Monthly Archives: July 2007

Yo, I’m trying to see this documentary !!! 25 July 07

Bastards of the Party


'Bastards of the Party'
The mean street of Los Angeles are the backdrop for Cle ‘Bone’ Sloan’s study of the roots of gang warfare, ‘Bastards of the Party.’

Produced by Antoine Fuqua. Executive producer, Fuqua. Co-producer, Alex Demyanenko. Directed by Cle “Bone” Sloan.
One of three films at Tribeca about gang warfare between the Crips and the Bloods, Antoine Fuqua-produced docu, directed by 32-year-old Los Angeles gang member Cle “Bone” Sloan, steps back from the vicious cycle of death and revenge long enough to answer the question, “How did we get here?” with economy and clarity. Tracing the evolution of the gangs through a history of racism and externally encouraged divisiveness, “Bastards” indicates paths away from self-genocide as it reveals the face of a common enemy. Must-see docu reps a promising start for Fuqua’s independent production venture.An eloquent spokesperson for the Bloods since the L.A. Riots projected him into the public eye on “Larry King Live,” “Nightline” and “Oprah,” helmer Sloan subsequently became involved in filmmaking as an assistant cameraman and then as actor (most notably in Fuqua’s “Training Day”) before turning documentarian.

Sloan fashions a sobering decade-by-decade chronicle of discrimination and repression, drawing freely from contemporaneous accounts in the California Eagle, newsreels, FBI memoranda and Los Angeles historian Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz.” Pic attributes the formation of the first black gangs to self-defense against racist white gangs like the Spookhunters and analyzes the systematic targeting of the black community during the reign of police chief William Parker.

Sloan’s account becomes richer in eyewitness testimonials and archival documentation in its discussion of the ’60s, when many black gangs became associated with political causes.

Historian Davis outlines sweeping changes in black neighborhoods in the ’70s: Drained of political ambition, their leaders killed off, and facing a new economic climate that saw the closing of factories and a dearth of semi-skilled jobs, black gangs turned to drugs, imported in record quantity allegedly through CIA-Contra links and celebrated by blaxploitation films as the only viable form of black capitalism. The criminalization and warehousing of black youth in jails, pic posits, answered society’s dilemma of what to do with a superannuated workforce. (Urban legend ascribes the origin of the Crips- Bloods war to a dispute over a leather jacket.)

Sloan’s forceful presentation becomes diffused and anguished once it catches up with the decades the helmer himself has lived through. Ultimately, Sloan understands that despite the politically compelling reading of events “Bastards” constructs, history pales before the emotion-charged parade of shootings and funerals that increasingly comprise the fabric of gang members’ lives.

Tech credits are polished, though pic would profit from some tightening in its last half-hour.

Camera (color, archival B&W, 16mm/HD/DV-to-HD), Haskell Wexler, Mark Woods, Joan Churchill; editor, Keith Salmon; music, Jung Han Chung. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Wide Angle), April 23, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.


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Bad Brains: Darryl Jenifer Builds A Nation 22 July 07

Darryl Jenifer Of Bad Brains: ‘I Want To Be The Soldier Of My Music’

artist: bad brains date: 07/12/2007 category: interviews

Interview by Amy Kelly for

Bad Brains’ latest release Build A Nation delivers positive, often spiritual themes, but still continues to delve into the hardcore punk sound fans have known. Lending a hand on production duties was The Beastie Boys‘ Adam Yauch (MCA), who jumped at the chance to record one of his early influences. The album marks the band’s first album in 5 years and features the classic lineup of bassist Jenifer, vocalist H.R., guitarist Dr. Know, and drummer Earl Hudson. Although Jenifer spent a few years apart from Bad Brains, he told UG writer Amy Kelly recently that a “brotherhood” like Bad Brains could never break up.

UG: You’ve had a series of ups and downs with Bad Brains over the years, including a series of lineup changes and breakups. What motivated the band to write Build A Nation?

Darryl: People should understand that we’re like a brotherhood before a band. We kind of knew each other and grew up together before Bad Brains. So when people see our ups and downs, we’re like a family. Within any family there is dysfunction, like a big brother and a little brother. You’ve got to look at us like that. We’ve got a big brother that’s a little eccentric, kind of wild. My next big brother is real knowledgeable and kind of grounded. So I want to make it clear that Bad Brains, as a collective, never really broke up or anything like that. We just kind of get sick of each other or don’t want to play or whatnot.

So check it out, this band Bad Brains still has a life of its own. So it’s not like we sit around and go, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” It was like one day I think we were doing some shows. There’s no big mystery to the thing. We said, ” Shit, we’ve got to make a new record.” Then I was talking to Yauch one day about something else we were doing together. I said, “Yeah, the Brains are going to drop a new record!” He goes, “Shit, you all have to let me produce that, man! ” I’m like, “All right, fine.

I call up Doc and say, “Yo, let’s get together and throw together some riffs.” He said, “Yeah? What type of riffs do you want to throw down?” I said, “You know what? This time we’re going to drop some shit like how we used to. ” It’s not like we’re going to go back and copy ourselves because we can’t do that. We could never do it. So we said, “Let’s make some shit that when people put it on, they’ll say, ‘Now that’s the Brains!’

What kind of music influenced you in the early days of Bad Brains?

We loved all music. Where we’re from you’re just supposed to like funk, go-go. That’s Chocolate City. The rock that’s in D.C. is more like Capitol Hill, Virginia heavy metal. But where we’re coming from, it’s mainly go-go. The blessing here is that somehow or another I’m in 8th grade math class, drawing pictures of guitars while I’m supposed to be doing shit, listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever. We’re not listening to your BT Express, funky shit. But then I’d listen to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and shit like that. So when punk came around, it was just another form. I thought it was interesting that the dudes couldn’t really play, but they really had a lot of heart.

I read on your bio that some band members have a background in jazz. Were you one of the members who dabbled in that genre?

That’s like a spin really! I’m kind of getting a little upset about that. With the jazz, it’s not like we’re in D.C., going to Duke Ellington and playing jazz. I don’t even know how to play jazz. What that is that people knew that we would listen to progressive jazz rock like Return To Forever, Weather Report, and shit like that. So as young cats wanting to be musicians, it was natural for us. We wanted to make our music progressive. It was the norm to do the funk and the go-go. For some reason, I didn’t want to be normal! That’s the whole key to the whole thing.

I could be 16 years old, living in the heart of D.C., going to see my girlfriend. I might listen to some Kool And The Gang, maybe I’ll put on some Stevie Wonder. Then you might hear a little Black Sabbath. The next thing you know, I’m listening to The Ramones and the people next door are wondering what the hell is my problem! The dudes in the hood are calling me Elvis because I wear leather pants.

As a musician today do you still find yourself experimenting with different musical styles?

Then, I was like a corporal. Now, I’m like a general! I was a corporal way back then, learning in the ranks of things. Being a musician and a cat that plays an instrument, it’s a seasoned situation now. It’s more like I’m a general. I sit down at the table of my studio, turn on my guitar and say, “D, what you working with? What do you want? Are you dropping rub-a-dub today? Do you want to come up with a punk rock thing? Do you want to get loud? What do you like and what’s going to make you feel good?” So if I can decide on that, then the floodgates would open to what I like. It’s all about me deciding. With Build A Nation, you see it’s rock, old school Bad Brains. It’s reggae, rub-a-dub.

I’m too lazy to learn the language of music, and that’s why I don’t consider myself a musician.

As a bass player, are you someone who pays great attention to your playing style?

I used to be really into the bass, from about 13 to when I was about 18, and I was absorbed in a really big way. I would draw pictures of them all the time. I would fall asleep with a bass and it would fall on the floor and scare me! I was obsessed. My father used to yell at me that it was all I ever wanted to do. I was obsessed with the bass. I would write letters to Stanley Clarke and shit like that. There was a time when I lived this instrument.

Do you remember these magazines called Highlights? They used to have these connect-the-dots and it would be like an elephant with balloons. When I look at the fretboard, that’s mainly what I trip on. When I’m writing my music, I don’t really create the movement of the music from any type of musical knowledge. I look and go, “Well, I went one half-step. This time I’m going to do this.” It’s like Braille or something to me! I’m too lazy to learn the language of music, and that’s why I don’t consider myself a musician. There are cats out there that take the time to learn the language. If I knew the music, you’d probably hear about me more.

I’m a guy with a knack. I do mainly punk rock and reggae. I feel I’ve developed a tremendous feel for it. I was kind of shy – the worse thing about me playing bass was playing in front of people onstage. So I feel that I’ve evolved through the years. So now I have no problems going onstage, but the music was always first. It was me massaging whatever figure I came up with out of the fretboard.

How did you originally come up with the first track, “Give Thanks And Praises”?

That was me and Doc. It was like a movement or like a guy in the opera with the baton. So when we go to imagine what we want to kick, we want the crowd to feel what we’re going to do. So we said, “All right, on this type of joint we’re going to come in with this metal-esque type riff that can get a head nod going. So the whole idea is to get the crowd jumping. Every musician and every artist is writing for the crowd or whoever is listening, how he wants them to feel about it and react to it.

So we’re sitting here going, “If we come up with this shit, we’re going to go and jump on this rock riff. It’s going to be a headbanger. But then we’re going to break back, do a break, and then we’re going to go into our fast shit with a guitar lead.” It’s like composing, really. You want to come in at one tempo that creates the certain type of mood. H.R. hears that, and I don’t know what he’s going to write or what he’s going to sing to the music. I’m just an arranger, music composer. Throughout our career, I think I only wrote a lyric to maybe like “Big Take Over” or something like that. H.R. hears the music, and whatever the music makes him feel, it’s on him to express that in word and in lyric.

What role did Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA of The Beastie Boys) play as producer?

It’s more like when I produce. There are 2 types of producers. There’s the producer that can make the arrangements and set your whole shit up because you can’t do it yourself. The record label or somebody has more confidence in this particular producer’s vision with music. It gets political.

