Flea and John Frusciante on FELA KUTI
interviewed by Jay Babcock
This little article was originally published in Mean Magazine in 1999 as part of a massive feature section on Fela Kuti (see below for links to the other articles that comprised the feature). Mean’s publisher, Kashy Khaledi, wanted to have contemporary artists of a certain notoriety talk about their admiration for Fela, who we knew would be an unknown, slightly outre quantity for most of the magazine’s readership. These sidebar interviews would be a way in to digging Fela for some of the less-curious readers. It was a good idea, and easily executed, as there were plenty of Fela admirers ready to testify—including bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante, the more musicianly members of the tremendously popular Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had recorded a b-side called “Fela’s Cock” in 1991. I talked with the two of them together at John’s Silver Lake apartment in Spring ’99…
Q: When did you first hear Fela, or hear about him?
Flea: I was playing with James White, who described Fela as “the James Brown of Africa.” That’s how I found out about him. I just went out and bought the first record I found in a store, Expensive Shit. And a greatest hits record with “Gentleman” and “Lady” on it. And in the next year, he got out of jail and he came and he played at the Olympic Auditorium. I went to go see him play and it was one of the most AWESOME things I EVER saw in my life. He played for about four hours, like three songs. It was the greatest thing I ever heard: It was incredible! People went crazy, the whole place was on fire! I just remember being enthralled by the music. I was totally entranced. He had freedom to play as long as he want, say what he want, did what he want, he was just like walk onstage in his underwear, smoking joints, rocking out, counting out tunes, long solos.
What was the scene like onstage?
Flea: There was this whole big band. and the musicians were very distinct, playing their parts very well, just grooving their asses off, and the dancers were really sexual, you know. They were wearing some kind of outfits and they were on all fours in the front of the stage with their asses facing the audience, doing some wildly sexual humping movements. It was all choreographed—
John Frusciante: They do that thing where they syncopate their asses, the girls who are singing backing vocals, like he says, they line up and their asses are facing the audience, and all their asses are doing the same thing: one cheek is going up and down and the other cheek is going left and right. They’re all doing the same thing. They’ve got like hundreds and hundreds of muscles in their asses that you don’t see a girl in America having…
John, when did you first hear Fela?
John: I first heard him because in David Byrne and Brian Eno interviews they would talk about the fact that he was a big influence on the sound of the album Remain in Light which was an album I bought when it came out in 1980. But I bought a Fela record in ’84…Black President…I remember I just fell in love with it right away. I mean I went crazy, I was excited and moved. It really connected with me. I got Black President, and then I would learn the saxophone solos on the guitar. Now I’m much more into playing along with the guitar parts, because I find a lot of value in just playing five notes or six notes or ten notes or whatever it is, over and over and over and over, and thinking about the relationships between all the instruments. With Fela’s music you can really trip out on it. The relationships between all the parts…. Total mental exercises. From the period when we finished the record, whenever that was, in January, around the time we finished it and for four months after that I think I was playing along with a Fela record every single day.
Flea: Fela’s just the rebel, the punk rocker! Fela’s the guy who spat in the face of all authority. And you know, Fela’s the guy, one of those rare people, that made a WHOLE style of music that is his, that you identify with him. The Afrobeat style of music, you can’t think of anyone else, you know. And Fela would never do anything to TRY and be popular. He stuck to his guns. In that way he’s like Fugazi or something, you know what I mean? In terms of not playing the game at all. He would never play a song after he recorded it. That’s like total opposite of what people do to have big audiences. For me, being just a white guy growing up in Hollywood, my image of what’s beautiful about Africa is Fela. I’ve never been to Africa, but…everything that’s beautiful about people I see in Fela. I love his music so much and to me, he’s one of those transcendent artists like Bob Marley or Billie Holiday or Miles Davis or Led Zeppelin…all those great artists that transcend everything else.
John: With Fela’s music you’ll hear a groove at the beginning of the song and you’re just happy because you know you’re gonna be hearing the same groove for ten minutes and it’s a groove that will sound good for ten minutes. That’s only certain kinds of grooves…most people that write music, they write grooves that if you had to hear it for half an hour you’d go crazy. But with Fela’s grooves, they all sound really good, hearing them forever.
Flea: Yep. All of em. Every record! The sharpness of the music and the sound of the music is so…it’s a bottomless pit of groove, you know? There’s nothing else like it. I tried to think, is there anyone else’s like it? Nothing, you know. And all the records are consistently great.
John: I’m so happy he made so many, you know?
Flea: People have gotta hear it, you know? He should be heard by everyone. …Plus, the main thing that I always liked about him, probably the most CRUCIAL element, was that his name had the same four letters as “Flea”… [laughter]
Fela! is now playing on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Info: http://felaonbroadway.com/index.php
Here’s a review of the earlier off-Broadway production of Fela! from C & D’s column in Arthur No. 31 (Sept 2008).