Looking back, James Brown's 1985 comeback single "Living In America" was an anomaly for one of popular music's most prolific and groundbreaking visionaries. The omnipresent lead track from the Rocky IV film, which peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 4 and spent an impressive 11 weeks on the pop charts, was curiously unfunky, a song so sterile that longtime JB fans were left with a sinking feeling that they were listening to a schmaltzy Las Vegas Karaoke band. Enter Full Force. The Brooklyn unit, which had found success both as the production minds behind such acts as Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam ("I Wonder If I Take You Home," Head To Toe, "Lost In Emotion") and U.T.F.O. ("Roxanne") and as a full fledge hip-hop soul band ("Alice, I Want You Just For Me," "Temporary Love Thing," "Old Flames Never Die") was tapped to produce a more unfiltered, traditional James Brown workout.
Released in 1988, I'm Real was praised as a statement that represented the direct bridge from Brown's landmark funk and soul innovations to the Bronx-bred artform of hip-hop. Brown's last top 10 album produced a pair of charting singles (the title track "I'm Real" and "Static" found Soul Brother No. 1 taking back his sound which by the late '80s had become the go-to sample for the rap nation). With the underrated Full Force handling writing and production duties, James Brown was back where he belonged.
Decades later, Lou and Full Force—who have shown impressive range and staying power over the years, overseeing and participating on projects that include N'Sync, Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas and Bob Dylan—are still rolling. VIBE caught up with Lou to discuss his memories of working with the legendary James Brown (the subject of the acclaimed biopic Get On Up); the making of Full Force's star-studded album With Love From Our Friends (due out Aug. 26); how the crew overcame the cancer diagnosis of group member Paul Anthony; and why hip-hop will always be their muse. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: Full Force had the honor of working with James Brown on the I'm Real album, which was considered a big comeback album for the Godfather of Soul. How shocked were you when you got the gig?
Bowlegged Lou: I remember it like yesterday. James Brown was on Scotti Brothers Records at the time, and when we did an interview with Billboard we spoke of our love for Mr. Brown. We worshiped him... are you kidding me? And then Johnny Musso from Scotti Brothers got in touch with us and said, "Hey man, we heard about your love for Mr. Brown. How would Full Force love to do a whole James Brown album?" I was blown away. I got that phone call and was like, "Yes, let's do it...we're ready!" Then I remember going back to my brothers and my cousins in Full Force and I told them we were going to produce James Brown. They were literally jumping on me [laughs]. We were so excited.
We're you at all intimidated about the prospect of working with such a larger-than-life music icon?
Well, I started hearing rumors as we began to prepare for the album like, "Yeah, James Brown is hard to work with in the studio...James Brown curses." I wanted to find out what we were getting ourselves into, so I called up the late Dan Hartman who produced "Living In America" for Mr. Brown. And I asked him,"Yo, Dan...we are getting ready to work with James Brown. What do we do?" And he says, "First of all, you better not call him James. Call him Mr. Brown. If you call him James he's going to be looking at you like you're crazy." So we called him Mr. Brown when he came to the studio. We have never been in awe of anybody. Full Force has worked with people like Patti LaBelle and B.B. King and Bob Dylan. But we have never been in awe of anybody. But with Mr. Brown? We were in awe.
Have you seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up yet?
Not yet. But you know, it's funny. I heard we weren't mentioned in the movie or anything like that. But the bottom line is when we were working with Mr. Brown that's when he was getting into a lot of trouble and shooting guns and all that stuff was going on behind the scenes. When we would bump into Eddie Murphy he would joke, "Yo, man... y'all fucked up James Brown, man. He's getting in trouble because of y'all!" But even after going to jail Mr. Brown would still come back to the studio to finish the album. That was the crazy thing. Rev. Al Sharpton used to come into the studio every now and then. Every time Rev. Al would come to the studio we would say to ourselves, "Oh boy...it's going to be a long break right now." Because we knew that Sharpton and Mr. Brown would be talking until Tuesday [laughs]. And we heard some great stories!
Two of the biggest songs off the album, the title cut "I'm Real" and "Static," propelled Brown's return to the Billboard charts. How did those tracks come together and what was it like being in the studio with James Brown?
With "I'm Real" Mr. Brown loved the lyrics. This was the time when everybody was taking and sampling off Mr. Brown's and nobody was paying him for anything. So he couldn't wait to do "I'm Real." He was excited about it. He would tell us, "Yeah, man...I just got to get my money. I love the rappers. But they just can't take my money like that." But with us we had no issue sampling Mr. Brown because this was his record. We did a song called "She Looks All Types of Good" and we were using the "Funky Drummer" beat, but it was all good because we were using it with Mr. Brown right there present. So we got his permission on everything there. That's why we gave Mr. Brown writing credit. We were singing a lot of his songs on I'm Real.
