August 30th, 2009 | Interviews

luke mcgarry

If the politicos occupying Chocolate City ever get around to building a monument on the mall to good ol’ American rhythm ‘n’ blues funk rock, Dawn Silva’s name needs to be etched in bold print on that bad boy. With a pedigree among the best—having served years with Sly and the Family Stone and the P-Funk family—I think of Dawn Silva as the guiding light and longest lasting permanent member of the Brides of Funkenstein. She has not stopped making great music since she first had a fateful connection with Sly Stone in a studio way back when, and she has been singing her ass off and fighting the good fight with her clan of funk warriors ever since. She is sultry and sensuous with golden pipes—off the record, she punctuated our conversation by calling me ‘baby’—still doing work in the studios and on the stages in a time when humans seem to have lost touch with all that is funky. Sir Nose D’void of Funk’s presence looms large in this day and age, but Dawn Silva knows the key. If there was ever a time to remember what we’ve forgotten about the funk to the mechanical workings of the music biz it is now. Dawn Silva sang ‘Starting All Over’ with Lynn Mabry in 1978, so show some fucking respect! We talked about lots of funky stuff… from the plot against the funk, true funk, better living through funk and a grip of her music that should be put out now but for some senseless reason isn’t. This interview by Kurt Midness.

You were singing with Sly Stone early in your career when you got the nod to board the Mothership with Parliament—did you ever have the feeling that you were in the middle of something new and exciting while that was happening? Or did you feel that this was a normal gig for a young singer from Sacramento?

