Things can happen in a quick flash
But sometimes, you just gotta take it on the chin

But there’s one thing I did
I can’t believe that I was so dumb
Might as well have been a little kid
Suckin’ on my thumb

My computer stopped working
My hard drive started jerking
Sweat pourin’ off my head
Turned out to be stone dead

I mean totally dead.
I mean, it, uh, it wouldn’t even boot up.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha HAAAAAAH!
I am the god of hard drives and I saw that your files had not been backed up, which makes me very happy!
I did what demanded to be done.
The god of hard drives must be appeased!!!! Ha HAAA!

All my files deleted
Not a copy to be found
I was feeling defeated
No more music, not a single sound

All my files, all my taxes
All my cat memes, all my faxes
All my photos from Comic-Con
All of it was gone!

I mean everything.
It was just… It was just gone.
I didn’t have copies.
It was just gone.

For a long time I was depressed
Couldn’t bring myself to sing 
Just thinkin about it got me stressed
You know, I didn’t wanna do a thing

But now I’m back! Unh!
And I’m backin’ it up!
Ain’t no God of Hard Drives gonna keep me down,
I’m back! Ha!
And I’m backin’ it up!
I mean, like, really backin’ it up, like, three places.

I say I’m back! Hunh!
Gotta get backin’ it up!
Cloud storage, off-site, on-site, everywhere!
Gotta get back! Huh!
Gotta get backin’ it up!

Hey, everybody, come on in, come on…
All right, here we go!

I said I’m back! (He’s back!) Yeah!
And I’m backin’ it up! (He’s backin’ it up!)
Everywhere!
I said I’m back! (He’s back!) Yeah! HUUH!
I’m backin’ it up (He’s backin’ it up!)

Oh I love having a chorus!

I’m back! (He’s back!) UUNH!
And I’m backin’ it up! (He’s backin’ it up!)
I said I’m back! (He’s back!)
Optical, tape, everything!
I’m backin’ it up! (He’s backin’ it up!)

All right y’all… y’all drop out now, I got something to tell everybody:

Back your hard drive up!

One more time, by myself:
Back your hard drive up!

All right, everybody, come in now
Back your hard drive up! UH!

Back your hard drive up!

Back your hard drive up! 
‘Cause I mean, you never know when something’s gonna…
(Back your hard drive up!)
I, uh, all right, it’s just gonna fail!
And uh, you got now warning.
(Back your hard drive up!)
Especially if you’re using SSDs, I mean, they just
They just stop!
You gotta, you gotta
Back your hard drive up!

Or you could just lose everything.
And you don’t wanna lose everything!
(Back your hard drive up!)
It’s a… It’s a terrible feeling.
It even…
(Back your hard drive up!)
It’s just sickening!
You just, you just look and,
You just look at a screen and there’s like nothing!
Back your hard drive up!

I mean, I… uh, 
Just back your hard drive up, that’s all I’m trying to tell you.
(Back your hard drive up!)
If you haven’t gotten the message by now I don’t know what I can tell you, but…
(Back your hard drive up!)
But you need to back your hard drive up.
Like these guys are sayin’,
Back your hard drive up!

Uh, Just please, back your your hard drive up.
(Back your hard drive up!)
That’s all, all I’m asking
Just back it up.
(Back your hard drive up!)
Please, just back it up.
Back it up twice!

On the one!

Back your hard drive up!
UNH!


Copyright © 2019 Ray E. Toler, Jr. All rights reserved.

Colophon

  • Drums: Stylus RMX
  • Bass: Spectrasonics Trilian
  • Synth bass, synth lead: Moog Sub 37
  • Piano, B3 organ: Kurzweil K2600XS
  • Clav: Roland JV-2080
  • Horns: Roland Integra-7
  • Clap synth: Vermona DRM1 Mk III

Next up: We’ll find out next year!

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