It was more than I could have ever imagined. After coordinating and speaking back and forth for quite some time; with only “the Michael Cooper,” lead guitarist, vocalist, and one of the originals and leaders of the legendary FUNK classic band ConFunkShun, finally it happened. The day arrived, June 17, 2018, Father’s Day in Bethesda, Maryland.
I decided I want these new school millennials to meet old school funk and bast in what that was and still is. Some might ask how I know so much about the funk seeing as that I was only born in ‘88, but I grew up listening to nothing but old school and 90s Hip Hop and R&B. That’s what you get when you have a musician for a dad. I remember so well hearing the sounds of CFS throughout the house cleaning on Saturday mornings or any random day of the week. The first album I was ever introduced to from them was Live For Ya A**. It had ALL the hits and I do mean them all. It was released August 1996. I was just about to turn 8 years old in October that year. Just to think I was so young and still remember the feeling it gave me. It’s hands down one of my favorite albums to date. Now twenty-years later at 30-years old, I still remember the feeling it gave me like the first time.
This funk, you want in your life. The day of the show, we were first on the guest list, I felt like mama I made it. By we, I mean my mom, dad, and I. This was a Father’s Day gift to my father for being the best in the world. We met the entire band, got to hang backstage, take pictures, talk and laugh. I’ll let Michael Cooper tell it, “The band Con Funk Shun consists of myself, Felton Pilate, my immediate partner and an original member and the other lead singer, Reverend Karl Fuller, who’s also an original. Then, there is Eric “EQ” Young, the bass player, he’s been with us probably 23 years. You got Ron Moton who’s been with us over 17 years. We’ve got K.C. Clayton, our keyboard player, he’s been with us over 15 years, and as well as the drummer, Brian Collier, who’s been with us more than 15 years.” He also disclosed they acquired an eighth member, but that member wouldn’t be in attendance that night for the show.
We got to see them as they prepared, got in their zone, and took the stage. The energy leading up to the main event was empowering. Tired from a long weekend already, I didn’t feel an ounce of sleep come over me the entire afternoon. We went to the first show of the day, and it felt like it was the grand opening and grand closing. They tore the house down, I don’t know how they could come back any stronger the next time. We stood backstage upstairs after taking the elevator up from behind the stage where the band and crew waited to go on. You could hear the crowd gearing up for the shutdown. In their blue and white matching and coordinated stage wear, the seven men and fathers went on at once. They went through hit after hit, rocking the audience out of their funky shoes. It felt good to have a first-hand seat and experience to the funking. I stood behind and beside the stage from backstage getting to feel the bass like it was in my chest. They saved the best part for last, myself and my mother went on stage for the last song and got to do the closing jump on FFUN with them. On the count of 3, we jumped. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. It wasn’t my first time ever performing on a stage, but I felt apart of that moment and I wanted to thank the keyboard player for pushing me out more, front and center.
No wonder it was such a feeling, this group is 45 years old. That’s right, 45. A little history lesson for those who may not even know, there were 2 different bands of ConFunkShun through name changes. They finally decided on ConFunkShun because like Cooper said, “Somebody said, ‘Well we’re very contemporary and we’re very funky’ and then one of the members asked, ‘Hey, what was the name of that song, Con Funk Shun? The Nite-Liters played?’ Then he says, ‘That’s like contemporary funk. Con Funk Shun.’” The light bulb went off, like somebody had thrown water in your face and everybody looked at each other like, that’s it.
It began with one group and is now a different group with the same music. Those two groups have totally different stories to tell. Cooper admits, “There’s so many memorable moments in Con Funk Shun 1 and Con Funk Shun 2 that it is unbelievable.” There are bus stories on the road where the bus breaks down and they’d have to find their way to a gig and rehearsal, women stories that you wouldn’t believe (both good and bad), and even on stage stories you’d die hearing about. You’ll get to read about some of these stories I’m sure in Mr. Cooper’s On Love’s Train: The Light, The Man, The Music. That’s right. He says, “It’s gonna be a book with a best of, the artwork will be the same matching, so they will look alike. The CD will be, The Man, The Music, The Best.” One will be shaded one color, and the other another color, but you’ll be able to buy them both together. Cooper confirms, “That’s all in the works.”