Then there’s the producer like Ric Ocasek, who comes in not so much changing our music or talking about our choruses or verses, but just making sure our sessions are organized. Not all producers fuck with your music! Groups like Bad Brains, they can produce themselves. What they can’t do is organize the session and deliver the record. As far as producing the music, they know and they have a vision of what they want to do.

What I found with Yauch is that we’re all sort of on the same page. It was sort of like, “Come on, man!” Earl doesn’t like to play a lot sometimes. We played about 4 to 6 more songs than what we normally would have recorded because of Yauch kind of pushing on us.

Was the recording process a lot shorter with Yauch’s help?

I think we did that in about 10 days or something. We wanted to keep it simple, but my mother got sick with cancer. So for 18 months, I was in another world of cancer care until she died. So that’s why people say, “You recorded this record at this time, but why is it just coming out now?” There’s a long process in finding the label, and it was the 18 months. We come when Jah calls us. It was there and it came. Sometimes with this band, you can’t really manipulate it. It’s living.

Have you encountered new aspects of the music scene that are different from when you started 30 years ago?

I’ve got to stop going on the Internet. They kept dissing us and saying that we’re old and play half-ass. It’s just ignorance really. For instance, we played Sasquatch and I saw this guy’s review about how we’re “all right.” It was like a windstorm. If you go to see anybody, it’s not going to have any impact out in the canyon. My music is not even designed for arenas. We’re not that band. We’re not the big open-air band. To get the full impact of the riffs that I create with what we do, you’ve got to be in a nice-size club with a tight PA. We’re not that band. We’re not the Guns N’ Roses that step out on the stage with wind blowing. Our music goes to fast and it’s too sheer. But there’s a college radio kid that just heard about us and doesn’t really know.

And do you know this homophobic bit that they keep saying about us? In short, years ago when we were first discovering Rastafari, I tried to explain to people that you grow. You’re growing. In Rastafari and even in Christianity, they disagree with homosexuality. That’s a known fact. So the point being here, when we first were discovering Rastafari – like any young men or any young women getting into anything – you’re overzealous. Back in 1988, I might have been saying, “Fire burn…” I’m 25 years old! You’ve got to understand that I’m a young man growing, getting into something. Now I’m 46 years old and I’ve learned that that’s ignorant. I’ve learned through the years that we’re all God’s children, regardless of your race, creed, color, sexuality, any of that.

You get people out there, that when we come back in the public eye, they immediately run and go, “Don’t like them. Those dudes hate. They’re homophobes.” What they’re doing is really just hating on us. H.R. wrote a song “Don’t Blow Bubbles” in 1988 and now still today there are people out there that won’t let that go. They don’t understand that we’ve grown. Just like anyone, I’m not ashamed to say, “Maybe I could have been…” Damn right, I was a homophobe! I shouldn’t have to explain that to the world because everyone will do that. That’s wisdom. You have to grow to be wise.

That’s respectable that you are able to own up to that today.

People have got to know that from when we first started doing any type of real music professionally, our banner was always PMA. We always used to say, “We come to unite the black and the white onstage” – to the point where it was embarrassing. It was our banner. It was our banner to unite the youth. If you listen to our early music, that’s what you’re going to hear. You’re going to hear that and you’re going to hear bitching about politics, Ronald Reagan, and us being God-respecting youth and that we feel that Jah had his plan.

Have you noticed any new bands that could possibly be following in the footsteps of Bad Brains in terms of uniting youth and creating a musical movement?

That’s a good question. I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in the music scene today to see anything like that jumping out. I can’t hear anything from where I stand. I’m writing my solo record, so I usually don’t listen to a lot of stuff to keep my palette clean. When I look out there into the horizon, I just see a bunch of entertainers. I see a lot of cats in the music game, making money. But as far as like how Jello Biafra used to be, I don’t see. It could be. I could be wrong. Maybe there are some youths sitting somewhere right now, living together, playing together, and playing music based on a positive progression and seeking spirituality.

People should understand that we’re like a brotherhood before a band.

Does religion always enter into your songwriting?

Not so much religion particularly. I do have a faith and I’m very spiritual, but I don’t have a church or a saying. I consider myself more like an earth man. I live on the earth. My body is my temple. My relationship with the Great Spirit is between me and him. Occasionally I say “Jah,” but I really like to say “Great Spirit.” I like to remain humble. I don’t like to say “He.” I’d hate to turn around and it’s not necessarily that, you know?

Talk a bit about your solo project. Is it similar to what you’ve done with Bad Brains?

The band is called Blackvova Universal. The whole concept to the music I’m doing is a celebration of the female. I believe that all of creation passed through a female. We’ve got our thing with our seed and all that. But like a baby getting in there and forming, that’s really the Great Spirit at work. This particular album’s concept is basically that I feel like all of us are born of one womb within Africa. I believe Africa is the cradle is civilization.

Can you see yourself in Bad Brains 10 or 20 years from now?

Personally, I’ll always be in the group because it’s my group of brothers. We come when Jah calls us. That’s how I like to describe that. We come when the Great Spirit calls us. People say I’m far off the stage of hardcore. I’m 46 years old, but I do what I do. I’m better than I was when I was 19. I own what I do in terms of hardcore rock bassists. I own that. Unless the tendons in my hand get in an arthritic situation, then maybe I might stop. But right now, it’s music that we’re inventing and I still physically can play it with no problem. As a matter of fact, I feel more proficient than ever. It’s a combination of the history I had with the style, all that. In the past it was a problem. It was a struggle. It’s not a struggle anymore because it’s something that I better know.

I look at the music and the riffs that I create as a spear. The music that I create is like the head of the spear to spread positivity throughout the world. I’m fighting a battle: good over evil. I want to be the soldier of my music to help aid in the progression of positive vibes. God blessed me to be able to be brave enough and clever enough to bring that music to a sound like punk rock. Somebody might think it’s a sound that’s negative and vulgar. My aunt passed away, but she said, “Darryl, I understand you’re very popular with this vulgar form of music. What that is, that’s the glory of the Great Spirit, knowing that Bad Brains within music is going to open some eyes.

Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2007

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Filipino Prisoners Have More Fun Than You!!! 20 July 2007

Ahhh…YouTube. It’s here to stay, isn’t it? Building bridges, teaching us intimate things about other places and cultures.

For the people.

By the people.

Of the people.

Well, I for one am concerned about whatever goings on are going on in this particular prison in Cebu, in the Philippines.


Because they are disgracing the very institution of “Prison”. Leave it to the Filipinos.

This is not what’s happening on “Oz”, okay? Yes, there are definately allusions to buttsex, but it isn’t nearly as sinister as it’s supposed to be to keep people scared straight (on the straight and narrow), right?

I mean, the guy who’s playing the part of the girl, in this piece de incarceration…was born to play this very role!!!

A strong statement from the people of the Philippines, and their culture. They are indeed throwing down the gauntlet towards us living near and dear to Lady Liberty’s bosom.

But wait, bitch…

The “foulest stench of funk is in the air” , America will not be topped.

But again…the Pinoy dudes are in jail,player. Jail? Not at a wedding, with booze and cake. Jail.

How much fun are they having not in jail, in the Philippines?


Nobody has as much fun as these guys:

Oh. There is some serious social commentary going on here, pimpin’. Think about it.




White folks.

Asians in jail.

Zombies makin’ zombies

But farilldough, the Filipino cats were feeling it.

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Hank Shocklee:Louder Than A Bomb 12 July 07


(Ed.note:In the spirit of The Bomb Squad this article was sampled from “Cool’eh Magazine”…there’s always a free stack of them at my laundrymat. visit them @





Hank Shocklee is an icon. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who he is or never heard of the Bomb Squad. When you can say you were Chuck D’s mentor you are an icon. When your production credits run from Public Enemy’s“It Takes a Nation of Millions” to Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” to Slick Rick’s “Great Adventures” to RUN-DMC’s “Down with the King”…you are an icon. His fingerprints are on half the significant hip-hop records in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and Hank Shocklee is nowhere near done. The man has an opinion on everything and isn’t afraid to share it, including what makes a great artist, the future of the music industry and why dubstep is speaking to him right now.

CE: When you look back is there anyone you would have liked to work with that you didn’t get the chance to?

HS: Hmm. That’s a hard one, man…you know something, I would have liked to work with Kane. If anybody, I would have loved to have done a whole project with him. Someone I respect and like a lot, I like Saul Williams. I would love to work with Saul Williams and I don’t know why, it’s just because I vibrate with him. I work with who I vibrate with. I’ve been blessed man, after working with P.E, Ice Cube, Slick Rick…after a while, you know, not that everyone else is not good…I would have loved to work with BIG, that would have been a whole ‘nother zone. That would have been incredible, the difference with BIG is I could have made art with BIG, record after record, it would have been ridiculous. The thing is, when you work with people that cover the range that they cover, like Ice Cube. Cube contacted me wanting to know if we could do a few tracks for his solo album after the whole NWA thing came to what it was and I was like, I’ll do it if I can do the whole album. And he said, that’s what I was hoping you would say…y’know…and when we were in the studio he showed up with notebooks and notebooks full of new rhymes, a bag full of rhymebooks.

The reason why I liked Ice Cube was Ice Cube’s viewpoint was a lot more dangerous, even more than what I was used to with Chuck and P.E.. He came from the school of “tell a nigga like it is and not give a fuck” and his “not give a fuck” was so ecstatic, so real, so concentrated that it was like wow! That’s how I judge artists, besides your voice and all that… those intangibles are what gets me. I work with L.L., fucking L.L man…look L.L. is not anybody’s favorite rapper, he’s not mentioned in the top five, but the thing about L.L. that no one talks about is his drive, his drive, the spirit that moves him. L.L. is a beast! If he played sports he would be Michael Jordan because he don’t stop, he don’t take no for an answer. I mean, this guy is the longest running rapper in the history of the game…he shoulda been over decades ago…L.L. was fucking five years before P.E.

CE: Pretty impressive, yeah.

