All That Jazz and Then Some: An Interview with Defunkt’s Joseph Bowie

Defunkt’s music is constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock, and executed with punk’s ferocity. Frontman Joseph Bowie talks about the band’s long, colourful, and arduous journey.

From 1988 to 1992, you had a really interesting period of material, such as the 1990 album, Heroes. There are some gentler persuasions, like “Poise”; less punk and jazz and rock, more bluesy swing. There’s more emphasis on the atmosphere here. Looking back on it, what was this album about?

Okay, let me talk about Heroes. This was a Japanese production produced by my Brother Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble of Chicago for Disk Union Records (a Japanese Label). I think the Art Ensemble saw Defunkt as a pop-appealing group that possessed similar values musically. The members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) were proud of my efforts with Defunkt in merging styles and making my music more accessible to new audiences. Defunkt was hot at that period and Lester and the AEC mentored me.

Lester believed that there should be ‘no genre distinctions’. All music is valid. Duke Ellington once said, “There are only two types of music…Good and Bad.” Genre is irrelevant! I grew up in St. Louis under my parents’ and older brother’s tutoring. I believed that as long as the music was prepared to the highest level with sincerity, it was worthy to be heard and felt by audiences.

Heroes explores various song genres from hip-hop to R&B with jazzy innuendos. The Japanese label asked me to write a version of the James Bond Theme, hence, “Mr. Bond”. “Poise” is a pure R&B ballad of atmospheric properties. I grew up listening to Motown and spending time slow-dancing to the wonderful soul ballads. I revisited these moments with “Poise”. “I want your Girlfriend” was written acknowledging the emergence of hip-hop in the ’80s, as hip-hop emerged as a dominant musical force to reach young people.

My R&B experience began in St. Louis, performing with artists such as Fontella Bass (my sister-in-law), Albert King, Luther Ingram, and Etta James (as a teenager, I played with Charles Hayes & the Lamontes and Oliver Sain. We would be backup singers when they came to St. Louis at the Highlander Social Club. These Black-owned clubs were the base of the “Chittlin’ circuit”, which supported Black acts throughout the US.

In 1975 I moved back to Chicago with my pregnant wife. I was exposed to pure R&B. I possessed a wonderful background in jazz and improvisational mediums gained from my experience with Oliver Lake and the Black Artists Group of St. Louis and my time performing with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). I put all of this influence into writing and shaping
Heroes…a little of this and a little of that…staying authentic within each genre.

You ask what this album is about? Heroes? For me, it was about Freedom…freedom to express yourself in various genres simultaneously on record. This was a sort of protest against the thinking that all songs must sound the same, that all the grooves must be similar. I rejected redundancy in music. My mentors and elders groomed me to include surprises in my musical productions, to be unique, and develop a distinct sound of my instrument and productions.

Crisis (1992) returned you to the more frenetic and high energy of your first three albums. There’s a lot more aggression in tracks “Hit Me” and Refuse to Love”, and some surprising and frank sexual relays in “Groove Faked”. Tell us about this album and how you arrived at this place of bluster and aggression.

Crisis is a high-energy frantic appeal for change in America. The title exemplifies a nation, a world in crisis politically, socially, and economically. The songs reflect an awareness of the world’s situation. The rock ‘n’ roll guitars made this music available to wider audiences (I thought?). I was a great fan of Jimi Hendrix and hardcore rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve always included this classic sound in the Defunkt formula.

At this time, I was fit and had run a couple of marathons in New York and the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C. I successfully re-channeled my energy and was an extreme fitness freak. This was a reverse response to my years of drug addiction. I became someone who cared about health, fitness, and humanity. This cover image on the album displayed my new position of strength and control over myself. My Defunkt formula was realized: a piece of Jimi and a big slice of Coltrane, with some Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles, and James Brown all mixed together in one pot of Defunkt nectar; that together with the vocals and smooth groove of R&B soul.

“Groove Fak-ed” was a funky offering, a deep funk groove with influences of Coltrane and Rashid Ali and the in-your-face sexual lyrics of Janos Gat. I wanted to show the world these genres could be mixed together. “Groove Fak-ed” is talking about reality. At the time it was recorded, it was maybe a bit “taboo” because of the sexual innuendos. Nowadays, things are so open…there is no wrong, and hardly anything is censored. Defunkt has been credited with predicting the future through past lyrics. We just wanted to be “real”. “Groove Fak-ed” talks about “fake love and fake emotional commitment”. This is prevalent in our modern society, [the song alludes to] selfishness and arrogance.

Defunkt’s studio albums became a little more sporadic after the fruitful period between 1988 and 1992. You released Cum Funky in 1993 and One World in 1995 and then a series of live albums. It wasn’t until 2004 that you had another studio album with Journey. How were things with record labels during this time?

The music business at this time began to change dramatically. The template of business/artist relations further denied artists rights and the ability to control their works. I had difficulty finding support, I assumed, because of my dedication to truth and creating new approaches to music. I wanted to say what was on my mind. I rejected anyone telling me what to sing or how to formulate my compositions, with the exception of the artists I worked with. I no longer had a record label. It seemed the larger labels had abandoned or dismissed my efforts with Defunkt.

