This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia, and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal; the main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art
by Jay Babcock
Bootsy Collins is one of the greatest bassists of all time: a member of the baddest version of the JB’s, a funk-force with the Parliament-Funkadelic empire in the ’70s and leader of his own impossibly stanky group, Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Currently at work at his home studio (which he jokingly calls “the Bootzvilla Rehab”) on multiple projects—including a new Rubber Band album, a new Funkadelic album and a reunion with all of the surviving members of the original JB’s—Bootsy took a few minutes to speak with me about the JB’s’ famous visit to Nigeria in 1970…
Bootsy Collins: Everybody was talkin’ about Fela when we got there, and about how he was like the African James Brown. And everybody was tellin’ us he was THE man. So after we did one gig in Lagos, Nigeria we all just went over. Me, Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson, Jabo..
Q: What was getting to the club like?
Oh man, that was wild! Cuz you know their police force was the army. They were serious. You know, everybody treated us really good from the day we stepped off the plane. But this army, they didn’t take nothin’. I mean, they didn’t care who you were. It was like everybody was scum of the earth, man. [laughs] So we were on the way, and the army just stopped us out of the clear blue and then they started asking who were we, and where were we goin’. And of course we were dirty, you know? We’d just played and we was out havin’ a little fun. So we had a few dirty thangs on us. And it was like, ‘Well what do you have in the boot? What’s in the boot?’ And what I had just done, I had just put my dirt in my sock. And I thought the guy was talkin’ about you know what’s in my boot, like what’s in my shoe. [laughter] I was through, man! I thought I was gonna be gone forever. But luckily Vicki Anderson figured it out, that he was talking about the trunk. Cuz I had my dirt and everybody else’s dirt in my boot, man! [laughs] So they didn’t check nothing but the trunk, then they let us through.
We went on to the club and as we was pulling up, I’d say about a mile and a half, two miles before you got to the club, you could hear these drums, you could hear this rhythm goin’ on. And as we were approaching, you just moved, you just started movin’. We didn’t even see nobody yet, we just heard the music, because the club that he had was roofless. And when you start gettin’ in the area, you just start vibin’, cuz I mean, those drums and the music that they had goin’ on…! And the things that you’re told about Africa—we had no idea that they had electric guitars, you know.
You though they’d be playing folk music…
Yeah, we had no idea! And we pulled up and all this was goin’ on, man. They came and got us and we went to a room. This was when…Fela, he hadn’t went on yet. He was still in the dressing room. And man, we walked in the room and the smoke knocked us down! [laughter] They was handing these cigars around that was like… We was in heaven! So we vibed with him, we talked, and we went out to see the show. He came out and did his thing, man, and we had never seen NOTHIN’ like that, or FELT anything like that, you know. It was AMAZING, and I guess by going there and seeing that, I kind of absorbed whatever I was hearing and whatever I was seeing. I just brought it back with me, and it became a part of me.
Now when you guys went to the club, James didn’t go, right?
No. We tried to get him to go but he…you know, he’s always into his thang, you know. And he probably didn’t want to see somebody, you know, other than him on the stage. [laughter] But you know, that’s the way he is.
Did you all go there more than one night?
It had to be two or three nights. Because we played there. It had to be two or three nights that we played right there in Lagos, the capitol. Everybody loved us. It’s the James Brown show, everybody was there. We played in a stadium. It was amazing, man. Uh-maze-ing.
So you’d finish playing at the stadium and go over to Fela’s—
Oh yeah. We had to go, man. And we developed a real good relationship, man. It was like…the way he spoke, we understood what he said and he understood what we said. It was more of a vibe goin’ on. And man, when these cats hit the stage and when the drums started, I mean…whatever you was doin’, you just stopped doin’ that and your body just start movin’! [laughter] See, at that particular time in my life, I was so AMAZED, period. I mean, about EVERYTHING.
You were young—
Yeah! I was over in Africa when I was 17 years old—
…you’re 17, you’re touring Africa with the greatest band in the world, and you’re going to a club and seeing another one of the greatest bands in the world—
Well actually I thought THEY were the greatest, period. Even before I got into James Brown’s band, the James Brown band was number one to me. But once I got there and saw Fela and them, then I had second thoughts about it. I mean, seriously. The James Brown band reminded me of that same non-stop groove, you know: you gotta move. And then when I heard these cats, it was like another dimension of that. A dimension that I had never experienced before. And it had a deeper feel to me. I couldn’t explain it, you know, but it was something I had been involved with but not as deep. When I heard them, that was the deepest level you could get. That’s the only way I can explain that. Not that I’m doggin’ myself along with the rest of the guys, but that’s the way I felt. When I heard that, it was like, ‘Man, this is IT. We gotta try to be like this!’ [laughs] And I knew we couldn’t! We had to be what we were, but at the same time, that was some helluva inspiration. When I got with Parliament and Funkadelic, if you listen to ‘Stretchin’ Out,’ that was me playin’ drums. And that was my version of what I had picked up. [laughter]
Wow. Thanks for taking the time to reminisce with us…
It digs up some great memories, man. And a lot of times if you don’t talk about that stuff, it’s there, but you don’t really experience it again. And it’s a good feeling, man, just to rap. That sparked a whole ‘nother… Now I gotta go back downstairs and make sure I can do that beat again! [laughter]