HS: Damn impressive, okay. Because everyone from his era is nowhere near the game. So I look at him like he’s the Barry Bonds of our generation, it’s those intangibles that get me. The thing that I liked about Kane was that when he first came out, that was Kane! The part I didn’t like was when he became “Smooth Chocolate” or whatever it was, when he got to the part that he was smooth. That’s when I lost that feeling because Kane was your little brother’s man from the projects who was a knothead, but at the same time he knew what he was doing, he didn’t care but he was determined, no frosting in his game. He was the type to walk up to the club, jump the line, walk straight up to the bouncer and dare somebody to stop him.

CE: The intangibles…

HS: Imagination. [One time] Biggie and Premier are in the studio and Premier is playing him tracks—

CE: What were you doing in the studio, A&Ring?

HS: No, I was just in the building and someone told me Biggie was downstairs and I just happened to go down there and hang out. Because I knew Un [Rivera], we did a lot of work back, back…so those guys are all in the studio and BIG is in there and he’s working on one of his records, but Premier came in with a bunch of DATS and he was playing BIG all kinda shit. Every cut was banging. Every cut…and I’m sitting there like damn, but BIG is just like “nah, nah”. And I am like what the fuck is this guy looking for…then BIG is like give me that cut you did for Wendy Williams. It was when she was on Hot 97 and it was the promo for her countdown show, it was a promo and Premier was like “You want that?” and so Premier played it and I heard it, was sitting there going okay, because out of all the tracks, this was the worst. It had to be the worst. Even Premier was shocked. When I heard the finished record I said, “he’s a genius”, that was Biggie’s defining moment. It’s the imagination that makes it, if your imagination is beyond wild and you can blaze it, c’mon man, that’s touchdown. That’s touchdown. It’s like Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”…I mean, what, how the fuck you…who would even think of some shit like that! Where was you at thinking about this? That to me is what separates the legendary artists from all the other artists. Like Common, I think that he is a good artist, I don’t think he had that defining moment that separated him. Even Mos, I thought Mos was a good artist but I haven’t record that made me be like…y’know…I heard a lot of good records. Talib was on his way with that first record but then he kinda got off of that and he also stopped letting Hi-Tek do his beats. Him and Hi-Tek was a match made in Heaven…I like a lot of different stuff, I liked Slum Village when they were all together, I thought they had a nice little style. With Jay-Dee, J-Dilla, I don’t know why he changed to J-Dilla, it thought that was like admitting that he wasn’t big enough to handle Jay-Dee. I thought he shoulda stayed Jay-Dee…

CE: Well, at that time J.D. [Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri] was one of the biggest artists in the game…

HS: Yeah, and, so what!? So fucking what! Battle, nigga…because as far as I am concerned Jay Dee was one of the hottest underground producers coming up, he was gonna take that ass. See, it’s all about confidence, the whole game is about confidence. You don’t have no confidence, you can’t fuck with this rap shit, man.

CE: As a producer, what do you consider your crowning achievement?

HS: Wow, that’s big, that’s big. My crowning achievement…you know what, as a producer I would have to say my first release of a record and for me that was a song I did for Spectrum City [early version of Public Enemy]. It was called “Check out the radio” and the reason I pick that is because it was the first time that I got a chance to manifest my idea and actually saw it in a physical form. That to me has to be it because what it did was re-instill in me the fact that yes, anything is possible as long as you stay committed to whatever you want to do. Sure, there have been other moments after that that picked you up higher than that, but as an initial [moment], there was nothing better because it was a realization that you can give birth to something. And that right there…once you realize you can do that, all you need is something that brings you out from childhood to adulthood, and that was the record Rebel without a Pause. Once you move from alright, we’ve been dabbling at this thing, but then that one moment where you actually break through…

CE: You are talking about just holding the vinyl in your hands?

HS: That’s the first one, yeah, holding “Check out the radio” in my hands, but the second one was Rebel without a Pause. And that was just actually finishing the record, making that record…I call it the Michael Jordan shot, like when he was at North Carolina and he made that shot to win the championship and he realized like “I could really do this now”.
For me that has to be Rebel without a Pause and once that happens you get a little spring in your walk, you now got a little swagger, because now you know that what you are doing is right. And once you put it all together and you can see the finish line that’s when everything becomes so vivid that your manifestation from nothing to something becomes almost automatic. And once that happens your entire life changes, because now…see, that’s why making records is such a beautiful thing because it’s one of the only places where you can take your imagination and make it tangible. And once your imagination is tangible to people and people buy into it, it’s a whole ‘nother high and for me that process is very, very spiritual because that process has a lot to do with faith, with energy and the energy that you send out to people because the energy that you send out is the same energy that you get back. And I know that to be true because I have witnessed too many scenarios where I saw how it comes back…

CE: Give me some examples.

HS: I was walking down the street with Chuck, we was in Harlem. “Bum Rush the Show” had just come out and we happened to walk by the record shop and we saw this new group called Boogie Down Productions and they had an album.

We already knew them from having a single but now they had an album out and when I saw KRS-1 and Scott La Rock on the cover with arsenals of guns and grenades and bullets strapped around it was amazing [laughs]. They looked like superheroes. But I told Chuck, they’re sending out the wrong message, because the message they’re sending out is one of “I’m a bad man”, “I’m a rude boy gangsta kid”, and the only problem about that is what I said before, what you send out there comes back to you. So a few months later, what happens, D-Nice gets into some bullshit, gets Scott to come help him out with this bullshit and what happens? Niggas just start spraying on them…why? Because the message that they sent out was that “I’m a bad boy”, but really you don’t have to worry about bad boys because the true gangsters, the real bad boys are not fucking with you unless you are fucking with them. It’s the punk niggas you gotta worry about because those are the motherfuckers that are scared, those are the motherfuckers that will shoot first and ask questions later. And what happened, Scott La Rock lost his life…that was one of the first times I saw the way [the universe] works. Another time I was at the mall and I was with this kid and asked what he was listening to and he said Biggie, Ready to Die and I was like “Whoa, this kid put out an album called Ready to Die???” Don’t people understand what we are messing with when we talk about the universe? The universe is positioned…believe in God or not, you don’t have to believe alright but understand this…the universe is set up for you to manifest anything that you can process that you put out there is able to be manifest into reality. You put out there love, peace and happiness and that is what will manifest, you put out there chaos, destruction and mayhem and that is what will come back to you…we are in the communications business. We communicate with the universe and you want to be careful what you send out into the universe…

CE: What then to make of the idea that in the ‘80s hip-hop was a lot more fun, playful and harmless, but New York’s crime and murder rates were off the charts, whereas now the “conventional wisdom” is that hip-hop lyrics are much more violent and negative but the city is safer than it has been for forty years? Wouldn’t that contradict that concept?

HS: Well, see that is where crack comes in. Crack created so much turmoil in our communities that I am not sure you can make that point because that changed everything. And at the same time, as bad as things were then, we still had our spirit, as a people we still had our spirit…nowadays, I am not so sure…

CE: Back to the Bomb Squad, a lot of people say that the production you did back then still couldn’t be replicated now…

HS: Naw, plus the sample laws changed. You couldn’t [layer samples] like that now, it’s got to the point where all you could do is one. All I can say is that it was a moment in time, man, that I personally had an axe to grind. I was tired and fed up of all the bullshit out there, and not just in music, I’m talking about politics, life…when you got the drama from your family, baby mommas or whatever the case may be, you get to the point where when you get in the studio it becomes your sanctuary, and it allows you to vent. You can vent musically and that is why I am not a fan of smooth styles because life, to me, is hectic. It’s chaotic, life is grimy, it ain’t soft and smooth and pretty and harmonious. It has its moments, but the whole trip is not that, and especially the plight of the black man. The black man gets no respect on the fucking planet. None. We catch hell on every level and get no sympathy from anyone. So when I look at my black brothers out there I felt like I had to give special homage, give them a pound, just because…just because. You ain’t have to do nothing, just because I know what you holding down. I don’t care what you holding down, some of us are stronger than others, and some of us can hold it down better than others, but that does not mean you are not trying to hold it down. Some of us give up and say fuck it, and say “I’m gonna go another route” and I can’t blame them either.

So what is Hank Shocklee doing in 2007?

HS: When you have been in the [game] as long as I have been you have what I consider to be like, lives. And your first life is always just starting to get in the game, starting to understand what’s happening and then something good happens for you and that’s your second [life]. And then you move into another place, which is the third life in your career, where now that you understand what’s going on, now that you have all this know-how, how do you take all those years of experience and give something back to those that don’t have. And ever since the start everything about me has been about elevating or enlightening and if you ask anybody…I mentored a lot of people. I started out by mentoring Chuck, Eric, Keith and sometimes Flav [laughs]. And it just spread, from cats like Harry Allen and L.L. Cool J, then it moved to Doug Fresh and Daddy-O from Stesasonic. Basically, I have been like a mentor to a lot of cats, and it continues on in my life and it’s always been that way, also my entire time at Def Jam. Even when I went in as an executive at MCA/Universal records, I’ve always been a mentor to different artists whether it be Lil’ Mo, Chucky Thompson, Stevie J, Rodney Jerkins…anybody that I come across I try to give them insight to what I’ve learned. Right now with Shocklee Entertainment, it’s a two-step process. The business right now has moved from analog to digital, and what that means is that now anybody can have access. The middleman is pretty much almost eliminated because back in the days the only way that you could be in the business was you had to be signed to a major label, the only way that you could record a record was you had to have a big enough budget to get into a recording studio, and the only way you could release a record was to get it into a retail store. That, to me, is the old analog business and now we are in a digital realm, you can get a pretty inexpensive sorfware program like Fruity Loops, make your own tracks, record them in Pro-Tools and upload it onto MySpace or get it on one of the digital download companies like Orchard or what have you, or even make a website and put it up yourself. So now what it does is give the producer? More hands-on control of their entire career…but with that, as in everything, there is a tendency to be abused. So now we are inundated with all kinds of information, good and bad. We are flooded with all kinds of material, good and bad…So what I am trying to do is concentrate and try to create a new community of cats so that, you know, we can take the business on to our own hands without necessarily having the major labels involved.

