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A Long-Lost Funk Gem From Detroit

On Black Nasty’s 1973 Stax debut, ‘Talking to the People’

On January 19, 2023

When Berry Gordy — who had his eyes set on TV and movie domination, after ruling over the pop charts like Genghis Khan, his sub-labels standing in for the Khan’s sons — moved the Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, he left a considerable vacuum. What was once music’s inarguable third (or fourth) coast, depending on where you put Nashville, became what it was before Gordy: A city of musicians without a mainline to the mainstream. But a whole generation of performers from the same neighborhoods — and even the same apartment buildings — as the Supremes, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye grew up knowing that the distance between 8 Mile Road and the pop charts was not as far as kids growing up in Cleveland, Minneapolis or Omaha might have thought. That desire and ambition didn’t evaporate overnight, but with Motown leaving, there were record industry veterans (singers, studio engineers, producers, songwriters) who were suddenly left without steady work, and had to build their own things. This ranged from jazz collectives like Tribe Records to producers like Don Davis and Sir Mack Rice, who linked up with Stax Organization in Memphis to provide a non-Memphis pipeline of new artists to Motown’s main rival.

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Among those left behind in the Motown western Manifest Destiny was Johnnie Mae Matthews, widely considered the “Godmother of Detroit Soul,” a singer, producer, writer and hustler who ran a variety of locally distributed soul labels that she would operate for a couple singles, and close if nothing took off. Matthews’ impact as a record woman would provide Gordy with a blueprint for how to start up a label, and she was an early mentor for many kids in the Detroit R&B scene, including members of the Temptations (she’s even briefly a character in the infamous ’90s TV biopic on the group). Matthews never signed to Motown — she liked her independence too much — which meant that her impact on Detroit soul music is diffuse and hard to chronicle. She was always there, but she never had real hits of her own outside of Detroit. She was a local hero who helped local kids be more than local. The biggest hit she launched from one of her own labels would end up being a song by A.D.C. Band called “The Long Stroke,” an early funk/disco hybrid that was eventually picked up by Cotillion Records. 

A.D.C. Band, which included two of Matthews’ children, is what brings us to here today, indirectly. Because before they were lodging disco hits, A.D.C. Band had spent a decade-and-a-half morphing and changing their style, picking up scraps of rock, R&B, soul, funk and spaghetti western, trying to hit upon the sound that eventually made them into disco kings. An early version of the band was rock-oriented, and — this is true — featured Ted “Problematic ‘Cat Scratch Fever’” Nugent on guitar. He left sometime in the middle ’60s. In the early ’70s, Matthews’ son, Artwell Matthews Jr., was joined by his sister Audrey, and the group morphed into Black Nasty, a band in the Funkadelic mode that never really adhered to one set style, except their own sound. Johnnie Matthews became the group’s producer, and got them in front of Sir Mack Rice, a Detroit songwriter and producer who was Stax’s golden child in 1973, as he’d written the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” one of the label’s biggest post-Otis Redding hits. Rice recommended the band to Stax, and he and Matthews almost immediately got them into the studio to record what would become Talking to the People, the group’s sole LP. Like similar-in-genre records from the Bar-Kays on Stax (particularly Cold Blooded), the LP made next to no impact on R&B nor the genre’s charts, its sales so small and its impact on the narrative of the Stax story so minuscule that the band doesn’t get mentioned in either of the two tomes written on Stax, Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself and Rob Bowman’s Soulsville, U.S.A. The band continued on, with Johnnie as their producer, eventually becoming the A.D.C. Band and hitting the R&B charts, finally. 

But this isn’t about A.D.C. Band, clearly. It’s about the overlooked, nearly forgotten, woefully unappreciated Talking to the People, and Black Nasty, one of the stankiest bands to ever make two sides of funk.   

A half-century on from its release, ‘Talking to the People’ sounds as forward-thinking and out of place as it did during the Nixon Administration; an album barely in print in 1973, and reissued on vinyl only once since, it rewards new listeners willing to take the plunge and hear its message of genre-less funk.