Enemy Records (founded by Michael Knuth) produced several Defunkt recordings in the early ’90s – Cum Funky (1993) and Defunkt Live & Reunited (1994), which brought together Defunkt members from past formations. This large ensemble included Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs, Kelvyn Bell, Ronny Drayton, Kim Clarke, Kenny Martin, John Mulkerin, and Bill Bickford.

One World (1995) was the last studio production of the ’90s. It was produced in the Netherlands. This is a very important album for me. I thought this would certainly bridge us into the pop market. Unfortunately, this record got no promotion. The message is positive and reflects the woes and sorrows of the world. One of the songs on the album, “People in Sorrow”, is my arrangement of a Roscoe Mitchell song, originally performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This is one of Defunkt’s prime recordings. [It was] some of the greatest music composed by Defunkt members – but with no exposure.

I observed the difficulty in getting commercial support for my productions, so I was forced to produce my CDs. I produced several live Defunkt CDs. This allowed me to keep the Defunkt legacy alive and continue to tour throughout Europe. The problem with record companies is that they feel they must be in total control of everything, from music input to artwork. I guess I was hoping to develop an alternate reality in the music business. I guess I isolated myself from the mainstream music business with my desire to control the direction of the music. I didn’t realize I had positioned myself as a “Radical Musician” bent on enlightening the masses with information that the “Powers That Be” do not want to be shared with the masses.

I was disappointed with the world condition, frustrated with the music business, and in pain with the racial situation worldwide! Not only in America. Institutionalized racism began in Babylon/Rome/Greece, etc., and was spread across the planet by the British Empire. This reality has been present since the beginning of time. It is Western Europe’s template for preserving its ideals and race. Criminals were sent to the US from England to colonize America, as well as Australia and other British colonies. I won’t go any further with these thoughts, but you get the idea…

In a 1991 interview, you said that Black audiences were not generally familiar with your work because record labels, radio, and media didn’t actively market Black rock musicians to audiences in general. Please discuss your frustrations that you felt at the time about this and how you now feel about the state of Black rock musicians and their relationship to media today.

Black audiences have been deliberately denied exposure to progressive Black rock and any forms of artistic progress, from jazz to painting, dance, and poetry. This diminishes the importance of Black contributions to the world. Simply put, if you deny those contributions any exposure, they will be forgotten with time. You find this across the board. The Powers That Be have everything separated and categorized to enable easier control and manipulation. They decide what’s promoted and the audiences it will reach. You can only hear what is available. Again, it was my mistake to assume it was a fair playing field.

Growing up, I loved Jimi Hendrix and what he represented. I loved Miles Davis, who was also a Jimi and Sly Stone fan. We all have in common the exploration and development of musical genres from ancient times to the future. I soon realized how Jimi met strong resistance when he organized the Band of Gypsies, or the criticism Miles received when he merged into a new market with the Bitches Brew album. I was frustrated that The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave wasn’t that at all, and I was not allowed to freely express myself in the manner I chose.

I think about how things have changed today, going back to the ’80s when Ronald Reagan became President. Suddenly American social policy changed. Hard drugs flooded the neighborhoods, targeting low-income people. Today this disease of drug addiction has spread beyond the ghettos to the suburbs and a new host of users. Black and Hispanic young men and women are disproportionately targeted for arrest and imprisonment. It makes me wonder… is it racially motivated or is it capitalism? The Powers That Be don’t care about anybody regardless of color. If you are considered insignificant, they want to eliminate you and remove you from “the game”, diminishing your exposure and significance.

Hip-hop entered the scene during this time but now those Powers That Be engineered a new approach to controlling its impact upon society. The hip-hop generation is very talented, creative, and resourceful young men and women who didn’t have the opportunity to study music and art in public schools, once these courses suddenly could not be funded by the government… They picked up turntables and created a new idiom: Rap. The Powers That Be quickly labeled the most popular form of rap as “Gangsta Rap”, which took the world by storm. This was a negative influence to many young people who only glamorized this gangster behavior, creating countless deaths and, thus, more business for the court system.

They allowed a few hip-hop artists, like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, to reach mega-success, creating a new template for the next generation. The fashion that accompanied this movement lowered respect for women with churlish behavior and fashion. The influence of this media input solidified the position of the big hip-hop artists. It enabled them to enter the television market, expanding their positive and negative influence on the young masses.

Millions of unsuspecting young people, who will never achieve the success of the top figures in the hip-hop genre, wear the clothes, display the behavior, and suffer the consequences of that reality. The genre has an identifying uniform that will identify them next to the rest of the population. The low-hanging trousers, bandanas worn by gangs, and tattoos make it easy to identify people participating in this genre. This is Institutionalized Racism at its height. The idiom might have been created by the creative efforts of young people, but those efforts were fully exploited and their success engineered by the Powers That Be.

Is this a questionable and destructive practice? Notice the younger generations don’t wear suits anymore, don’t wear ties. When I was a child in the ’50s and ’60s, my parents always made sure I got a new suit for Easter. This too was assimilation, but if everybody wears the same attire, it’s hard to recognize and label social dissidents and revolutionaries. Suits represent the Ruling Class worldwide. This is the uniform of the Western World. Africans and all ethnicities wear suits, illustrating, to me, total assimilation into the ways of the West. It is The Uniform of Assimilation.