With all the financial woes of the industry, the impending death of the CD and the prevalence of file-sharing, do you think there is still a business model that can be successful. I mean, there are kids growing up to whom the idea of paying for music is something antiquated and just foreign, and if they do buy something it might just be one or two songs off the album on Itunes as opposed to the whole album when it was on CD or vinyl. Obviously, that narrows the potential profit margin significantly, and also changes the way that the audience consumes the music. I guess what I am suggesting is that while people will always make music, perhaps the idea of music as a business is about to be done.

It’s funny that you say that because before I left Universal [in 1999] I went to the COO of Universal and was basically explaining to them that there was a lot of stuff they were missing. And I was telling them that there is a lot of attention that needs to be paid to records from zero to two hundred thousand. And I wanted them to create another…division, if you would, that would deal with the introduction of artists from zero to two hundred thousand. I thought that needed special attention. And I was basically told flat out, we really don’t care about that. What we are concerned about is three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand, if you can’t do that then forget it. And I was like, yeah, that’s cool but…you know, there’s two schools of thought with the music business. One is that it’s losing ground, the other is that it’s actually getting bigger than it has ever been and the problem now is that you have to create a new paradigm to deal with the changing business. What does that mean? That means you can’t be lazy anymore! Before you could be lazy, you could just say “I got the new R. Kelly record, there’s only one way for people to get it and everyone is going to have to buy the CD”. And even if he only had two songs on the record, you were stuck with the other songs and that is how the business pretty much made it’s money, they would hype one situation and one song and then everyone would have to buy the album just for that one song. And that started happening from ’93 to be honest. There is only about five or six albums that you can say from ’93 on till today that can be considered classics. And what do we mean by classics? An album that you can listen to from top to bottom and every single song is banging!

CE: Well, I might have to disagree with you a little bit there, not on the general idea of the industry taking shortcuts but five or six classics is way off.

HS: Yeah, we all are gonna disagree on that part but that is not my argument…you can probably agree that there are a lot less records like that coming out than their used to be…

CE: I agree 100% on that.

HS: Right, so what I am saying is that 90% of those records were still selling, they got a lot of mileage out of those records. I picked up the Mase record, years ago and y’know, the record had two songs on it. It was shit! This records sold three and a half million records and it’s not that my taste…my taste is a little elitist but even if you go to kids they will tell you that they like three or four songs and the rest is ehhhh. So it ain’t just that, I think that we got lazy. In the marketing and promotions, everything, we just got lazy. We are doing the same things, what do you do with a record? Get it the street team, get it on radio, get it on BET, that’s the end! All marketing plans are like that. And that breeds mediocrity and laziness, and these A&R cats who signed these R&B chicks that just look good but don’t have any real talent, a la Christine Milan and the likes…and that same formula has crossed over to the hip-hop world where it’s just like, have one good song on your record and put all the video chicks in your video and drive up the sales…those days are gone! Now you have to be a little more strategic in what you are doing, because now with the advent of the Ipod you have sixties music along with 2007 music. You have artists ranging from alternative rock to ska to reggae to dub and your palate is a lot bigger, I don’t think there is any more genre. Why are we talking about alternative rock versus hip-hop versus R&B, when to me all of that stuff is lapping. Everyone’s level of musical taste has risen, everybody’s level of musical knowledge has risen, so you can’t deal with them from a simplistic level, if at the end of the day you don’t have any substance to offer. Everybody is listening to the best of the best in their Ipods, the people are more sophisticated now, they are listening to music from all generations. And what the record companies have not done is figure out how to react to that, and that is what I don’t understand, their…failure to react. I know we aren’t here for that but I can go on for days on why the music business is fucked up.

CE: Well, allow me to play devil’s advocate and ask does anyone have the patience to listen to albums in this Ipod era? As you pointed out, everyone is listening to more and more music, everyone is walking around with what amounts to a limitless jukebox in their pocket, who has time to listen to an album? For better or worse, isn’t the modern music listener all about their playlist? And again, I am not saying it’s bad or good, but there is a whole new generation coming up behind them that has been downloading music their whole lives. For those kids the idea of music as a physical product that you go and buy escapes them, and the idea of listening to an entire album front to back is unfathomable. They pick their favorite songs and delete everything else to save hard drive space, so what sort of future could the album possibly have?

HS: You are absolutely correct on those points. Once again there’s good and the bad, we have moved into a zone where there is no right or wrong any more, only degrees of right and left [laughs]. So let’s go back to when the record companies moved these fans away from artist-driven into song-driven, now you open up the floodgates where people are like “if it’s only about the song, let me just get the song any way that I can.” That’s a bad marketing move, okay. I don’t know about you, but when I was getting into music I didn’t buy music based off a song, I was a fan of the artist. And if I’m a fan of the artist, I am gonna go get you no matter what you do or what you got. Now let’s talk about the medium of the album dissipating, you know, the style of the album has dissipated. Listen, I created an album that people call one of the best records of the century, It takes a Nation of Millions. Now that record is put together like a mixtape, it has no breaks or stops in it and I have no idea why companies are still making albums with songs that start on one side and die on the other. I listen to this group called Mars Volta and you put this band’s record on at any given point and it just goes on. It just goes on.

What is this nonsense about format, why does everything have to have a format? And why does everyone have to make a hit record, I never made an album full of hit records, I purposely would never do that! Once you get into that mindset the first thing you are going to do is stylize every record like that last hit record, and thus there is only gonna be one or two of those records that you can take. After that, you’re looking for a whole new flavor. But everyone’s making the same record, ten or fifteen of them and making the same format; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus…I don’t even hear verse, chorus, bridge anymore. I don’t even hear bridge, bridge, chorus anymore. You can close your eyes and you know where everything is gonna come, what are the intervals? 8/16, 8/8…it doesn’t matter, nothing varies, so what happens? Everyone gets bored out of their fucking minds. So yeah, you don’t have time to listen to the record because it’s fucking work! People give me CDs all day long and you know what, they are fucking boring. You get that same intro all the time, you get that same chorus music all the time, so that you know what’s gonna follow the chorus music, it’s boring. That’s the reason why nobody is buying it, you bought music because there was an element of surprise, because when you listened to it there was excitement, because of the element of surprise…Wu-Tang was one of the most fabulous groups that came across our table in the last 25 years and let me tell you why. In their early records, you never knew what the fuck was going to happen. I was listening to an ODB record and one of the tracks was him going “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” for the first minute of the song…

CE: That is a great song [“Going down”]. But hold on, because while I agree with you on all those points, I think that a lot of that applies to the mainstream but is affecting everyone. By that I mean that although there is a lot of garbage, there is a lot of great independent music coming out that is imaginative and creative. If you look at the mainstream, not so much, but then again, if you like movies and you go look at what the big studios are putting out it’s gonna be Die Hard 4 and Fantastic Four 3 but if you go to Cannes and so forth you will see some interesting movies.
HS: That is where I am at. One of the things is, the cream always rises to the top. Right now we are going through a transitional period, thus Amy Winehouse is one of the hottest records out right now with the least amount of promotion behind it. That is a clear indication of where we are going, and it’s a non-traditional record, it’s not New York Soul…you can’t put it in a box…we are starting to find our way now in this business, and by that I mean that people like yourself are asking the right questions. People like myself are asking the right questions and more importantly, coming back with some bit of an answer. And one of the answers is going to be that there have to be people and situations out there that are helping to promote those new and exciting pieces of product out there…there is a record store in Manhattan called Other Music, it was right across the street from Tower Records and Tower went out of business but Other Music is still in business, and what does Other Music have? All the music that Tower wouldn’t carry…

CE: So where does this all end up…what is next if we agree that the old model of CD’s is over?

HS: Did you ever think when you first started listening to rap music that a rapper would one day make $400 million?

CE: I guess not….

HS: When I came up listening to Grandmaster Flash, I was told rap was a fad that was going to die out. I could have never thought in my wildest imagination that a rapper would make anywhere near that money. I would have just said “Wow!”, that goes to show how far we have come. The same thing is happening with this new music business, it will go beyond our wildest imagination. We didn’t see the internet happening, there’s a lot of things we didn’t foresee happening and it’s happened good and it’s happened bad. Now one thing about the capitalist system is that they will find a way to make you pay for whatever it is. There’s gonna be a day when we are paying for air, okay [laughs]. The quad gave way to 5.1, VHS gave way to the DVD, we will still find a way…I personally think the audio business is over at the level we have seen it and the reason why is that things have moved on. I mean, back in the 1900s if you were the author of a book you were the fucking man but the phonograph changed that. And so thus the visual element has changed audio forever, like why hear it only when you can watch it and hear it. We haven’t even begun to cross those waters [as an industry], we have phones that show images, we are not limited anymore. So yeah, audio might fall by the wayside but it’s gonna give rise to the video.

CE: So, who out there has Hank Shocklee excited right now? Who’s music are you vibrating with? If you were to go out and give a big cosign to one artist who would it be, like we are playing pickup basketball, who do you pick first?

HS: Oh shit…that’s rough because…okay, you really want to know? You really want to know? I would go pick up DMZ, I would go and fuck with [dubstep collective] Digital Mysticz and the reason why I say that is I think that there is a vibration that they got that the world needs to feel. And what it is, it’s weird, it’s not a person, it’s not an artist…it’s different, it’s almost a being in their sound.

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Back On the Right Track:the Return of Sly Stone 07 July 07


(I read this in Vanity Fair at the Grocery Store, I’ll spare you the expense)

Sly Stone on his custom three-wheeled chopper, outside his home, in Napa, California, on June 10, 2007. Photograph by Mark Seliger.

Sly Stone’s Higher Power

Sly Stone vanished into rumor in the 1980s, remembered only by the great songs (“I Want to Take You Higher,” “Dance to the Music”) he left behind. What’s become of the funky leader of the Family Stone since he forsook his Woodstock-era utopianism for darkness, drugs, and isolation? After a few sightings—most notoriously at the 2006 Grammys—the author tracked the last of the rock recluses to a Bay Area biker shop, to scope out where Stone’s been, where he’s headed, and what’s behind those shades.

by David Kamp August 2007

Will Sly show up?

I sure hope so. I have an appointment with him. I’ve flown across the country and quadruple-checked to make sure that we’re still on.