I didn’t feel it at first. I’m one of those blessed artists that didn’t ever have to struggle in my career. I think to understand the journey you must understand the path. I’ll tell you how it really went down when I met Sly. A friend of mine called and said, ‘You wanna meet Sly?’ I said ‘yeah,’ and we went to meet him in the studio. Sly’s sister Rose Stone was hoarse that day and couldn’t sing, so my friend says, ‘Dawn can sing the high notes.’ Sly said, ‘Well, go ahead then.’ I got up there and sang and everything fell into place. After that he said, ‘Welcome to Sly and the Family Stone.’ From there I went out on tour with Sly and Dr. John. Sly always had the cushiest gigs and the best tours. And then he said one day, ‘We are going out with the funk.’ I asked, ‘What’s the funk?’ He said ‘Funkadelic!’ It was supposed to be a long tour and we were real excited to do it. We lasted about two or three weeks before Sly dropped off. We were sandwiched between Bootsy and the Mothership. Being out there with P-Funk, I knew it was a new creative music—the way George Clinton mixed Jimi Hendrix with Sly with Earth, Wind and Fire. Just how he mixed R ‘n’ B with rock music—and I love rock music. I was in the eye of the storm at that time and didn’t know I was leaving the cushiest gig of my life for a whole new thing. George’s market was an all-black urban market. I went from performing to a predominantly white audience to performing in front of a sea of darkness that was 90% men. Loving my men like I do—I was in third heaven. It was one consistent era—I call it a dimension—until finally I was standing out on stage with my own group. One day George said he got the Brides a record deal for Atlantic. George had four females in the band at that time and we sang on all those classic Parliament records like Mothership Connection and Dr. Funkenstein. George was giving his male fans something to dance to. I had no idea how intense it was until after I was out.
What was the concept behind the Brides of Funkenstein debut Funk or Walk?
‘Funk or walk’ meant the same concept as ‘if you ain’t gonna get it on, take your dead ass home.’ Either funk or get to steppin’—walk—we used to say ‘bounce.’ Either funk or walk.
How is the marriage to Dr. Funkenstein now? Are you a bride til death do you part?
Until funk do you part. That’s a whole ‘nother story. Once a Bride of Funk, always a Bride of Funk. Once you are a part of the Mothership Connection you are always in. It’s an extended family. To this day, when I see George Clinton, he says, ‘What up, Bride?’ and I say, ‘Hey, husband.’
Whatever happened to the solo record you recorded for Polygram? Is there any chance of that one ever being released?
I was signed to Polygram, but they wanted to water down my music. I still got it and it still hasn’t been released. It’s 30 songs. Hopefully it will come out one day. That was in 1988. They said the bass lines were too heavy—that it was too funky. That’s how I know when it is true funk. When it is true funk, it is hard to control it. That’s why true funk doesn’t get as much play on the radio as it should. All this new music of today would be exposed for all its weaknesses. The industry can control that stuff because it is weak. That’s why you don’t hear funk anymore.
If you had to write down Dawn Silva’s recipe for a funky life, what would be the key ingredients needed to get started?
First ingredient is peace of mind. For me that means Christ. With God in your life you have piece of mind. My recipe: Christ, a positive environment… no fat greasy fried foods.
None at all?
None… but I break the rules from time to time. Eating soul food is great because it is delicious, but it will take you on up outta here. It has taken a lot of our people outta here. You gotta eat right to keep your creative juices flowing. If you wanna eat that fried chicken and mac and cheese, you have to cleanse yourself with some healthy food and clean living. I believe in ‘always do your good deed for the day and it will come back to you.’ That’s why my musicians whenever I call will do a gig even when it’s not good money. They are like, ‘When and where?’ That’s the way I want to live. The older I get the more it is my form of survival. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Love thy neighbors like you love yourself. It applies to everything in life and especially music. I have to love my music first before I can expect anyone else to love my music. I have to love myself first if I expect anyone else to love me. You have to pay it forward, not backward—that’s how you do it.
Do you have any new music planned for the near future?
Most artists always have four or five albums in them at any given time. Right now I got a double in me now, but I make sure that they are all hits. People tell me, ‘How do you put so much good music on one album?’ I’m not gonna just have a few hits and then some filler. That’s what most music tries to do. I could write ten hit singles and put them all on one album.
You’ve been one of the funkiest—and one of the greatest—American singers since the ‘70s, so how come your first solo album All My Funky Friends didn’t come out until 2000? And on a European label?
No one’s ever asked me that. Let me think—the Mothership ran out of fuel in ’82 and there was nowhere else to land because disco came in with the Donna Summer era and funk got put on hold. I played with Gap Band from 1982 to 1991. I basically became a background singer. It was a good paying gig, so I did that for nine years. Then in 1992 I started working with Ice Cube. He wanted to do a Brides of Funkenstein record, but there was a problem with the legality of using the name Brides of Funkenstein and that never happened. I also did some tours with Bernie Worrell and the Woo Warriers. I spent some time in Brazil gigging with Zola Taylor who was one of the original members of the Platters. That was a seven-year gig and I made a great living doing that. To make a long story short, when I got back from Brazil I was so bored with music on the radio and I wanted to do my own stuff so I could hear something good. I sought out a local promoter to book me some shows. He told me that funk was dead and to bury it and go home and plant some flowers for the rest of my life. Around this time I ran into a friend, D’LaVance, who is a left-handed synth player that had played for the Isley Brothers and we started making the record. For six months we recorded at his studio. I slept on the floor and we just worked. When it came out I got the same story as with the promoter. When I took my stuff to radio they said I was too new for old school radio and too old sounding for new school urban radio. December of 2000 I took my music to George Clinton’s One Nation chatroom and the funk soldiers. We made a website because this was before Myspace and put up four or five songs to listen to and had the album for sale. The funk soldiers came and bought it. The first 300 fans that bought it reviewed it and it started to sell… I sold 5,000 and then 5,000 more and then I got a lot of licenses from other countries, but not the US where the album continues to sell. Maybe it wasn’t meant to happen for me until that point in my career. It was God’s plan. Things happen for a reason.
It seems to me that a lot of American musicians get more props outside of the US. Why do you think that is?
Because the R ‘n’ B market in America has been systematically shut down. Before Tower Records went out of business, I had a distribution deal with them for my album. I would sell them on consignment. My record came in on the tail end of the shutdown of R ‘n’ B. They tried to shut it down and they did a good job doing it. My music was moved into the Pop/Rock section. Not just me… lots of music like Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gap Band. If you went to Tower or any of the other chains, there were no signs that said, ‘R ‘n’ B/Funk.’ They took it out, and that is my background with Sly and P-Funk. And gospel which originated from America. And I also have classical training. As long as it has that gospel spirit it will sound universal. That’s why I have had success in other countries of the world.
Maybe that’s why Tower went out of business.
It’s exactly why they went out of business! I was surprised that they are calling our show the Long Beach Funk Festival. I can’t believe they used the word ‘funk’—that little four-letter word. That’s why I call my people funk soldiers because we are down there in the trenches keeping funk alive. I’m so bored with music on the radio. It’s just the same recycled top ten over and over. It’s depressing.