And then on "Static" he didn't know where it was going in the beginning. My brother Paul spearheaded that song, but when he heard the chorus, "Static, don't start none, won't be none," he loved it. He loved it so much that he would be in the recording booth dancing. I would have to look over to Baby Gee like, "We are producing James Brown... what the fuck?!!!" It was just so incredible. We would be in the studio with him and he would tell us that he loved us like his sons. We spent three months in the studio with him. When I saw "I'm Real" go to no. 2 on the R&B charts with the name James Brown and then underneath "Produced by Full Force," that blew me away. And then "Static" goes top 5 on the charts. We had Mr. Brown's last top 10 records.
Let's get into the new Full Force album Love From Our Friends. You have everyone from Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans to Sheila E., Big Daddy Kane and former proteges Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam on this release. How did you go about recruiting the artists featured on this wide-ranging set?
Basically, I'm the one that made the phone calls to everybody. It just became a labor of love, which started out with Faith Evans and Tisha Campbell-Martin who were the first people on board. Tisha has always been such a dear friend of ours and Faith just wanted to do it for the love. We wanted to do this project in the way of Quincy Jones' Back On The Block album. I always had it in my head to do something like this using only true school artists. When artists have their features it's the usual contemporary artists but I feel sometimes that some people can have amnesia about a person like Tevin Campbell who still is alive and kicking or a Shanice, who I feel has always been one of the most underrated vocalist. Then we have Raphael Saadiq who I believe is a musical genius and Howard Hewett... these are all of our artists. I always wanted to make a big deal about them and a lot of them are doing it for the love of Full Force and the love of my brother, and his whole Cancer Champion Initiative to help other people.
You mentioned your brother Paul Anthony. How is he holding up and how has his illness affected Full Force as a group?
My brother Paul is doing God good right now. When he was first diagnosed with cancer it was a trip for us all. My brother is a picture of health. He was a bodybuilder and working out. It just shows you that cancer is not prejudice at all. I was there at the hospital when he was diagnosed and he didn't cry. He just got on his Blackberry and started looking up the terminology of Mantle Cell Lymphoma, which was a rare cancer and he took it head on. He's doing great...he's really positive. He has a song that he wrote in the hospital called "I Feel Good, I Look Good, I'm God Good," with Faith Evans and Sheila E. We just finished doing a video to that. It's going to be incredible.
Do you guys ever sit back and think, "Wow, we kick-started the recorded hip-hop diss craze with "Roxanne, Roxanne?"
It's crazy. I'll never forget Roxanne Shanté, who is also on our new album. Being the producers of UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" we used to be enemies [laughs]. When her and Marley Marl came out with "Roxanne's Revenge" we were like, "What the hell is this?!!!" They were playing both songs all over the radio. It wasn't even the fact that she was dissing everybody in UTFO on record, but it was like, "That is our track that they are using!" They are using our fucking track...did they even get permission to use our track?! [Laughs] It was a whole big thing, but after a while we settled everything. We got a co-writing credit for "Roxanne's Revenge." Then you had all these answer records like "Roxanne's Father," The Parents of Roxanne" come out. There were over 25 answer records.
That had to be surreal, right?
It was crazy! So much so that Full Force said to ourselves, "Well, we better jump on our own bandwagon." That's when we came out with "The Real Roxanne." Me and brother wrote the lyrics for that and recruited the first girl whose name was Elease Jack...she was the Original Real Roxanne. And then we recruited Joanne Martinez who became the other Real Roxanne. But for Roxanne Shanté to be featured on one of the new records "Roxanne, Roxanne (The New Chapter)" and come full circle it's great. My son Lou$tar, who is on it, a lot of people don't realize that if you Google Nicki Minaj one of her first early rap groups was called the Hoodstars and my son and myself personally recruited Nicki in the very, very beginning. My son was four-years-old when we first did "Roxanne, Roxanne."
Now that's some heavy perspective...
Right... he knew the song back and forwards. Now he's on the record with UTFO and Roxanne Shanté , who killed it. My son is talking to this girl and the girl's mother. He's getting tips from his uncle Doctor Ice and Kangol Kid and when he goes to talk to this girl the mother is Roxanne Shanté! To be honest, we wouldn't have been involved with the first recorded diss track if it wasn't for Shante releasing "Roxanne's Revenge." She's the lighter fluid that ignites it. It's just a crazy nice soap opera. We really consider ourselves the original hip-hop vocal band. "Alice I Want You Just For Me" was the original New Jack Swing record. Teddy Riley used to look up to us and we really appreciated that. We didn't get the props we felt we deserved actually until the Unsung TV documentary came on last year. We would hear, "Yo, man...Full Force's body of work is crazy."