To cynics and music-industry veterans, this very premise is laughable: an appointment with Sly Stone. Yeah, right. For 20-odd years, Stone has been one of music’s great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes. And in the years before he slipped away, he was notorious for not showing up even when he said he would. Missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, burned bridges.

But in his prime, Stone was a fantastic musician, performer, bandleader, producer, and songwriter. Even today, his life-affirming hits from the late 60s and early 70s—among them “Stand!,” “Everyday People,” and “Family Affair”—continue to thrive on the radio, magically adaptable to any number of programming formats: pop, rock, soul, funk, lite. He was a black man and emphatically so, with the most luxuriant Afro and riveted leather jumpsuits known to Christendom, but he was also a pan-culturalist who moved easily among all races and knew no genre boundaries. There was probably no more Woodstockian moment at Woodstock than when he and the Family Stone, his multi-racial, four-man, two-woman band, took control of the festival in the wee hours of August 17, 1969, getting upwards of 400,000 people pulsing in unison to an extended version of “I Want to Take You Higher.” For one early morning, at least, the idea of “getting higher” wasn’t an empty pop-culture construct or a stoner joke, but a matter of transcendence. This man had power.

He also had a compelling penchant for folly. In the jivey, combustible early 1970s, when it was almost fashionable for public figures to unleash their ids and abandon all shame—whether it was Norman Mailer’s baiting a roomful of feminists at New York’s Town Hall or Burt Reynolds’s posing nude on a bearskin for Cosmopolitan—Sly was out on the front lines, contributing some first-rate unhinged behavior of his own. Like marrying his 19-year-old girlfriend onstage in 1974 at Madison Square Garden before a ticket-buying audience of 21,000, with Soul Train host Don Cornelius presiding as M.C. Or appearing on Dick Cavett’s late-night ABC talk show while conspicuously, if charmingly, high. “You’re great,” Stone told his flummoxed host in 1971, in the second of two notorious visits to Cavett’s soundstage. “You are great. You are great. You know what I mean? [Pounds fist on heart.] Booom! Right on! Sure thing. No, for real. For real, Dick. Hey, Dick. Dick. Dick. You’re great.”

Cavett, grasping for some sense of conversational traction, smirked and replied, “Well, you’re not so bad yourself.”

“Well,” said Sly, eyes rolling up in contemplation, “I am kinda bad … ”

Sly Stone is my favorite of the rock-era recluses, and, really, the only big one left. Syd Barrett, the architect of Pink Floyd’s entrancingly loopy early sound, passed away last summer at the age of 60, having resisted all entreaties to explain himself or sing again. Brian Wilson, the fragile visionary behind the Beach Boys, has been gently coaxed out of his shell by his friends and acolytes, and now performs and schmoozes regularly. He doesn’t count as a recluse anymore.

But Sly has remained elusive—still with us, yet seemingly content to do without us. I have been pursuing him for a dozen years, on and off, wondering if there would ever come a time when he’d release new material, or at the very least sit down and talk about his old songs. I’ve loved his music for as long as I’ve been a sentient human being—he started making records with the Family Stone when I was a toddler. And over time, as the silence has lengthened, his disappearance from public life has become a fascinating subject in and of itself. How could it have happened? How could a man with such an extensive and impressive body of work just shut down and cut out?

“I often tell people that I have more dead rock stars on tape than anyone, and they’ll say, ‘You mean Janis, Hendrix, and Sly?'” says Cavett today. “A lot of people think he’s gone.” Even if you’re aware that Sly lives, you have to wonder what kind of shape he’s in, projecting that beautiful but reckless man of 1971 into 2007, the year he turned 64. What of the dark rumors that he’s done so much coke that his brain is zapped, and that he now exists in a pathetic, vegetative state? What of the more hopeful rumors that he’s still writing and noodling with his keyboards, biding his time until he feels ready to attempt a comeback?

I had long dreamed of the latter scenario. Syd Barrett excepted, they do all come back. Brian Wilson did. The Stooges did. The New York Dolls did. Even Roky Erickson, the psychedelic pioneer from the 13th Floor Elevators, long presumed to be fried beyond rehabilitation by electroshock treatments he received in the early 1970s, has staged a robust return to the live circuit.

My hopes for a Sly comeback were highest in 2003. That year, in the back room of a music store in Vallejo, California, where Sly grew up, I sat in on a rehearsal of a re-united Family Stone led by Freddie Stone, Sly’s guitarist brother. Freddie was intent on recording an album of entirely new material that he had written with his sister Rose, who played organ and shared lead vocals in the old group. “Sylvester’s doing very well, by the way,” Freddie told me, using his brother’s given name. Gregg Errico, the band’s drummer, who was also in on the reunion, explained that, while they weren’t counting on Sly to join them, they had set a place for him just in case, like Seder participants awaiting Elijah. “We profess that the keyboard is on the stage, the [Hammond] B3’s running, and the seat is warm for him,” Errico said.

But that reunion quickly fizzled out. After that, my Sly search lay dormant; I pretty much gave up. He hadn’t shown his face in public since 1993, when he and the Family Stone were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Characteristically, Sly slipped in and out of the ceremony without saying much, barely acknowledging his siblings and bandmates. So why would he ever want to perform again, much less meet up with a stranger?

Then, out of nowhere, there began a series of brief, intriguing resurfacings. In August of 2005, he was sighted in L.A. on a chopper motorcycle, giving his sister Vaetta, who goes by the nickname Vet, a ride to Hollywood’s Knitting Factory club, where she was performing a set with her band, the Phunk Phamily Affair. The following February came Stone’s enigmatic appearance at the 2006 Grammy Awards, in which he loped onto the stage in a gold lamé trench coat and plumy blond Mohawk, performed a snippet of “I Want to Take You Higher” with some guest musicians paying him tribute, and loped off again before the song was over. And in January of this year, Stone put in a surprise cameo at Vet’s band’s show at the House of Blues in Anaheim, California, adding vocals and keyboards to their performances of “Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”

What to make of this? Was Sly’s newfound quasi-visibility a sign that, at last, his return was nigh? Early this year, I managed to get in touch with Vet Stone, who confirmed that her brother was indeed planning a return: a show in San Jose on July 7 with her band (which, with Sly’s blessing, has been renamed the Family Stone), and then some summer dates at festivals in Europe. After several telephone conversations in early spring and one meeting with me in person, Vet called one day with the news: Sly would speak. We would meet up on May 9 in Vallejo, his hometown, 25 miles north of Oakland.

Are You Ready?

On the designated day, Vet and I arrive early at the designated meeting place: Chopper Guys Biker Products Inc., a Vallejo business that manufactures parts and frames for custom motorcycles. Sly, who lived in L.A. on and off for 36 years but recently relocated to Napa Valley, gets his bikes serviced here. As Vet and I kill time chatting, we eventually notice that it’s about 10 minutes past the appointed start time of our meeting. Nothing worrying, but a long enough period to have faint thoughts of Hmm, maybe this won’t work out. Vet tells me how many doubters she’s had to deal with in booking those summer European dates, “people who wouldn’t take my call, people who hung up on me, people who think I’m a delusional woman.” She has been the catalyst of Sly’s tentative re-emergence, the one who pulled him out of L.A. and found him a home up north, who persuaded him to play with her band and get back out on the road again. It’s exhausted her, and she’s openly daunted by the logistics of planning for her brother, never the smoothest of travelers, to fly to Europe and then zip from Umbria to Montreux to Ghent.

But she’s gotten this far, which fuels her faith. “All I can say,” she says, and it’s something she says a lot, “is that I’m his little sister, and he’s never lied to me.” Nevertheless, even Vet is starting to get a little nervous about the interview, checking her cell phone, stepping outside the front door of Chopper Guys with me to see if anyone’s coming.

And then, like John Wayne emerging from ‘cross the prairie in The Searchers … a strange form advances through the wavy air in the distance: some sort of vehicle, low to the ground, rumbling mightily as it turns off the highway and into the parking lot. As it comes closer, the shapes become clearer: a flamboyantly customized banana-yellow chopper trike, the front tire jutting four feet out in front of the driver. He sits on a platform no higher than 18 inches off the ground, legs extended in front of him, his body clad in a loose, tan shirt-and-pants ensemble somewhere between Carhartt work clothes and pajamas. His feet are shod in black leather sneakers with green-yellow-red African tricolor trim. Behind him, on an elevated, throne-like seat built between the two fat back tires, sits an attractive, 30-ish woman in full biker leathers. He always was good at entrances.

Sly Stone and his lady companion, who I learn is named Shay, disembark from the chopper and walk toward the shop. He applies pink baby lotion to his hands, which I notice are huge, with elongated, tapering fingers. He’s still very slim—there was never a Fat Sly period—and he does not appear frail, as several recent reports have described him. In fact, he moves rather well, especially for a 64-year-old man who’s just spent time scrunched into a custom-chopper cockpit. But he has the same hunched posture he had at the ’06 Grammys—a bit like Silvio Dante’s in The Sopranos—and he wears a neck brace.

We shake hands and say hello. I’ve heard he owns an old Studebaker, so I tell him I, too, own an old Studebaker. “Really, what year?” he says, looking up at me with a smile. He pulls two chairs together for our chat, a metal stool and an old barber’s chair. As all these mundane things are transpiring, I realize I’m recording them in my mind like a doctor observing a patient recovering from brain trauma. He is aware of his surroundings. He is capable of participating in linear conversational exchanges. He is able to move chairs.

The only strange part: he is still wearing his helmet and shades when we sit down to talk. Good lord, I’m thinking, is he going to wear the helmet the whole time? Fortunately, without my prompting, Vet says, “Why don’t you take your helmet off?,” and Sly obliges, revealing a backward San Francisco Giants cap.

“Still sporting the blond Mohawk under there?” I ask.

“Naw, not now, it’s very short,” he says. Then, deadpan: “Most of it growing under the skin.”

I start the interview in earnest with the most obvious question: “Why have you chosen to come back now?”

At this, he grins. “‘Cause it’s kind of boring at home sometimes.”

“But it’s bigger than just being bored at home, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I got a lot of songs I want to record and put out, so I’m gonna try ’em out on the road,” he says. “That’s the way it’s always worked the best: Let’s try it out and see how the people feel.”