As for how they’re able to stay relevant after all these years and still gigging, “One of the things is that you remain humble and thankful for the fact that you’re one of maybe 12 groups that the phone is ringing for. The fact that we refuse to give the people anything less than a good show, the fact that we are blessed enough to understand that we are blessed, in other words, we’re not taking it for granted that we’re here.” Looking at their calendar they are booked and blessed, gigs every month and throughout. Cooper humbly comments, “We’re not exclusive to anybody, so anybody can book us.” There are about five or six agents that book them, plus Michael Cooper himself books. He tells, “I think what makes us relevant is the fact that we do realize that it’s a blessing to be here so, therefore, nurture what you have. Continue to stay humble because the second you think you don’t have to do a good show or you can be late, you don’t dress alike no more, or you start not taking care of your voice, you start coming up here and doing something, and it’s one thing to get old and get ill, that’s gonna happen to all of us. It’s another thing to smoke and drink and think you’re gonna go up there and give the people a good show. You’re not gonna do it. So with that in mind, us, Midnight Star, SOS Band, and people like that; we are thankful to be here and try to keep ourselves dialed in and stay on our knees. Every six months, one of us is gone. Every time you turn around, somebody is gone.”
With a laundry list of hits, Michael Cooper was able choose surprisingly to say his favorite song to perform is Got to be Enough. When asked if it always stays the same or if it’s changed over the years he still votes it his number one, Too Tight follows up as number two, and Love Train has always been a fan favorite without any doubt, what shockingly has never even been a single. Most people may not know that, well now you do. He said it was, “No chart positions, no sales, no nothing. “Love Train” was a record that caught fire in the company.” It was used and thankful it was. “We didn’t have a single hit off that album, so the company decided to leave it in the album so that the album would sell and it worked. Radio stations back in those days, they’d call it carded up. So they’d just call the radio station and say look, we’re not gonna release it as a single but we need you guys to card it up because the single is coming and it never came; so the station carded it up off the album and started playing it. People were showing up at the store to buy it and looking for it, so they had to buy the whole album.” Oh, that’s smart marketing.
He was elated to relay, “To this day, Love Train is still our biggest record, Too Tight is our biggest hit, and Ffun is our only number one.”
Their latest project More Than Love has shown that not only can they give you the hits on hits on hits that they already have, but they can come up to date, and give you something fresh. However, they were confronted with a revelation this last time. They found that groups their age and with their image step into a snake pit anytime they release a record today, or you better have six figures to put behind it. They chose to continue on with their latest album and project, mostly for self-gratification and also, selling at the gig. At this point, otherwise, there’s no other reason to do a new piece of music. It’s still proving that they’ve got it and they do.
Ultimately, they do it for the love of music and the fans, those who’ve been down with them for years. If you’re just jumping aboard the ConFunkShun love’s train, fear not, we still welcome you too. Cooper says, “Within our community and our culture, we are legitimate headliners.” He agrees that ConFunkShun has lots of gold, but those guys like Cameo and Ohio Players had platinum hits. More was gained with time, but there are very few headliners now from their day still touring and rocking the stage like they’re only just beginning.
Cooper says, “It’s very few. We have maybe five headliners, real legitimate funk headliners. Frankie’s still out there (Frankie Beverly and Maze), Earth, Wind, and Fire is still out there and then you’ve got corporate headliners.” That’s next level. “Once you learn that and you accept it, you say okay, I know my level. Let me find my lane and stick with it. That’s what gives us the legitimacy. We know our lane and we stay in it. We know how much to charge, what to do, what buildings to play, and where the people go. We’re not trying to be in 10,000 seaters and be the headliners. That ain’t us, that’s not what we do,” Michael Cooper humbly admits. “I got a lot of people tell me that, ’You’re gonna sell yourself too cheap. You shouldn’t settle for nothing less than $50,000 a night.’ I’ll be sitting at home a lot. So, I’ll take the 20 and go out and play.” Mr. Cooper even has advice for you quintessential gentleman reading this, “Well a gentleman is putting ladies first, only after God.” Give it all to God before all, then make sure that woman is first and happy. This is your road to being a gentleman. “Then you take care of yourself, dress well, present yourself well, firm handshake, back of your shoes shine, make sure you got a hundred dollar bill in the back of your wallet every time you walk out the door, say thank you, be polite, and look people in the eye when you talk to them. That’s how you develop yourself to be a gentleman, it’s not automatic, but that’s how you get there.”
Now that you’ve been introduced to the FUNK, if you want to be work hard and play even harder here’s how you do this, “You rehearse, you practice, and you learn your instrument. You don’t just spin some records and stack all. Go back to the basics. Hang out with old school cats. Right here, hang out with these cats and let them teach you grown-up stuff. Don’t get in a hurry. That’s number one. Whenever you make some money, plant the dollars so that it comes back to you. The best is backing yourself, you’ll be alright.”
Listen, they’re still booked and blessed, 45 years later.
Today, this new year, I reflect on this.
Keep up with them and where they’re going to be next here.