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|Detroit based Amp Fiddler is a celebrated soul/funk musician who has shared stages and studios with everyone from Prince and George Clinton to Primal Scream and underground Detroit producer Moodyman. Amp also played a pivotal role in bringing Slum Village to global attention, and was a friend and collaborator with their producer, the late James "J Dilla/Jay Dee" Yancey. His warm, expansive, mellifluous music takes stylistic cues from all these encounters, but emerges as earthy, supremely relaxed, and rooted in the funk and soul that Amp feels most connected to. And, as he suggests, it is music for the head as much as food for the heart and soul.|
I think the essence of the second record, and what makes the difference, is that I had a lot of different energies," he says. "Last time, a lot of what was on there were old songs that I had to finish, by adding new parts to the old, but this one is starting from fresh. And I think that's liberating and empowering. This time I put my own vision together."
Afro Strut, Amp's second solo album, finds him stepping onwards and upwards as he continues to define his own, very singular style. It's also a record made with reference to a wider world – a world that has warmly embraced Amp and his music. Two tracks – Right Where You Are and Ridin' – were recorded in Manchester with electronica producer (and former New Fast Automatic Daffodil) Justin "Only Child" Crawford. The title track, which features the veteran Afro-funk pioneer Tony Allen (who recorded his parts in Paris), appears as a series of linking fragments, giving the record a strong foundation in the motherland. Between and around these pieces, Amp weaves songs that speak of the personal and political, the sacred and profane. It is almost as if, while his music has grown and headed out across geographical and emotional boundaries, his songs have homed in on those things he knows best, those feelings he can most clearly express.
Waltz Of A Ghetto Fly set an impressive benchmark for Amp's future music to match, but with Afro Strut he shows how to follow up a cult classic. The most striking contrast between the two records is in song structure: Fiddler has tweaked his formula, and replaced some of Ghetto Fly's looser jam-based compositions with tighter, more traditional song forms, and as a consequence his lyrics, which had tended towards the universal but unspecific, have now solidified somewhat. "I'm always happy with the songs I write, regardless of what anybody thinks," he emphasises, "but I guess we all have something we have to grow towards, and there's always areas for learning. We all have to do better at something."
That kind of humility is rare in today's me-first, celebrity-lust culture, but Afro Strut proves that being honest with yourself as an artist can reap massive dividends. Writing mainly at the piano – rather than the Ghetto Fly approach of assembling songs piecemeal from different jams and ideas-generation sessions – gave Amp a tighter focus.
Amp considers the records to be from different viewpoints – essentially, Ghetto Fly was the world seen through the eyes of a child, in simplistic, clearly defined terms; Afro Strut, instead, reverberates to an inner rhythm, and concerns itself more with the nuances and subtleties an of an adult point of view. With "Waltz" Amp gave us an innocent, open-hearted perspective of neighbourhood life - his testament to everything he saw round about him, from the ghettofly characters he'd watch from his porch to scenes from his elder brothers' lives, all mixed in with his unique take on love and relationships. The journey he continues with Afro Strut is necessarily different, reflective of the more solid standpoint his experiences as a touring musician around the globe have given him. Last time out, you know how he felt, and got a good idea about how he lives his life and views the world: this time, you're there beside him as he wanders around, taking in the sights and sounds, meeting friends, hanging out and chewing the fat.
Though by no means religious, Amp is deeply spiritual, and this side of him comes out in tracks like Faith, another collaboration with the former Tony, Toni, Tone and Lucy Pearl mastermind Raphael Saadiq, and Heaven, a duet with Stephanie McKay. "Heaven is really kind of like a traditional soulful song that really reminds me of something from the past," Amp says. "I think that spiritual side of me is always there, and it's calming to know that you can bring that to an audience."
As before, most of the record was made at Camp Amp, the basement studio Fiddler operates in his Detroit home. It's a basic set-up, just a live room, vocal booth and mixing desk, but even there, Amp's tendency is to further circumvent the technology. "A lot of the time it's just me sittin' there at the microphone, in the room by myself," he admits. "It's good to have a team around you, I like making records like that, but I liked the fact that I was starting this one with a blank page, and just had to put it together on my own."
It was to Camp Amp that Slum Village came to make their first demo. "It was a shock, a hard thing to swallow," says Amp of the death earlier this year of Dilla, who became a friend as well as a collaborator over the years. "But you just have to deal with that." Another one of Amp's more spiritual songs, Pray Together, his last work with J Dilla, which uses a break beat that appeared on Common's Like Water For Chocolate album, will appear on a J-Dee tribute LP due soon.
Afro Strut is a record that reflects not just the life experiences but the musical make-up of its creator. After learning piano as a child, Fiddler studied music at Oakland and Wayne State Universities, and with the jazz great Harold McKinney. He joined a do-wop outfit, The Enchantments, as a teen, then in 1983 received his big break when a friend passed a tape of his playing to George Clinton. Bernie Worrell, the Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist, was leaving the mothership, and Amp ended up replacing him, touring with Clinton and the P-Funk Mob for more than a decade. He signed with Elektra and released an album with his brother, Mr Fiddler, in 1990, but the record proved too eclectic for the label to work out how to sell.
Amp's low profile through the 1990s can be put down to both his remarkable talent for landing background work on important records – he was asked to sit in on a session for a demo after an acquaintance spotting him walking down a New York street, and when the artist, Maxwell, was signed, Amp ended up helping make his acclaimed Urban Hang Suite debut – and the time he has to take to raise his son. A single parent, Amp addresses the difficulties of the lifestyle on Afro Strut's Find My Way, though the song is more about the experiences of a close friend than his own. "It's about his situation with child support, and the women he has who keep him locked in that situation," Amp sighs. "It affected me differently, because I choose to be responsible to my son. I think that's important, but not everybody has the possibility to do that with their child."
Afro Strut continues to reflect Amp's day-to-day life on Seven Mile, but draws deeper on the experiences he's faced bringing up his son as a single parent; the environment he savoured and the experiences he's learned about from being around the kids who hang out at Camp Amp; and his relationship with love. At the same time he works in a catalogue of contemporary black music themes borne of the additional experience and vastly expanded mindset he has gained through performing the songs of Waltz of a Ghetto Fly in all corners of the globe, and his music is leavened with some flourishes he has picked up from being around some premier league musicians on the road, and seeing both how their work has impacted upon his imagination, but on how his own music has been received by them and their audiences.
Amp will always keep moving forward – and as he embarks on the next stage of his journey, bringing Afro Strut to the world, he seems ready for whatever the experience will throw at him. But most of all, he's itching to bring another little bit of Seven Mile to the rest of the world.