Boogiemporium: Sly and Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

The other night, my lovely and delightfully pregnant wife and I returned from a night out on the town which consisted of barbecue dinner and a trip to Home Depot (yeah, son, we get down) and she thought that, given Ellison’s movement and size, that now would be the time to introduce her to music. There’s the trick where you fire up a playing device and feed it through a pair of headphones (not ear buds, kiddies–that ain’t headphones [says Paul Hogan]), stick them on the swollen and pregnant belly and watch the magic happen. The playing device would be an iPod because of it’s portability, the headphones would be an old junky pair of Koss and the album, among a few others through trail and error, would be Sly and Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

I had known for years of Riot‘s greatness. Besides being one of the most accomplished funk records ever, I’ve now discovered it to be a fine children’s recording as well. We tried a few different recordings first and a few of them actually put her in retreat. It was like she was fleeing from the music. Others got no reaction at all. But when we put on Sly and the gang, Ellison began reacting with kicks. Somersaults. Can you imagine hearing getting Sly Stone in surround sound in there after months of just the same droning heartbeat? We led off with “Family Affair” and she was col’ getting down. “Family Affair” is the funk.

One of the greatest elements of Riot though is its varied sensibilities. Not only does it dance, but it sways and eventually even sleeps. And, above all, it’s clean and appropriate for kiddos. Some funk records are fun, but sometimes dissolve into innuendo or heady politics. Despite the title, there’s very little riotous about this record although that’s not how Sly intended it. Sly had desired to make a recording that “mirrored black America’s quest for post-sixties purpose.” It was to be a darker and heavier recording to contrast some of his more positive Bay-area based funk. The band moved to LA and along with working on Riot, found themselves heavily involved both cocaine and PCP. Heavy times, indeed. Irregardless, though, the positivity of records like “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” which features lil’ sis Rose Stone on vocals is a beautiful and sensitive work that builds into a rousing sing-a-long. Also, Rose contributes on the standout “Runnin’ Away” whose somber lyrics juxtapose the composition itself. Tell me this ain’t a children’s record:

The deeper in debt, the harder you bet. Hee hee hee hee, need more room to play!

In one of the books I’ve been reading, it was mentioning that the perfect tempo for newborns and infants is 60-80 beats per minute. It serene and calming. Not too fast, not too slow. Just right. Probably no coincidence that it’s a very similar to the only other tempo they’ve ever known and that’s the resting heart rate of their mother’s heart. There’s many standout songs on Riot strike the perfect BPM for maximum relaxation and chilldown. Take, for instance, the aptly titled “Just Like a Baby.” It’s a solid 64 BPM and is more sleep-inducing than a Sugarhill Gang reunion show. Then, there’s the soft and gentle “Poet” which crawls to a soothing completion. Wikipedia: “The entire record featured a dampened, dub-like sound as the result of Sly’s extensive re-recording and overdubbing, which matches the burnt-out, frustrated, drugged tone of Sly’s lyrics and vocals.” But a drugged-out Sly makes for some great baby music. The down-tempo aspect of the album is conducive to sleeping.

Take, for instance, “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” which is quicker, but starkingly absent of drums or horns. It’s a flow of keyboards, bass, guitar and vocals. It’s a 9-minute mushy funktacular. I can’t listen to it without catching a nap somewhere between the fifth and the sixth minute. The album’s ultimate lullaby however, is the 52 BPM of “Time.” This is like a freaking death crawl. 52 BPM is slower than Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” for crying out loud. And at three minutes in length, that should be all you need.

Album was reissued back in 2007 and contains three bonus instrumentals that only extend the serenity induced by this record: “My Gorilla is My Butler,” “Do You Know What?” and “That’s Pretty Clean.”

Four and a half Dirties for There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It puts a whooping on any other children’s music on the market.


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