Return of the Axe

Black music's six-string revival comes to Oakland.

Historically, the guitar has always been one of the main instruments in traditional black music, from West African acoustic folk to Robert Johnson delta blues, Chuck Berry classic rock, Wes Montgomery/George Benson jazzy smoothness, and out-there Jimi Hendrix/Ernie Isley funkadelica. The guitar was just one aspect of the funk ensemble’s sound (and not the featured instrument as in rock, metal, and punk), but still played a prominent role in the music of everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Shuggie Otis and Prince. Seventies arena rock bands were mostly all-white — at one point, Funkadelic had to ask, “Who says funk bands can’t play rock music?” — as were hair-metal bands. Moreover, hip-hop’s emergence in the ’80s pushed the guitar further into the background of the black music scene; meanwhile metal, punk, and indie rock continued to be racially limited fields, with few exceptions, including Bad Brains, Body Count, and Living Colour.

Still, occasional flashes of guitar brilliance have peeked out from under the thick veil of rap and R&B in the past decade: Lenny Kravitz’ homage to Hendrix, “Are You Gonna Go My Way”; Cody Chesnutt’s ruminating “The Seed”; Martin Luther’s slinky yet stinky “Rebel Soul Music.”

Now, with ripples still emanating from the whole Amy Winehouse/Sharon Jones retro R&B movement, the guitar seems poised for yet another return to black music’s main stage. New albums by Van Hunt and Soulive have sweetened the pot nationally, while the recent reissue of Bay Area wah-wah master Eugene Blacknell’s We Can’t Take Life for Granted confirms the oft-cited rumor that the region was once overflowing with bad-ass axemen.

Make that still awash in six-string badness. Anyone who’s caught one of B’nai Rebelfront’s live sets at the Junction — a monthly residency at West Oakland Afro-bohemian speakeasy Black New World — can attest that the funk gods haven’t abandoned the East Bay. Rebelfront has proven to be quite the riffmaster, casually peeling off furious fret-burning solos with all the confidence of a Kirk Hammett, who, incidentally, he resembles with his wavy black hair, parted in the middle. Rebelfront’s music mines deep into the funk-soul vein, carefully balancing its thrashier side with smoothed-out elements, coming off somewhat reminiscent of both early Prince and P-Funk’s Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, yet with an emotionally charged lyricism all his own.

Rebelfront — who has played with the Coup, Rosie Gaines, Lyrics Born, Tony Toni Tone, Kolorbox, and the Oakland Africanz — is a Bronx native who emigrated to the Bay around 1991 — just before hip-hop took over the local black music scene. He acknowledges that black axemen have been off the mainstream radar for the most part, but adds, “I don’t think we went anywhere. … As far as black rock is concerned, they only let a few people through.”

The problem isn’t just with national perceptions, he says, but also in the local live music scene, which is more segregated than most would imagine. Music like Rebelfront’s tends to fall in between the cracks of smoothed-out R&B/jazz venues and garage-y indie rock dives. Still, he insists, “new cats are coming out from under the rocks.” Following the examples of Boots and Lyrics Born, he adds, “I’m starting to see a lot more of the rappers merging with the musicians.”

The four tracks on Rebelfront’s web site might lack the in-your-face intensity of his live performances, but they make up for it by referencing the ’80s Minnesota sound made famous by Prince, but also the Time, the Family, Jesse Johnson, and Mazarati. Rebelfront is used to the Purple One comparisons — “a lot of people say that,” he admits — but isn’t ashamed of his influences: Prince, Zapp, Hendrix, Queen, Van Halen. “My music is pretty much the stuff I grew up on: funk, rock, soul. … To me, it was funky, it was edgy, soulful. It was cool.”

Rebelfront says several folks have asked him about Blacknell, whose album he has yet to check out, but notes that the region has historically produced legendary funksters like Sly Stone and Larry Graham, in addition to more recent soulmen like the Tonys and Martin Luther.

“I’m starting to feel like it’s time” for a funk-soul revival, he says. “There’s a spark that’s burning. It’s lit, it just needs to really flame out. … That’s the mission.”

Currently unsigned, Rebelfront has his eye on becoming a solo artist after paying his dues as a sideman. He’s recording music, not necessarily for an album, but rather to refine his sound. Meanwhile, he’s grateful for the chance to preview his material in front of a live audience at Black New World, which he says has become a go-to spot for the cream of the local black music crop: “That’s what it’s for: exposing talent.”

Sexy didn’t go anywhere before Justin Timberlake brought it back, and for what it’s worth, neither did the guitar in black music. Still, it’s nice to know where it can be found — just in case you were looking for it.

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