Amplified life

Sep 3, 2003 at 12:00 am

Joseph “Amp” Fiddler’s story is dedicated to anyone who ever danced to R.J.’s Latest Arrival’s “Shackles On My Feet” back in the ’80s. It’s for the people who have gotten themselves through rough times by reciting Parliament/Funkadelic’s timeless affirmation: “… with the rhythm it takes to dance to what we have to live through. …” It might be doubly appreciated by couples who put their thing in action to the beat of Seal’s Human Being album.

Amp Fiddler, native Detroiter. Thoroughbred east-sider. Osborne High School. If you’ve never heard of him, say hi. If you know him, say it’s high time he got some in-depth local ink for what he’s done.

Somehow, Amp is short for Anthony, his middle name. “It’s one of those playground things,” he says jokingly. “We had a couple Amps.” I thought he would say they call him Amp because for 20 years his vocals and keyboards have amped the music of other artists, artists you may know better than him. Brian McKnight. Maxwell. The Brand New Heavies. Lucy Pearl. George Clinton. The aforementioned R.J., Funkadelic, Seal. He’s seen his share of funk ... and soul ... and love, and it’s made him a bit restless. That’s why he’s taking time away from other peoples’ music to hype his latest solo release, the Love and War EP, on the UK-based Genuine label.

“I’m trying to put in the work that I’ve been putting in for years for other people for myself,” Fiddler says from his Detroit home. “It’s been so long, sittin’ on the side with my keyboard. Later for that.”

Love and War is not Fiddler’s first release. It follows Basementality, another Genuine release. Both projects are teasers that he plans to combine and release in a full-length album in January. They’re also preceded by his 1990 debut, a little-noticed Elektra Records release called Mr. Fiddler (With Respect). It sold meekly, but its bouncy funk is oddly reminiscent of the sound Prince incorporated on songs like, “My Name is Prince” and “The Max,” from his iconic Symbol album in 1992. Amp’s not sure if his album actually influenced Prince, but he does understand why Elektra failed to push it.

“It was just so different they didn’t know what to do with the promotion,” Fiddler says. “It was funk, R&B. It was ahead of its time.”

Few would doubt that Fiddler himself is ahead of his time. He graduated high school when bell bottoms and dashikis were a new trend, and studied music at Oakland and Wayne State universities. While at Wayne, a chance visit to United Sound studio led to a meeting with the legendary George Clinton.

“Actually, he took me to California,” Fiddler says. “I lived there for about a year with him, out of a hotel. That really exposed me to a lot of people.” Among those people was Enchantment, a soul group responsible for the ’70s hit “Gloria.” They gave him his first tour opportunity.

A bigger challenge waited four years down the road when he reunited with the Clinton crowd.

When I got the gig with Parliament/Funkadelic, that was the real test, ’cause it was a lot of stuff to remember, a lot of parts. … The way they worked, I had to take 20 or 30 songs, learn ’em and then, when we got to Europe, we rehearsed at the sound check. And then, we did the gig. It was a lot of songs. I even had to learn songs that we weren’t necessarily doing, just in case they wanted to do ’em.

“It made a big impact on me because I had to hone my craft. Those cats were real critical. Especially ’cause half the band was from D.C. and Baltimore, and they were more structured musicians who had studied and knew theory. The other cats were just raw dogs that were just sweet.”

The year 1986 proved to be a whirlwind for Amp. He hooked up with the late Barry White, Antonio “LA” Reid, Babyface and Verna Jean Cooper of the all-female R&B group Klymaxx. Those contacts led to gigs that took him around the world. But he chalks his success up to his professionalism as well as to knowing the right people.

“There were keyboardists who were playing,” he admits, “but I had a little different style. And the other cats had egos and attitudes. Those egos kinda got in the way of their progress sometimes. George worked with some people to bring me out because the other musicians were clashing with each other. Their egos were clashing, because they thought they knew so much shit. One couldn’t tell another anything. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to work, and it got me a little more work that way.”

Time has been rather kind to the dude. Talking to Amp, who stands a slender 6 foot, 2 inches with a jet-black Afro, it’s easy to forget he’s 45, a single dad, raising his 12-year-old son Dorian. He performs with energy that many artists half his age lack. Yet he talks with a resolve that suggests he’s been around the block a few times.

One place to hear what he has to offer is on the critically acclaimed Carl Craig production The Detroit Experiment, which came out earlier this year.

“I did a lot of live sessions, and that was the best part,” Amp says. “I hadn’t done live sessions like that probably since the Seal album. We all were in the room together. You don’t get that too much these days, a whole band in a room together playing.”

His solo contribution to the Experiment is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High.” But he admits he was less than thrilled with Craig’s production of that piece: “It was better when the music was kinda supporting my voice. But Carl had to put his futuristic funk on it. I ain’t mad at him, though.”

He studies a mix of new and older artists to keep sharp. Cats currently getting spins in his CD deck include Detroit soul singer Dwele, organist Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Bob Marley and the Wailers.

And he’s excited by the way the music industry has changed over the years.

“It’s way different than when I was coming up, when we didn’t have the Internet. We’re moving into futuristic ways of listening and downloading. You can go on the Internet and listen to a radio station, share files. I think it’s a good thing. It’s progress. Some musicians are heavy into analogue and old school. Sometimes, it takes people a little while to adapt to these changes.”

The one thing that doesn’t change, however, is the path to improvement for musicians.

“What you have to do is what we do now. Just go into these clubs and rough it, get a few dollars. Just keep playin’, and keep doin’ it,” says Amp, who currently jams with local band Mudpuppy.

Fiddler makes the point that he’s in the music for the long haul, no matter how the funky Love & War EP does.

“George Clinton was here the day before yesterday, and I think George is 67. And I think most cats involved with what we do, do it to the end like Miles,” says Amp.

“Music is so beautiful that there’s no reason to retire. It’s so universal. It’s like language, conversation. You’re not gonna stop talking, so why stop performing?”

Read other stories in the SOUL PURPOSE: DETROIT HIP HOP 2003 series.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]