Stone tells me he has a huge backlog of new material, “a library, like, a hundred and some songs, or maybe 200.” This subject, I come to understand, animates him like no other. With the old songs, he seems uninterested in analysis. When I ask him if he was consciously trying to do something different with his December 1969 single “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which, with its chanted unison vocals and slap bass, effectively invented 1970s funk—without it, no Parliament-Funkadelic, no Ohio Players, no Earth, Wind & Fire—he replies simply, “Well, the title was spelled phonetically. That was one thing different.”

Likewise, on more personal matters, such as what else he was up to in his awol years, he’s evasive: “Just traveling—going around, jumping in and out, and up and down.” He doesn’t flinch when I broach the subject of his hunched posture and neck brace, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to break out the M.R.I.’s, either. “I fell off a cliff,” he says. “I was walking in my yard in Beverly Hills, missed my footing, and started doing flips. But you know what? I had a plate of food in my hand. And when I landed, I still had a plate of food in my hand. That’s the God-lovin’ truth. I did not drop a bean.

But when I ask Stone to describe the new songs, he straightens up, rocks forward in his seat, and starts rhyming in an insistent cadence somewhere between a preacher’s and a rapper’s, the rasp suddenly gone from his otherwise low, throaty speaking voice. “There’s one that says, ‘Ever get a chance to put your thanks on? / Somebody you know you can bank on? / Even sometimes you might embarrass them by pulling rank on? / Now, whatcha gonna do when you run out of them? … Another holiday, you’re drunk and curbing it / You can’t face a noun, so you’re straight adverbing it / You had an argument at home, and you had to have the last word in it / Now whatcha gonna do when you run out of them?’

“There’s one that’s called ‘We’re Sick Like That,'” he continues. “It says, ‘Give a boy a flag and teach him to salute / Give the same boy a gun and teach him how to shoot / And then one night, the boy in the bushes, he starts to cry / ‘Cause nobody ever really taught him how to die.'”

The obvious allusion to the current war jars me, and I soon realize why: Stone has been absent from the scene for such a duration that it’s hard to imagine that he was with us all along, experiencing all the things we experienced over the years—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the rise of the World Wide Web, the attacks on 9/11, the invasion of Iraq. It’s almost as if he went into a decades-long deep freeze, like Austin Powers or the astronauts in Planet of the Apes. Except he didn’t. “Did you do normal-person things?” I ask about the missing years. “Did you watch Cheers in the 80s and Seinfeld in the 90s? Do you watch American Idol now? Do you have a normal life or more of a Sly Stone life?”

“I’ve done all that,” he says. “I do regular things a lot. But it’s probably more of a Sly Stone life. It’s probably … it’s probably not very normal.”

The Sly Stone life started getting abnormal shortly after his band’s euphoric Woodstock performance. Joel Selvin, the veteran music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, published a thoroughgoing, book-length oral history of the group in 1998 (simply called Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History) that is as disturbing and chilling a version as you’ll ever find of the “dashed 60s dream” narrative: idealism giving way to disillusionment, soft drugs giving way to hard, ferment to rot.

It’s agreed upon by everyone Selvin interviewed—which is pretty much everyone in Stone’s family, band, and circle of hangers-on, apart from Sly himself—that the bad craziness began when he forsook the Bay Area for Southern California, in 1970. Exit the music of hope and the gorgeous mosaic; enter firearms, coke, PCP, goons, paranoia, isolation, and a mean-spirited pet pit bull named Gun.

“There is a cloud flying over Sly from the time he moved down to Los Angeles,” the Family Stone’s original saxophonist, Jerry Martini, told Selvin. “Things really changed when he moved down there … It was havoc. It was very gangsterish, dangerous. The vibes were very dark at that point.”

Before that, though, there was the Bay Area Sly of the 1960s, a different character altogether: a personable, outgoing, uncommonly talented young man who cut quite a swath through the region’s music scene. He was born Sylvester Stewart into a loving, tight-knit family presided over by a father, K.C., and a mother, Alpha, whose marriage would last 69 years. K.C. ran a janitorial business in Vallejo and was a deacon in the local Pentecostal church. From an early age, Sylvester was performing with his siblings in a gospel group called the Stewart Four. Loretta, the eldest of the five Stewart children, provided piano accompaniment, while the four Stewarts of the billing—in birth order, Sylvester, Rose, Freddie, and Vet—harmonized on vocals. “We traveled around from church to church, all over California, performing concerts,” says Vet. “We thought we were just like any other family. We had no idea.”

The greatest prodigy of all the young Stewarts, Sylvester was also the most driven. He was barely into his 20s when he insinuated himself into the inner circle of San Francisco’s biggest music macher, the disc jockey and impresario Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue. In 1964, Sylvester collaborated with Donahue on the song “C’mon and Swim,” a Top 10 hit for the local soul star Bobby Freeman. Shortly thereafter, he became the house producer at Donahue’s label, Autumn Records, working with, among others, the Great Society and the Warlocks, the precursor bands to, respectively, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. In the same period, under his new stage name, Sly Stone, Sylvester became a regional radio celebrity, hosting a soul show on the station KSOL from seven p.m. to midnight.

You Can Make It If You Try

It was all in place, the eclectic mishmash of sensibilities and influences that would inform Sly and the Family Stone: soul, gospel, pop, Haight hippiedom, sparkly showmanship. (In his D.J. days, Stone drove a Jaguar XKE he’d had custom-painted bright purple.) So when Sly decided to start up a band of his own, he knew exactly what he wanted. “It was very deliberate: men and women, different races, dressing different,” says Larry Graham, the group’s bassist. Martini, the saxophonist and one of the band’s two white members (along with Errico, the drummer), recalls Stone playing an almost curatorial role in shaping the band’s presentation. Pointing to an old publicity photo that shows him ridiculously attired in a piebald poncho, Martini says, “That was a rug! Sly saw a cow skin on the floor, got a rug cutter, cut a hole in it, and said ‘Here, Jerry, this is gonna be your outfit.'”

Everyone had a signature look. Errico wore a leopard-print vest-and-trousers getup almost as absurd as Martini’s bovine fantasia. Graham wore robes and capes. Freddy Stewart, re-christened Freddie Stone, wore appliquéd overalls. Rose Stewart/Stone wore a variety of Ikette wigs and go-go dresses. Cynthia Robinson, the trumpet player, favored psychedelic-patterned smocks and let her straightened hair grow out into a Black Power Afro. Sly himself cultivated a neon pimp look, with flashy vests (often worn without a shirt), goggle shades, heavy jewelry, tight trousers, and muttonchop sideburns.

“I remember having lunch with Sly in my dining room, right at the beginning,” says Clive Davis, who was in his first year as president of CBS Records in 1967, when its Epic subsidiary signed the group. “I told him, ‘I’m concerned that the serious radio stations that might be willing to play you’—by which I meant the underground FM radio stations—’will be put off by the costuming, the hairstyles.’ It was almost Las Vegas–like in its presentation. Sly said, ‘Look, that’s part of what I’m doing. I know people could take it the wrong way, but that’s who I am.’ And he was right. I learned an important lesson from him: When you’re dealing with a pathfinder, you allow that genius to unfold.”

Musically, too, Stone orchestrated a theoretically unwieldy but ultimately ingenious fusion of styles. “It’s one of the things I really admire about Sly—we were all allowed to use our creativity, to have freedom of expression in how we played,” says Graham, whose percussive “thumpin’ and pluckin'” bass style became practically a new musical genre unto itself. The band’s first and most conventionally soul-like album, A Whole New Thing, was a flop, but the exhortative title song of album two, “Dance to the Music,” became their first Top 10 hit, in 1968, and remains a party standard to this day.

The album Stand! (1969) represented the apotheosis of both the band’s signature “psychedelic soul” sound and their status as positivity-preaching messengers from the Utopian, multicultural future. Five of the album’s eight songs—”Stand!,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People,” and “You Can Make It if You Try”—ended up on the Greatest Hits album that came out the following year.

Stand!, tellingly, was the album that the band was touring behind at the time of Woodstock. Graham recalls the festival as a moment when the group’s members “tapped into a new zone,” achieving a musical power they hadn’t realized they were capable of. “It’s like when an athlete like Michael Jordan realizes the extent of his gifts and goes, ‘Oh, I can do that,‘” he says.

But rather than return to the studio to capitalize on this momentum, Stone bunched himself up into a shag-carpeted cocoon. The year 1970 came and went with no new album and, worse, a new penchant for missing shows—26 out of 80, to be precise. Stone’s decision to move to Los Angeles didn’t do much for band harmony, either. In 1971, Errico quit, fed up with being summoned to L.A. from his Bay Area home for sessions on the next Family Stone album, only to be kept waiting indefinitely for Stone to use him.

That same year, Stone started renting the Bel Air mansion owned by the debauched hippie king John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, which had been previously owned by Jeanette MacDonald, squeaky-clean star of corny 1930s MGM operettas. The L.A. music mogul Lou Adler, Phillips’s best friend, recalls that the house across the street (which was used for exterior shots in The Beverly Hillbillies) was owned by a wealthy hotelier named Arnold Kirkeby. “The Kirkebys were a very conservative family,” Adler says, “and they hated the flowing robes that John and his wife, Michelle, wore, the caftans and Nehru collars. They were very pleased that a ‘Mr. Sylvester Stewart’ was moving in. They liked the sound of that.”

Needless to say, Stone and his new entourage left even John Phillips appalled. “There were lots of guns, rifles, machine guns, and big dogs” on his property, he later lamented.

“At some point, I started getting concerned about stories I heard about Sly’s personal habits,” says Clive Davis, who was also worried that his star artist might never deliver a new album. “But every time I met with him, he was on top of his game. I was somewhat innocent of the lifestyle going on around me, whether it was him or Janis Joplin.”

Spaced Cowboy

Even though he had the Bel Air house and real studios at his disposal, Stone spent much of his time working on the new album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, in a Winnebago motor home rigged up with recording equipment. (“There was a riot in that motor home,” Stone says with a smile, not elaborating further.) The remaining Family Stone members played on the album, but no longer did so as a band, instead overdubbing their parts individually. They also had company, in the form of guest musicians Stone had brought aboard, among them the keyboardist Billy Preston and the guitarist Bobby Womack.

