Devotees of Sly and the Family Stone’s introspective funk landmark, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” rightly celebrate Sylvester “Sly” Stewart’s early experiments with a drum machine. Sublime achievements including “Just Like a Baby” and “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)” illustrated the funky potential of beat machines -- specifically, the metronomic Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2.
Known back in the day as “the funk box,” the instrument is best known for its appearance on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and Shuggie Otis’ album “Inspiration Information.” A new collection called “I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-1970” delves further into Stewart’s early obsession with the machine through work with his short-lived company Stone Flower Productions.
An imprint that issued a handful of singles over two years, none of which achieved much chart action, Stone Flower’s major asset was Stewart (a.k.a Stone) himself, whose hands-on presence allowed him to explore ideas he’d further develop when “Riot” was released in 1971.
The result on “Just Like You” is everything fans of that period in Stewart’s creative life could hope for: a glimpse into his production and songwriting work as he was moving from jubilant rockers such as “Dance To the Music” and “Stand!” to quieter, more claustrophobic sounds.
Through Stone Flower signees Joe Hicks, Little Sister (Stewart’s little sister Vet) and 6IX, Stewart explored machine beats while his human drummers scratched their heads and waited by the phone. Hicks’ “Life and Death in G&A,” from 1970, sounds like the relative to “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa,” from “Riot,” a meditative rumble of rhythm.
“Somebody’s Watching You,” by Little Sister, features a muffled beat that sounds strikingly like British post-punk minimalists Young Marble Giants. “I’m Just Like You,” by 6IX, is an utterly strange bedroom funk jam.
Bonus: Sly Stone’s solo work is represented through previously unissued recordings of pre-“Riot” experiments. The “Just Like a Baby” as heard on “Just Like You” is an epiphany to anyone who’s ever wondered on the track’s origins. Believe it or not, this other version is more rhythmically frantic, and features a bridge that comes out of left field and swirls gloriously before giving way to more Sly Stone moans.
“Africa,” which clocks in at nearly eight minutes, is a hypnotic exploration that predicted the similarly named song on “Riot."
Though the drum machine tracks are the most striking on this new collection, Stewart does give the drummers some work, especially on a live-band rendition of “I’m Just Like You,” a deep song regardless of the beat source. But, then, such is the essence of Sly Stone.
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