By Nate Patrin
While West Coast hip-hop producers capitalized on rap's compatibility with late-period Parliament-Funkadelic to the point where it wound up defining the whole region's sound from Del to Dre to Digital Underground, it was New York's Paul Huston who became one of the first to harness the Mothership's energy for a bonafide classic. Without Bernie Worrell's squealing synths, lifted expertly from Funkadelic's '79 jam "(Not Just) Knee Deep", De La Soul's Prince Paul-produced 1989 hit "Me, Myself and I" wouldn't have been remotely as memorable. And by the time 1991's De La Soul Is Dead was released, with the sparse piano melodies from Funkadelic's "I'll Stay" woven into "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" and flashes of the synth from Parliament's "Flash Light" appearing in "Shwingalokate", it was clear that Paul had a certain affinity for Worrell's keyboard work.
That's an easy enough explanation for why the Paul-Worrell collaboration Turn My Teeth Up! works better than both Handsome Boy Modeling School albums, the Dix, or any of the other all-star projects Huston's been involved in since he wrapped the classic A Prince Among Thieves in 1999: Paul isn't too intent on making the signature style of one of P-Funk's most important sonic architects any more outlandish than it really needs to be. But Baby Elephant is a surprising collaborative effort: aside from the obligatory skits and a solid framework of straightforward beats, the vast majority of the record's immediacy flows through Worrell, and he delivers the same kind of mad-scientist liveliness that made his work so vital in the 1970s.
And, let's face it, past that: this is a funk project, but it's one that tweaks the idea of funk as of-its-time sample-fodder, turning it back around into a sort of hip-hop-consuming everygroove. The context in which it dredges up Worrell's past mentors, collaborators and disciples-- George Clinton, David Byrne, Digital Underground's Shock G-- makes everyone involved sound oddly ageless, even when we recognize the voices from two or three decades past. Clinton's the most obvious touchstone, and the tracks where he appears have a couple obvious P-Funk tropes, tying funk into a sort of universal divine futuristic creation mythos and rolling out moments of endearingly goofy love jonesing. But it sounds disconnected from any 90s throwback obviousness, almost a minimalist revamp of the Mothership sound (or at least as minimalist as a drum break and an armada of synths and pianos and organs can be). And the range that Worrell shows in his technique-- transitioning the melody and the bassline from post-Forbidden Planet sci-fi synths to classically-trained Chopinisms to Ellington swing in "Baby Elephants-n-Thangs" and laying down a trans-blues skulk in "Scratchinatanitchouttareach"-- keeps his sound as unpredictably catchy as anything Clinton sang over since Computer Games. The other guests play towards their strengths, David Byrne wailing over the martial rhythm and anxious finger-twitching melodies of "How Does the Brain Wave?" and Shock G in Humpty Hump mode burbling entertaining incoherence over the panicking-Meters workout of "Plainfield"-- familiar schticks in appropriately bewildering contexts.
Prince Paul doesn't have an immediately obvious hand in the way the album's shaped; anyone expecting a series of intricately-assembled samples on this record is going to be let down, though hey, he does have his trademark skits. (Most of them are dedicated to positing Worrell as some sort of incredibly influential guru-- no argument there; in the ideal world where keyboards are as highly esteemed as guitars the man would be Hendrix and a half.) But if you've heard Prince Paul's work with Gravediggaz or some of the more out-there surrealist moments on solo records like 1996's Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) and 2005's Itstrumental, you might recognize some of the darkly comic, borderline-sociopathologic touches that tended to lurk in his catalogue outside the Steely Dan and Hall & Oates loops he crafted for De La.
Aside the funk-by-numbers (albeit prime numbers) of "Fred Berry" and the title track's swampy, denture-clacking groove, a great deal of Turn My Teeth Up! puts together perplexing juxtapositions that entertain through sheer bizarreness: the production on "Crack Addicts in Love" is as polished and radio-ready as any Rihanna or Amerie single, but the stark lyrics that Nona Hendryx sings over it ("in every moment that we live/everything we have to sell and give/our love, our blood/for another chance of getting high") are only pretty in the delivery, while "Skippin Stonze" pushes the voice of onetime Worrell/Les Claypool/Buckethead collaborator Gabby La La into a distorted, eerie cry that seems to melt directly into the circuit boards of Bernie's synth. And the snarling electronic doom-metal drone of "Even Stranger" is just straight-up diabolical-- someone tell Bernie about this El-P kid; they could get along famously.
When it doesn't work, Turn My Teeth Up! staggers into turf that's too goofy for its own good: even with Yellowman holding court, the cod-reggae "Cool Runnins" sounds a bit too hacky-sack, and Reggie Watts' fast-talking, attention-monopolizing player hater/ladies' man schtick on "If U Don't Wanna Dance" is funny exactly once (plus, c'mon, who wants to hear Worrell imitate Roger Troutman?). When it does work, though, it's an ideal dose of funk weirdness, so deep it's gone past the knees and all the way up to the brain.