“We used to ride around in his motor home, getting high and writing songs and making music,” Womack told the British rock journalist Barney Hoskyns. But what started as a lark for the soul and R&B singer-guitarist became a nightmare. “I became paranoid at everything,” Womack said. “I was always thinking I was gonna get killed and that the feds were gonna bust in on Sly. Everybody had pistols. It got to the point where I said, ‘I gotta get away from here.’ Sly be talkin’ to you, but he ain’t there.

Somehow, the album that emerged from this chaos, which was finally released in November 1971, turned out brilliantly, if darkly. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is great “this is your brain on drugs” music. It sounds nothing like the chirpy albums that preceded it. Because Stone kept re-recording and overdubbing on the same master tape, wearing it out in the process, the overall sound is muffled and washed out—a bit of technical malfeasance that serendipitously suited the album’s spacey, mid-tempo songs.

On many tracks, the air of dislocation is enhanced by the cold, metronomic gallop of the primitive drum machine that substituted for the departed Errico. And Stone’s vocals are plain spooky—like a supine junkie’s before he lapses into a coma. This is true even on the album’s catchy, chart-topping single, “Family Affair.” Listen to his ghoulish, meandering delivery of the line “Newly wehhhhdd a year ago / But you’re still checkin’ each other out / Yeahhh.” It’s like hearing a heat-warped 45 played at 33 r.p.m.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On has been as picked over and decrypted by rock critics as anything in Bob Dylan’s catalogue. The opening line of the opening song, “Luv N’ Haight”—”Feels so good inside myself / Don’t wanna move”—is often interpreted as Stone’s statement of retreat into solipsism, a repudiation of his flower-power “Everyday People” ethos of the 1960s. The late Timothy White, the Billboard editor and former Rolling Stone writer, called the album “a brooding, militant, savage indictment of all the decayed determinism of the ’60s.”

But Stone himself seems oblivious to the very fact of all this tea-leaf reading. “People say Riot is about Sly Stone’s disillusionment with the 60s dream,” I tell him.

“Oh, really?” he says, genuinely surprised.

“Yes, what do you make of that?”

“That may be true,” he says.

“May be?” I say. “It’s you! Is it true or isn’t it?”

“I mean, I’ve never thought about it like that,” he says. “I don’t really feel like I’m disillusioned. Maybe I am. I don’t think so, though.”

I ask if his writing was impacted by any of the period’s ugliness—the Kent State killings, the Attica prison riots, the M.L.K. and R.F.K. assassinations.

“Um, I paid attention to it,” he says, “but I didn’t count on it. I wasn’t going on any other program or agenda or philosophy. It was just what I observed, where I was at.”

Still, Stone doesn’t totally dismiss those who ascribe loftier meanings to the album. When I ask him if he regards There’s a Riot Goin’ On in any way as a political statement, he says, “Well, yeah, probably. But I didn’t mean it to be.”

Runnin’ Away

The success of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, obscured the fact that the band was further disintegrating and that Stone’s unreliability was increasingly a problem to concert promoters. The no-show subject remains a sore one with Stone, who says he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be. “I got tired of going to concerts where I’d have to pay a bond, pay money in case I didn’t show up,” he says. Stone claims that some of his missed dates weren’t his fault but acts of collusion between promoters and transportation people, who cynically exploited his reputation for flaking out. “I later found out that they had a deal going between the promoter and the guy that was taking me to the gig,” he says. “So I would put up the $25,000 or the $50,000. The guy with me would help me be late, and I didn’t realize that was what was going on until later. Then they’d split the money. That kind of stuff can play on your attitude a little bit. I wasn’t so focused after a while.”

Larry Graham bolted from the band in the tumultuous period after Riot’s release, having grown estranged from Stone. If the witnesses in Selvin’s oral history are to be believed, each man had developed an entourage of gun-wielding flunkies, and Graham feared for his life. Graham, now a devout and unrelentingly upbeat Jehovah’s Witness, is reluctant to get into the details, except to say, “Maybe things were exaggerated in the past. During those periods of time, there were a number of elements I couldn’t control. I wasn’t the leader. Whereas Sly was the leader: he chose to have certain people around him. Sly and I were, and still are, a family. At some point, a member of a family needs to leave home.”

With a new bassist, Rusty Allen, Stone managed to put out one more great album, Fresh (1973), and one more pretty good one, Small Talk (1974). But the fragmentation of the “classic” lineup was the beginning of the end, and a prelude to Stone’s reclusive, unproductive years. From the mid- to late 1970s, his output was low in inspiration and didn’t sell well, notwithstanding the desperate hopefulness of the titles he gave his albums: High on You (not on drugs; on You!); Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back; and Back on the Right Track.

By the 80s, the situation was just dire—too sad to qualify as gonzo Keith Richards druggy bravado or This Is Spinal Tap muso-comedy. Stone was arrested several times for cocaine possession. He missed several court dates. In 1984 he shortsightedly sold his publishing rights to Michael Jackson’s publishing company, Mijac Music. And creatively he’d dried up. The last new music he recorded for commercial release came out in 1986: a duet with Jesse Johnson, of the Minneapolis group the Time, on Johnson’s solo single “Crazay”—an acceptable but undistinguished slice of period shoulder-pad funk. “I don’t even know what that song was about, to this day,” Stone says. “I just happened to go in the studio.”

His drug use is another one of those subjects that Stone won’t delve into too deeply. But he reckons that he got serious about getting sober around 15 years ago. “I’m pretty cool,” he says. “I drink now and then, a little bit—beer. And I smoke butts sometimes.” When I probe about how he managed to “clean up,” he responds with a shrewd bit of verbal cryptology that sounds like one of his lyrics: “I just looked around one day, and it was cleaned up. Just hardly was nothing there. Just … certain people were not around.”

I get the sense that Sly relishes this sort of opaqueness—letting people in just enough to intrigue and confound them. Some weeks later, Vet calls to tell me that Sly wants to send me a statement “about the war,” by fax. It turns out to be a free-associative pensée that touches on our populace’s divisions of opinion, the 9/11 attacks, and my own long pursuit of an interview with him. “Our demonstrative ways representing our opinions do us more harm than we are ready to admit,” the fax reads in part. “I’d hate to start a fight, but I could get into fighting back. I know what you mean about being tired of callin’ me. I was looking at this report having to do with reporters deserving free travel. In utter words, you are deserving of great patience and persistence and you got it. Although both of us know you must be patient before you are one.… Just say the truth and hope he doesn’t get pissed off at you. You don’t need that. I’m invincible … no Sly, you’re washable and rinseable.”

Family Affair

The Chopper Guys get-together was the first time I actually met Stone, but it was the second time this year I’d seen him in the flesh. On March 31, he played his first-ever scheduled concert with Vet’s version of the Family Stone—which features only Robinson, the trumpeter, among the original members—at the Flamingo Hotel, in Las Vegas. By “scheduled concert,” I mean that Stone was promised to the promoter and the ticket buyers as part of the show; he wasn’t merely making an unbilled cameo, as he’d done in Anaheim in January.

It was a curious booking: a concert attached to the stand-up act of George Wallace, a veteran black comedian who routinely works Saturday nights in the Flamingo Showroom, a smallish theater with lounge-style banquettes and tables. The unconventional, low-wattage setup was an indicator of the industry’s persistent wariness of Stone. Whereas Brian Wilson’s comeback concerts at the turn of the decade were elaborately stage-managed affairs in posh venues, with an orchestra behind him and adoring fans in front of him, Stone finds himself in the position of having to earn back the public’s trust. “Somebody had to take a chance,” Wallace told, a black-entertainment news service, “so it’s me.”

As word leaked out about the Flamingo engagement, the skeptics raised their voices. “There are some doubters who bet Sly will be a no-show for his show,” said an item in the New York Post’s “Page Six” column, the day before the concert. “Our bookmaker says the odds are about even.”

When I got to Vegas, I realized how jerry-rigged the Sly comeback machinery was. There were posters up in McCarran Airport and throughout the city advertising sly & the family stone at the Flamingo, but the photo displayed was a poor-quality screen grab of Stone, with his Mohawk, from the Grammy telecast—evidently the best the promoters could do in terms of getting a current publicity shot.

The morning of the show, I sat down with Vet Stone, Cynthia Robinson, and some other members of their traveling troupe. With the exception of myself and Skyler Jett, a young musician who sings Sly’s leads in the prodigal leader’s absence, everyone in the room was a woman. Among them were Lisa Stone, the pretty daughter of Rose, who sings her mother’s old parts, and Novena, Sly’s daughter, a petite, poised young woman of 25, who, when I asked, said, “My last name’s not important.” (Sly also has a daughter in her 30s, Phunn, with Robinson, and a son, Sylvester junior, also in his 30s, with Kathy Silva, the woman he married onstage at Madison Square Garden in ’74 and divorced five months later.)

The matriarchal new configuration of the Family Stone makes sense—a bosomy, embracing, welcoming change of pace from the phallic tough-guy posturing of the old days. It’s a forgiving group, too. It couldn’t have been easy for Robinson in the 1970s, carrying and raising Sly’s child while he was becoming an epic rock casualty, but here she was, telling me that Sly’s tardiness to concerts was often the result of noble behavior. “Many times Sly was late because he came back and got the ones who were really late,” she said. “You know, the first trip we ever made to New York, I missed the flight—and had never been on a plane before. And Sly stayed back, so I’d have somebody to ride with. I didn’t ask him to, but he knew I’d never flown.”

Vet Stone was never an official member of the original Family Stone, but she contributed backing vocals to their albums from the beginning and had some brief chart success in the early 70s with her own, Sly-produced group, aptly called Little Sister. As down to earth as her brother is interplanetary, she is the one who will go down in the annals as the hero in this happy coda to Sly’s life, provided everything stays on track. “I was persistent. I prayed a lot,” she told me of her effort to cajole her brother out of retirement.

