Freekbass keeps Cincy's famed funk sound alive

Posted at 7:07 AM, Nov 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-24 07:07:37-05

Music lovers are aware of Cincinnati’s great funk tradition, starting with James Brown’s recordings at King Records and later his work with back-up band The JB’s, featuring Bootsy Collins. In the ’70s, Dayton gave us the Ohio Players; in the ’80s, there was Cincinnati’s Midnight Star and the Zapp Band out of Hamilton.

The funk oozed down Columbia Parkway and up the Ohio River to Mariemont, where a teenage musician named Chris Sherman became enamored with hitting it “on the one,” as James Brown called hitting hard the first beat in the measure. Sherman adopted the stage name Freekbass and for two decades has carried on the local funk tradition for a new generation.

Freekbass, who will release his seventh full-length album Dec. 11, will play a pre-release gig Nov. 27 at the Southgate House Revival. The release is his debut on Philadelphia-based indie label Ropeadope, the first time the bassist has had a national label and distribution deal.

The Freekbass album is simply called “Cincinnati” as a tribute to his hometown’s musical heritage.

“It seemed a no-brainer to call the album that. My whole sound is from growing up here,” Freekbass said. “I’d probably be playing music wherever I was raised, but I don’t think I’d be playing funk if I wasn’t from here. That’s from growing up here listening to Bootsy, Zapp, Midnight Star, the Ohio Players.”

Freekbass, a graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, said when he was a teenager he was heading to Clifton and Corryville every chance he got to soak up the local music scene. He would form a high school art rock band, Sleep Theater, and later be the bassist for ’90s party band Shag. His work in Shag got the attention of Bootsy Collins, who produced two Freekbass albums in 1999 and 2001 (“Body Over Mind,” “The Air is Fresher Underground”).

Collins also gave Sherman his stage name. While in the studio Collins once said, “You got that freaky bass thing going on.” And the name stuck.

A Degree in Funk

The Collins collaboration opened doors for Freekbass at clubs around the country and meant he had the attention of Bootsy’s legion of “Funk-a-teers.”

“Getting Bootsy’s stamp of approval didn’t hurt at all,” Freekbass said with a laugh, “especially for a kid who grew up on the east side of Cincinnati.”

Freekbass said working with Collins was his graduate school degree in funk.

“When I met Bootsy, I thought I was going to be learning all this really cool bass stuff. But what I really learned from him was about production and songwriting,” Freekbass explained.

Freekbass has put his own spin on the funk heritage. He is not afraid to update the sound with hip-hop and electronica elements. He even pulls out the rhythm guitar for a couple tracks on the new album, and the horn arrangements sometimes echo a jazzy vibe. In some ways the Freekbass sound may be more relatable to younger fans than the repetitive, classic funk of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic.

“I grew up on Dr. Dre, Daft Punk, Public Enemy and Radiohead,” said Freekbass. “As much as I like George Clinton, I was also listening to Sonic Youth or Nirvana.”

'We Hit the Funk a Little Harder'

“Cincinnati” has a crisp and tight live feel, perhaps because the album was basically assembled and arranged while the band was on the road. Freekbass and his Bump Assembly — featuring drummer Big Bamn and sax player Jason Burgard — have been touring almost constantly in support of a previous CD released just a year ago, “Everybody’s Feeling Real.”

“We had roughed out the foundation before we hit the studio,” said Freekbass. “We had been touring, so the band was at a whole different level in terms of tightness. Whenever we had an off date, we’d hole up in the hotel room and work on lyrics and arrangements. Plus, we had been playing these songs live.”

Drummer Big Bamn, far left, and sax player Jason Burgard, far right, comprise Freekbass' band The Bump Assembly. Freekbass is pictured between them. Photo provided

“Cincinnati” is strongest on its driving funkafied anthems, such as “Milkhunt” and “Up, Up, Up.” Freekbass tosses in some pop culture commentary on “Don’t Waste My Time,” mocking the preoccupation with social media “likes” and “followers.” And the first single follows up with a retro idea, “Put It in a Letter.”

The album also serves as a reunion between Freekbass and songwriter Itaal Shur. The two have been friends since age 12 when they met at SCPA and formed Sleep Theater along with guitarist Rob Hamrick. Shur would graduate from Walnut Hills High School, move to New York City and hit the songwriters’ lottery in 1999: He co-wrote Santana’s No. 1 hit “Smooth,” winning a Grammy for song of the year. Shur has since written songs for the likes of Jewel, Maxwell and Ricky Martin.

“It was great to work with Itaal again,” Freekbass said. “He came to Cincinnati for a couple days and we banged out two songs."

As Freekbass spreads the funk gospel beyond his hometown, he has a theory of why Cincinnati-style funk is a bit more blaring and urgent than one finds elsewhere.

“The funk has a very geographic feel. In New Orleans you have a more Creole kind of funk; New York has a more jazz-centric aspect. Minneapolis has the Prince influence. In Southern Ohio — not being in New York or L.A. — I think we had to yell a little louder to get people’s attention. Our stuff is a little bit more over the top and in your face. We’re the guys in the back of the room jumping up and down saying, ‘Hey, look at me.’ We hit the funk a little harder.”

Philosophy: 'Always Hustle'

Freekbass continues to follow another Collins’ maxim: “Bootsy taught me you have to always hustle, be a multimedia type person. You have to work as much as you can.”

Besides constant touring with his regular funk trio, Freekbass has often switched gears. He recently spent a year on the road as the bassist in Kelly Richey’s power blues-rock trio. Previously, he connected with DJ Logic and Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz for a tour as funktronica trio Headtronics.

He has released a series of instructional DVDs such as “50 Freekbass Licks You Must Know.” In December a new DVD is scheduled in the series: “Funktronic Groove Construction with Freekbass and DJ Logic.”

“It shows how we work together in different settings and how an organic musician like a guitar player can work with an electronic musician," Freekbass said. "I think it can be a groundbreaking video.”

If You Go
What: Freekbass pre-release gig with opening act The Almighty Get Down
When: 8:30 p.m. Nov. 27
Where: Southgate House Revival, 111 E. Sixth St., Newport, Kentucky
Tickets: $12.50 advance; $15 at the door
More info: All ages welcome. Visit