In the early 90’s I began to frequent David Mancuso’s Loft parties in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
A private members-only affair that started in 1970, one had to be invited by another member to experience the weekly gatherings in Mancuso’s private domestic loft space where he played vinyl on a system that was a mix of hi-fi components such as Koetsu cartridges and Mark Levinson amplification but set-up like a club PA (with delays but without compression and EQ). I was blown away at how different records that I thought I knew inside out were sonically enhanced on his audio set-up. While listening I would delightedly watch the dance floor largely made up of African-American and Latino dancers busting a combination of street dance, Latin hustle, acrobatics and graceful ballet-like moves. I have never had the same experience elsewhere.
Mancuso became my mentor and soon I was behind the decks with him. He later entrusted me with the equipment, the music and The Lofties so that I was standing in for him for epic twelve-hour sets that began at midnight. One of my favourite early night tunes was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ from his 1973 album ‘Head Hunters’.
In 1997 I was invited to Japan for my first DJ tour and I brought the record along. I boarded the plane in New York City and was not overly surprised to find that they had seated me in the last row in the corner next to one of the only other ‘gaijin’ on the flight, a tall Black man. We got to talking and I discovered it was none other than Paul Jackson, bassist with The Head Hunters. He and I drank far too many cocktails and then he let me hear his latest recordings on his mini-disc player (remember those?). Now that was a promising start to the tour!
The ‘Head Hunters’ version of ‘Watermelon Man’ has long been a favourite in my DJ sets and I am not alone in my appreciation. As a composition, it has been copiously recorded, twice by Hancock himself. He wanted to write a song about the ‘Black Experience’ and drew from his own upbringing in Chicago. He thought of the watermelon man pushing his cart along the cobblestone streets and came up with the rhythm while the melodic hook came from the shouts of the ladies calling to the seller from their back porch.
The first recording was featured on his debut 1962 album ‘Takin’ Off’ and it became a hard-bop hit with its R&B inflection, catchy pop hook, bluesy piano riffs and gospel chords. Featuring solos from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, it is a driving, straight-ahead affair with a streamlined rhythm section of upright bass, drums and piano. Later, conguero Mongo Santamaria added his percussive flair and made it into a Latin jazz hit. Since then it has been reinterpreted multiple times having been funkified by Sly & The Family Stone and Fred Wesley and The JBs, taken to the juke joint by blues legends Albert King and Buddy Guy and even had a little sunshine sprinkled onto it by Byron Lee and the Skatalites. As a composition, it can wear a lot of hats and it wears them well.
However, I will always be partial to the ‘Head Hunters’ version on which the tempo was slowed down, freeing the instruments and allowing space into a groove you can sink into. It opens with percussionist Bill Summers blowing into a beer bottle, imitating a Pygmy hindewhu, and throughout the song he adds an array of percussion that interplays with Jackson’s bass and Harvey Mason’s drums and lends the version a bit of an African feel. Inspired by Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and most likely the Mizell Brothers, Hancock injects the funk, his keyboards fluid and groovin’. The reason I love this version is because while it headily mind-expanding, it remains an irresistible invitation to ‘cut the rug’; cerebral dance music for the body, mind and soul. As Funkadelic put it, ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow.’
- The Hanbury Arms, London on Sunday, February 5th 2014
- Tickets: $10 on the door and online here
If you can’t make this event, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.