Her campaign to reclaim Sly started in earnest with their parents’ deaths, which occurred within 18 months of each other—K.C.’s in 2001, Alpha’s in 2003. “They both died in my arms,” Vet said, “and they both told me, ‘Go get your brother.’ Independent of each other—not knowing. That kind of stuck with me. And it was more than just physically ‘go get him.’ It was ‘Support him.’ So I started going to Los Angeles, maybe sometimes twice a week, to see him. I went and told him what our parents said. He said, ‘Find me a house.’ And I did.”

Sly’s new compound, which I get to see a couple of months later, is in a bucolic, isolated spot in Napa Valley. The setting is more Francis Coppola than MTV Cribs, with grape arbors and topiary, but it’s been Slyed up. In the driveways and garage sits an eccentric array of vehicles: the yellow chopper; a second, still bigger chopper with lightning-bolt detailing; the Studebaker, a burnt-orange Gran Turismo; a London taxi in disrepair; a Hummer that’s been haphazardly spray-painted silver; and an old Buick convertible that’s been spray-painted black, its front grille replaced with a rectangular length of chicken wire.

Back on the Right Track

The night of the Vegas show, after George Wallace had concluded his routine, which included some choice jokes in the “Yo mama” genre (e.g., “Yo mama’s so fat, she got a real horse on her Ralph Lauren shirt!”), I watched the Family Stone take the stage, minus Sly. They played a proficient revue-style set, effectively a long medley of Sly and the Family Stone’s greatest hits. But the audience was growing palpably restless; the fellow next to me was rather belligerently shouting, “Where’s slyyyyy! We want slyyyyy!

Then, sometime around midnight—the stroke of April Fools’ Day—a man who looked like an extra from a blaxploitation version of Buck Rogers sauntered onto the stage. He was wearing a black knit cap, wraparound white sunglasses, outrageous black platform boots with sneaker-style laces, spangly black trousers cut like newsboy knickers, a matching spangly black jacket, and a red spangly shirt. He sat down at the Korg synthesizer parked center stage and pumped his fist.

“I don’t think it’s him,” said a woman near me, the companion of the impatient shouter. And she had a point. The figure before us was so swaddled, layered, shaded, hatted, be-scarved, and neck-braced, it really could have been anyone. But then he went into “If You Want Me to Stay,” one of his later hits, from 1973, and everyone recognized that, Omigod, Sly made the gig. The place erupted in appreciative cheers, and Stone, tentative and seemingly nervous at first, grew more confident. On “I Want to Take You Higher,” he got up from behind his keyboard and boogied down the center-stage catwalk, slapping hands with members of the audience.

It was not a tightly scripted show. Stone wandered the stage between songs, seemingly taking it all in, as if re-acclimating to performing life. He brought out his daughters for their own brief turns in the spotlight. Phunn performed a rap. Novena sat at a piano and played, incongruously but with great skill, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” a fast, heavily arpeggiated piece by Claude Debussy. Their father loitered behind them as they did their bits, shifting from platform boot to platform boot, beaming like a dad at a school assembly.

Stone’s own segment lasted a little more than half an hour. Over the course of it, he proved that he is still a limber vocalist, ad-libbing some euphoric, gospelized melismas over “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and re-creating the scary croak of “Family Affair.” But there was one mesmerizing moment that seemed lost on the liquored-up, good-timey Vegas crowd. “Stand!” began not with the rousing drumroll you hear on the record but with Stone singing a cappella in a soft, deliberately fragile voice. (“I just felt like doing it like that—so everybody could really hear it properly,” he later told me.) Some of the crowd chattered through it, but to hear him almost whisper these words—

In the end you’ll still be you
One that’s done all the things you set out to do

There’s a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you’re going anywhere

—and to know the things he went through, the things he set out to do, the things he achieved, and the things he threw away; and then, to see him there, hunched and older but still standing, onstage, surrounded by family … well, it got to me. I misted up.

Stone is intent on getting to work on the new album in the fall, when the European tour is over. He says it will be a Sly and the Family Stone album, not the solo album. Vet’s version of the Family Stone will play on it, as will his siblings Rose, who lives in Los Angeles, and Freddie, who is now the pastor of the Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center, in Vallejo.

Which is all well and good, but still: it is a tenet of rock snobbery that the founding lineup of a group must be held sacrosanct. Jerry Martini, the Family Stone’s original saxophonist, joked to me a few years ago about the sadness of “reunions” that lack crucial band members. “Think of Creedence Clearwater … Revisited,” he said, relishing the ellipsis. “Where are they playing? Anywhere you see a Ferris wheel!” (That said, Martini has done time in outfits called the Family Stone Experience and the Original Family Stone.)

So I put it to the main man: Is there any chance that the whole lineup from the old days will gather to play on the new album?

“I’m sure that’s gonna happen, yeah,” Sly says.

It almost happened last year, at the Grammys. For the first time since 1993, the year of the Hall of Fame induction, the seven original members were in the same place, and, what’s more, they were poised to play together for the first time since 1971. This time, though, while Sly and his Mohawk made it to the stage, Graham fell ill and dropped out at the last minute. (His successor, Rusty Allen, filled in.)

As it turned out, Graham fared the best of anyone that night. In a bizarre miscalculation, and an affront to anyone with an appreciation of soul and rock history, the awards show’s producers barely acknowledged the original group’s presence. As the musicians plowed through a medley of the old hits, the cameras stayed fixed on a series of guest vocalists, who ranged from the mildly credible (John Legend, Joss Stone [no relation], Steven Tyler of Aerosmith) to the verily D-list (Fantasia, Devin Lima).

“We just kept playing, because there was really no order,” says Cynthia Robinson. “There was a stage band standing in front of us, so hardly anybody knew we were there.” To make matters worse, Stone had flipped his motorcycle a few days before the broadcast, damaging tendons in his right hand and making him even more uneasy with the situation than he would have been on his best day. When I ask him why the whole performance seemed so discombobulated, he says, “That wasn’t my gig. Really, that wasn’t my gig. I was trying to, like, cooperate with someone else that … ” He pauses to find the right words: ” … had their turn.”

The “someone else” he’s most likely alluding to, though he won’t comment on him any further, is a mysterious man named Jerry Goldstein. In the deep-freeze years when no one saw Sly Stone in public—roughly from the Hall of Fame ceremony until last year—Goldstein was the man you needed to go through to get to Sly Stone: a nebulously defined manager-gatekeeper-protector. He is listed as a co–executive producer of Different Strokes by Different Folks, the obvious promotional tie-in to the Grammy appearance: a turgid remix CD of old Sly Stone tracks that features such artists as Legend, Tyler, Lima, Joss Stone, and Maroon 5. It was initially sold exclusively at Starbucks.

In Goldstein’s defense, he is also listed as a co–executive producer of Sony Legacy’s long-overdue series of Sly and the Family Stone album reissues, spanning the 1967–74 period from A Whole New Thing to Small Talk. These are terrific, with thoughtful liner notes, crisply remastered sound, and great bonus songs. The only problem is, Stone claims the reissues were prepared and released without his knowledge.

For all I know, Goldstein, who runs a Los Angeles–based company called Even St. Productions, was a positive influence on Stone and helped him get on the path to where he is now. But the thing is, Goldstein is even more elusive a figure than Stone. I know. On several occasions over the course of my Sly search, dating back to the 1990s, I tried to reach him, to see if Stone might be available for an interview. He never responded to any of my calls or e-mail messages.

I tried every tactic I could imagine to persuade him to talk to me, including contacting his old 1960s songwriting partners, Bob Feldman and Richard Gotteher. The three of them scored big in 1963 with “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a No. 1 for the girl group the Angels. Two years later, they had a hit of their own with the original version of “I Want Candy,” which they performed under the alias the Strangeloves.

But neither Feldman nor Gotteher was able to help. (Goldstein, after the trio’s split, went into management and production, with the funk band War his most famous client.) Finally, four years ago, I made a bit of headway when Lou Adler, who far out-ranks Goldstein in the L.A.-music-biz hierarchy, agreed to call Goldstein on my behalf. Goldstein took Adler’s call, but even Adler came up empty, telling me, “Jerry says there’s nothing he can say, and there’s no way Sly will talk.”

Goldstein didn’t return a phone message this time around, either. And, evidently, his mysterious services are no longer required. Stone has a new booking agent, Steve Green, and plans on releasing the new album on his own label, Phatta Datta. Green is the only person who will betray the slightest indication of the role Goldstein played in Stone’s life. “Goldstein called me and told me him and Sly are connected at the hip,” he says. “Jerry said, ‘Sly’s not capable of playing.'”

When I ask Vet Stone what the deal is with Goldstein, she says, “As far as I’m concerned, there is no deal with him.” Greg Yates, Stone’s attorney, gave me this carefully dictated statement when I called him on the matter: “I’ve been retained by Sly Stone to represent him regarding issues surrounding contracts with other third parties for his publishing rights. There are some significant questions about certain matters that we are investigating. We want to make certain that these things are in order, so that Sly is prepared for his return. We are concerned about certain matters that he was kept in the dark about.”

So much has transpired over the last 40 years that there’s bound to be some untidiness and skepticism—especially in the music business, and especially in the Sly Stone business. But then, there’s also delighted disbelief that Stone has come even this far. “For me,” says Green, who also represents the volatile Jerry Lee Lewis, “it’s a gamble that seems less and less like a gamble.”

“Certainly, I have great regrets that it’s taken Sly all these years to return,” says Clive Davis, “but the fact that there might be a happy ending to all this is a great feeling.”

View a slide show of Sly Stone and friends. Photograph by Herb Greene.

At the end of my face-to-face chat with Stone, I can’t help but address something that’s been nagging at me the whole time. At the Grammy Awards, he wore shades. In Vegas, he wore shades. Now, here in the front room of Chopper Guys, he’s wearing shades. I’m feeling a twinge of doubt, like what that woman in Vegas felt.

“Can I see your eyes, Sly?”

“Yeah,” he says, pulling down his sunglasses, revealing healthily white whites and a remarkably unlined face—the same face from Woodstock, Cavett, and the cover of Fresh. It really is Sly Stone.

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