There’s always a risk you run, when championing a record like Talking to the People, of overstating your case. There’s generally an easy-to-grapple-with reason why something that the vast majority of the listening public hasn’t listened to hasn’t been heard. Poor distribution, something slightly missing in the singles, critical misunderstanding, bad timing; all those things have coalesced to make many deserving records lose out on their just desserts.  

But pressing play on Talking to the People really does feel like something revelatory, something transcendent. It’s like if the Bar-Kays of the early ’70s had a woman on the mic, or if Funkadelic leaned more into rock, or if Sly Stone had half the budget. It’s an album that feels contemporary — it almost predicts Black genre experimentalists like SAULT — but also fits so neatly in with everything happening in Detroit and Memphis funk in 1973. It also makes perfect sense why this wouldn’t have set the world on fire, and why, after its release, Stax dropped Black Nasty in time for the label to go bankrupt in 1975. It’s too rock for the funk fans, it’s too funk to ever get played on rock radio, not psychedelic enough to catch on with people dropping acid and listening to Maggot Brain. It failed to find an audience because the audience it predicts — the musical omnivore who could see the strands between everything — hardly existed in earnest by then. 

But listening today, it’s almost too easy to find something to love. The title track kicks the album off with a fat slab of funk, the kind of song that feels like a waterbed on your eardrums; pliable, bouncy, always shifting. It’s a song that it is inconceivable to learn has no WhoSampled entry: That someone hasn’t turned its various hooks into the foundation of multiple beats is a travesty. The second song on Talking to the People is the only song to be sampled and cataloged, in fact: the “I Must Be In Love” lux instrumentation and vocal hooks were chopped up into a Murs & 9th Wonder track, “I Used to Luv Her (Again).” 

“Nasty Soul” lives up to its name; it’s a song that immediately inspires a stank face from the listener in its first bars that lasts through its 3:38 playing time. It’s also a showcase for the instrumental talent Johnnie Mae fostered in the band; its guitar solo is like an accidental electrocution: it’s sudden, and leaves a mark. “Getting Funky Round Here” lives up to its name, too, and “Black Nasty Boogie” does in a different way; it plays like a rockabilly, barroom stomper, with a piano-riff worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis. The searing instrumental “We’re Doin’ Our Thing” sets up the album’s slow-burn ballad centerpiece, “I Have No Choice,” to be a right cross across your listening field. If you turned the drums down and slowed the BPM very slightly, it’d be a quiet storm classic; instead it pairs with a song two cuts later, “Rushin’ Sea,” which finds Audrey Matthews delivering a sultry power-ballad performance. 

“It’s Not the World” and the final track, “Booger the Hooker,” nail home the Black empowerment and social-issue funk that the title track and album title promise. “It’s Not the World” finds the group lamenting a lack of personal responsibility in the social ills of the planet, and a tendency to blame things on the harshness of the world. “It’s not the world, it’s the people killing the land,” they sing over multiple guitar solos and a simmering organ. “Booger the Hooker,” an ebullient funk track, traces a descent into drug addiction via the titular character, a man hooked on drugs, who burns all his bridges. The social message doesn’t always land cleanly but, then again, neither does the genre hopping on the album. 

After being dropped by Stax, Black Nasty lasted for two more Matthews-distributed singles before morphing again into A.D.C. Band and having their disco success. It was the most successful version of the band started by Matthews’ son out of the family home close to 20 years earlier. I wish I could say this record was the beginning of a Johnnie Mae Matthews producer run, where she lent her ear to a variety of funk releases, but I can’t tell anymore than you can what contribution she made here, beyond being a constant encouragement to her kids, and always pushing their bands through her variety of indie imprints until they could be handed off to a bigger label. By the late-’70s, Matthews was basically all that was left of the Detroit-centered R&B business; by then, Parliament were splitting their time in L.A. and Detroit, and Motown ceased sounding much like their Motor City roots. Matthews would pass away from cancer in 2002.  

But the album she produced 50 years ago, Talking to the People, stands as a testament to the resiliency of the Detroit funk and R&B scene, and its depth of talent. A half-century on from its release, Talking to the People sounds as forward-thinking and out of place as it did during the Nixon Administration; an album barely in print in 1973, and reissued on vinyl only once since, it rewards new listeners willing to take the plunge and hear its message of genre-less funk. 

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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