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After more than 30 years in the group, Trouble Funk leader Big Tony Fisher decided his band needed something new. A fresh track, something to get them back out there. So he used the same method he’s used as long as he’s been in the business.
“I got the band together at rehearsal, and we start[ed] off playing some percussion grooves,” says the longtime go-go talker and bandleader. “I said we need some pockets to build a song on. So let’s play some pockets and see what we come up with. Once we play a pocket that feels good James [Avery] will try to put something on top of that pocket, and if I hear something that works, I will say do it again. Once we get that foundation down, I’ll make the song.”
That experimentation produced 2013’s “Hump Day,” Trouble Funk’s first studio recording release in 27 years. Tonight, the band celebrates the release of the song’s video at 9:30 Club. (Fisher gave Washington City Paper permission to premiere the video in advance of the show; watch it below.)
In this century, Trouble Funk is mostly known for its New Year’s Eve reunion gigs at the V Street NW venue. But fans know it was one of the hardest-working and innovative go-go groups of its day. Formed in 1978, Trouble Funk became known in the 1980s for its tracks “Pump Me Up,” “E-Flat Boogie,” and “Drop the Bomb.” Its hectic years eventually gave way to a quieter period, particularly in the last decade. Much of that winding down had to do with Tony’s health. He’s diabetic, and that comes with its share of related impairments.
“The dialysis thing can be real hectic sometimes,” Tony says. In 2003, his kidneys shut down, and he had to take a couple of years off to rehabilitate. “I put the music aside while I got myself right—-not just physically, but mentally and spiritually.” Once he felt comfortable about stepping out again, he began to rebuild his group. But his health still presents hurdles. “I have turned down so many tours overseas because promoters thought it was too expensive to cover my treatment,” he says. “My health comes first.”
Trouble Funk’s current incarnation features original keyboard player James “Doc” Avery; veteran trumpeter Dean “Chops” Harris; and a number of new musicians. “It took me about eight years to reinvent this thing without losing my identity,” says Tony. “I just picked a younger group of musicians and took my time and trained them and instructed them in the traditional style of Trouble Funk. Basically what I was after is getting younger musicians with a younger feel that can capture that Trouble Funk style.”
That younger vibe comes through in “Hump Day”—-mostly because it borrows its hook from Taylor Swift. But its roots are planted firmly in the old school. “Actually the original name for ‘Hump Day’ was ‘Humpty,'” Big Tony says. “That was the original name of the pocket with the drumbeat and the percussion. It has sort of a ‘Humpty Hop’ feel to it.” He adds, “James stuck that turnaround in it—-that ‘da da da da’ and we made that part of the pocket. Then I took the 808 [drum machine] and put this pattern in there that I kinda got from James Brown’s ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess.’ James Brown had this slick bassline in that, so I used that pattern and created an 808 bass pattern.” As for possible retaliation from the Taylor Swift camp—-well, he doesn’t seem too worried about that. “I hope she does come after me,” he says. “Maybe I can get her in a video. Not all lawsuits are bad. I knew what I was doing.”
The “Hump Day” video is a low-budget affair filmed mostly at the 9:30 Club—-whose staff Tony compares to family—-with some shots taken in Ben’s Next Door and recording studios. It includes clips of the band through the years and features key guest appearances from Killa Cal from Rare Essence (a “humble cat,” says Tony) and “Sweet“ Cherie Mitchell-Agurs and Karis Hill from Be’la Dona. (The video is included on the group’s 35th anniversary live DVD, which will be on sale at tonight’s show.) Its lyrics reference Trouble’s big songs “Say What” and “Pump Me Up,” and tell a larger story about the group. “For the lyrics, I basically just told a story of the history of the band,” Tony says. “We’ve been around the world from London to Japan, and let’s make every day hump day. It’s something that you can party to every day.”
Trouble Funk’s plans for the future don’t end here—-it’s also in the studio now working on a new album to be called Unfinished Business. “We have 13 tunes we plan to do on the album and maybe we’ll have more,” Tony says. “The next single is going to be a song I did some 15 years ago with the great Chuck Brown but I had never released it. It’s called ‘Unity.'” (The vocalist says he’d like to do a video for that one, too, with animation to portray the late godfather of go-go.) Tony says he’s basically producing the record himself. “We had only one outside producer and that was when we were on Island Records and that was the worst record we ever had,” he says.
To help pay his medical bills, Tony looks to his publishing company, which goes after artists that have sampled Trouble Funk. Of course, the most notable of those cases was the one launched against the Beastie Boys—-an unfortunately timed initiative that hit the rap group on the eve of Adam Yauch‘s death. That litigation is ongoing. Referring to paying or getting permission for sampling, Tony says, “Some of them do it the right way and some others don’t. Those who don’t do it the right way will have to pay. You can pay now or pay later with interest. At the end of the day everyone’s got to eat.”
To Tony, a lot of lessons about money came hard-earned. He says the band was profitable, especially in its heyday, but a lot of that income didn’t wind up in the group’s pockets. “If Trouble Funk had gotten half of the money that we had made, we’d probably be set for life,” he says. “We had to learn the hard way. My main objective is I am trying to get back on the scene.”
Trouble Funk’s “Hump Day” video celebration, featuring Killa Cal, the Go-Go Symphony, Be’la Dona, Sugar Bear, Jas Funk, Buggs, and Big G, takes place tonight at 8 p.m. at the 930 Club, 815 V. St. NW. Tickets $20.