Company Freak Makes Vintage Dance Music New Again


Company Freak (Jimi Sweet)

Company Freak Photo: Jimi Sweet

Disco was the soundtrack to many liberation movements,” King says, “certainly the gay liberation movement. It was on the heels of the post civil rights African American movement, the women’s movement and others. It was a very multicultural music, meaning many many people were included in it, this kind of fusion of black and Latino working class cultures.

 As a music writer and academic, Jason King has a very impressive resume. His articles have appeared inThe Village Voice, Vibe, NPR and Spin; he has written books about black popular music and Michael Jackson, and is currently penning another on Freddie Mercury, Queen’s legendary singer. Plus, King is an associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, where he had previously served as the program’s artistic director for six years.

But like singers Neil Tennant and Chrissie Hynde, both of whom started out as music journalists before forming the Pet Shop Boys and the Pretenders, King himself is now making music and not just writing about it. This time, he is the mastermind behind the dance music collective Company Freak, who released their debut EP, Le Disco Social, this past March. On Friday, the band will be performing live at Rough Trade NYC along with Low Cut Connie.

If Company Freak’s stylish music is reminiscent of the sophisticated late ’70s disco sound pioneered by the likes of Chic and Change (which featured Luther Vandross before he became better known as a solo artist), that was King’s intention. Even the group’s name is a throwback to when disco and dance acts operated like business organizations.

“The idea behind the band was to recapture the sounds of orchestral soul, disco and funk of the 1970s at that moment when disco turned into post disco,” King says. “I had a particular sound that I had wanted to go after and that was the result of the fact that I had been traveling around the world a lot–I’ve been in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. So I wanted to put a band together that would recapture the feeling, the sound and the politics of that moment in the ’70s that moved into the ’80s that’s really dear to me and dear to my heart.”

Also similar to some of the dance acts of yesteryear is that Company Freak has a revolving cast of different singers and musicians, with King calling the shots. “I wanted to have this loose affiliation of brilliant talent, which kind of what happened to groups like Change and others,” he says. “Some of these are legends of disco and soul and funk–people like Vivian Reed, who is an amazing singer. And there are also a lot of younger singers that I had discovered, people that I think are the next generation of brilliant powerhouse vocalists. So the group is multi-generational in that it’s singers and session musicians from the past, and current contemporary singers and musicians. It’s a real collaboration between the two groups.”

The collective’s EP contains classic disco and dance music as represented by the very exuberant and brash “Sexaholic,” “Theme From Company Freak,” and a cover of Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk”–all of which are accentuated by superb musicianship, sleek arrangements, and the powerhouse delivery of the singers.The record also sounds contemporary with elements of hi-NRG and global influences, especially on the track “Istanbul Disco,” which was done both in Turkey and New York.

“It is really an amalgam of Turkish traditional music and African-American disco, as improbable as that may sound,” says King. “The interesting thing for me is if you got to the night clubs in Turkey, a lot of the contemporary Turkish music that is being played and is popular is kind of rooted in African-American aesthetics: it has soulful, funky elements. It may seem improbable to make this connection between Turkish music and African American music, but I think the links are already there and what I’m doing is just illuminating and highlighting what already exists.”

Another song reflective of King’s experiences in the Middle East is “Crackdown,” which recalls the political funk of Sly and the Family Stone. At the time, he was in Egypt right after the Arab Spring and kept hearing the word “crackdown” on the TV. “I was walking down the street in Cairo and I came up with this phrase: ‘If you think about doing a crackdown, you better crack down on yourself.’ A lot of early funk songs were deeply political and a lot of disco was deeply political. So I had no trouble with the idea of doing a political disco track.”

Company Freak also offers a spirited tribute in the form of  “Andre Leon Talley,” about the famous Vogue fashion editor. “I wanted to write a song that would be a new kind of pride anthem,” King says. “I was really inspired by songs from the past like “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross and “I Was Born This Way” by Carl Bean that came out in ’77, and so many other songs of the disco era that were these anthems of liberation. And also Andre Leon Talley is one of those figures who doesn’t get enough critical attention. He is one of the most important African-American figures in fashion. He’s not only incredibly talented but also he’s somebody who to me seems to be somebody who never ever had be to somebody else. He’s been himself 100 percent authentically all the time, which is over the top, flamboyant, and fun.”

Company Freak (Project Publicity)

Jason King of Company Freak Photo: Project Publicity

Le Disco Social is the beginning for Company Freak as far as its musical offerings–King is currently working on the group’s  full-length debut record that is due out sometime later in the year. It will contain tracks from the EP as well as new material, including music he recorded in Turkey and Nigeria. “[It’s] really fascinating stuff working with some of Fela [Kuti’s] musicians in creating a very hybrid sound that recall the sound of West African disco of the 1970s, a genre which not a lot of people know about, but I’m gonna try to rekindle.”

Disco may have seemed dead after the backlash it suffered at the dawn of the ’80s, but over the years, the genre has experienced a critical reappraisal and cultural resurgence, especially through current the popularity of Daft Punk and the revival of interest in the music of Chic co-mastermind and guitarist Nile Rodgers. And now Company Freak is carrying the torch for the genre by recreating the spirit of the old sounds while forging ahead with new ones.

“Disco was the soundtrack to many liberation movements,” King says, “certainly the gay liberation movement. It was on the heels of the post civil rights African American movement, the women’s movement and others. It was a very multicultural music, meaning many many people were included in it, this kind of fusion of black and Latino working class cultures. It’s also very sophisticated music in terms of the arrangements: the use of orchestra and the strings, the playing itself on some of the best disco records is so high level. Ultimately I want to make people dance. I want to make people feel good, have a great time and hopefully think in the process. At the end of the day, it’s feeling music–music to make you feel.”

Company Freak’s EP, Le Disco Social, is out now.

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