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Classic Tracks: Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip”

Oakland, Calif., at the beginning of the 1970s was light years removed from the residual Summer of Love vibe still hanging on across the Bay in more affluent

The Tower of Power horns in the Record Plant, circa 1976

photo: Bruce Steinberg ©1976

Oakland, Calif., at the beginning of the 1970s was light years removed from the residual Summer of Love vibe still hanging on across the Bay in more affluent San Francisco. Oakland was gritty, working-class, largely black and somehow the perfect breeding ground for Tower of Power, one of the most unique bands ever assembled. Blazing out of the East Bay, the 10-piece, horn-driven outfit was often imitated and never duplicated: a funky downtown combination of soul, jazz and rock powered by a virtuoso rhythm section.

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Eighteen albums and more than 30 years later, Tower of Power still records, still tours, still sells out venues and still cranks out blistering grooves topped by that greasy five-man horn section. Among those grooves is one that — though never a single — is a TOP signature: “What Is Hip?” written by bandleader/singer/tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo, baritone sax player Stephen “The Funky Doctor” Kupka and drummer David Garibaldi, all of whom are, in 2004, part of the TOP lineup.

Even if you’ve been deprived and have somehow missed “Hip” performed by its originators, you’ve no doubt heard it as a favored band bumper on Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. As a matter of fact, Lenny Pickett, SNL bandleader and master sax man, was a longtime TOP member who played on the original “What Is Hip?” when it was recorded in San Francisco as part of the 1973 eponymous Tower of Power album.

In those days, in true working-class style, TOP rehearsed five days a week at a shared rehearsal hall in Berkeley. Fitting the parts together was the job of bandleader Castillo. Although it was TOP’s third record, it was his first as producer, and he was out to make the perfect record. About “Hip” he recalls, “When we rehearsed, everybody was there. We’d just start hammering at it. I was coming up with chords on guitar and finding ways to sing to the groove. The horns were sitting around and somebody would come up with a lick; it was pretty much a group effort.”

The title was Kupka’s idea, as were most of the lyrics. “‘Hip’ was a big word in those days,” he explains. “I started thinking about how things change and how what was hip 10 years ago isn’t today. And, thusly, things that are hip now — well, that’s the lyrics: ‘What’s hip today, may become passé.’ It wasn’t one of those songs that took a long time. I’m not too complicated when it comes to rhyme schemes. I’m just trying to get the words to jump out at you: Does it have a story and is it a clever line? What’s funny is, as it turns out, the lyrics stood up better than any ‘hipness’ of the time.”

While Kupka was concocting lyrics, Garibaldi, a drumming icon known for his polyrhythmic style, was, as usual, fooling around with a new groove. “I really liked this cool Freddie King song called ‘I’m Tore Down,’” he recalls. “It had an ostinato bass line, a similar concept to what we ended up with on ‘What Is Hip?’ I put one of my beats to a one-note bass line, brought it into rehearsal and said, ‘Maybe we can build a song out of this.’ [TOP bass player] Rocco “Francis” Prestia] kind of rolled his eyes: ‘A one-note bass line?!’ Everybody thought it was weird, but we tried it and got into it.”

“The style of bass line was similar to ‘I’m Goin’ Down,’” agrees Castillo, “but what made it different was [Garibaldi and Prestia] pushed that last note a 16th early. Nobody was doing that back then. People just didn’t think like that rhythmically.”

“We have a pretty renegade approach to making music,” Garibaldi admits. “Since my basic thing was to avoid repeating myself in every song, I had to develop a vocabulary. And then I got into not repeating myself from section to section [in a song]. I wanted each portion of a song to stand on its own, to have its own signature groove, which I wouldn’t use anywhere else. If there’s a groove from beginning to end in a song, what changes in between doesn’t really matter. That’s a concept we used in our music from the very beginning. It’s non-traditional, but it developed into our traditional way of making music.”

Bassist Prestia is an icon of his own, garnering godlike devotion from legions of bass players. “How the f*** does he do that?” is probably the question most frequently asked about him. And while to the general public it’s the horn section that makes TOP great, fans and musicians know the band’s foundation is the interplay between Prestia and Garibaldi.

“When I talk to him about parts, I don’t say specific things,” comments Garibaldi. “Rocco’s like radar. I would play something and he was always right there to complement it. That’s where our real connection is. We really listen to each other and try to play something that fits together.”

Although Castillo points out that arrangements were a group effort, he also says, “By the time of ‘What Is Hip?’ [trumpeter and arranger] Greg Adams was starting to get more instrumental in the arrangements. And Greg’s thing was voicing.”

Adams, who has gone on to a solo career, reflects, “‘What Is Hip?’ was one of the main songs that showcased the horn section almost as part of the rhythm section, with staccato, machine gun — like horn parts. “The horns couldn’t play off each other as the accompaniment behind the lead vocal — we had to be in unison. It was all about the rhythm, like the way the horns hit the ‘up’ notes that Rocco would hit on the high strings. Also, ‘Hip’ had the augmented ninth chord, which was a popular chord for some reason in the ’70s. In most ways, ‘What Is Hip’ was very ahead of its time, but there was something about using the ’70s-style augmented ninth that made it more ferocious, more aggressive,” contemplates Adams.

Memphis engineer Jim Gaines, who had helped out on Bump City, TOP’s previous record, was brought in to man the board for Tower of Power at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. A rocky road lay ahead. Internal power struggles and drugs took a toll on the band’s lineup and major personnel changes went down half-way through recording. Lead singer Rick Stevens, guitarist Willie Fulton and saxophonist Skip Mesquite were out, and the songs, including ‘What Is Hip?’ were recorded a second time with new members in the lineup: Bruce Conte on guitar, Lenny Pickett on lead sax and Lenny Williams on lead vocals. Also brought in for the second round of recording was Chester “C.T.” Thompson. (Since the mid-’80s, Thompson has been Carlos Santana’s keyboardist and bandleader.)

“We started out with one killer band and went to another level with a second killer band,” says Gaines. “But it took almost a year because we recorded it twice. Back in those days, I was working up to three different sessions a day. There were times we actually started the sessions at midnight or one in the morning because it was the earliest I could get there.”

Rhythm tracks were laid down first with horns overdubbed. Gaines recalls the drum setup: “When I put up stereo-miking for the drums, David didn’t like it,” he says. “So I took a [Telefunken] U47, put it above his head a little bit, shooting straight down at the snare, and added mics on the snare and kick. I may have had a hi-hat mic, but basically I just used the three mics. That’s what he liked, and I was trying to please him.”

Sonically, the Tower of Power CD is a classic example of the tight, dry ’70s sound. Gaines remembers the snare drum mic as a Shure 546, the “old chrome and black head” SM57 precursor, with an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the kick. “We didn’t go for the big drum sound,” says Gaines with a laugh. “In those days, we were making R&B records, which were either dry-sounding or had the Motown sound, which was all reverb. There were two totally opposite sounds. On the Tower of Power record, you’ll hear reverb on the voice, but hardly any on anything else.”

Gaines calls the band “easy to record,” noting that Prestia’s bass was recorded direct and his Ampeg B15 amp got a [Neumann] U67 mic with a UREI 1176 for compression. “The hardest part was the horn section,” Gaines says. “Emilio was a perfectionist on both capturing the sound and on the parts.” That horn section comprised two trumpets [Greg Adams and Mic Gillette], Castillo on tenor sax, Pickett on tenor and alto sax, and Kupka on baritone sax. Horn mics were RCA DX77s on trumpets, Neumann U67s on sax and a Neumann FET 47 on baritone. No compression was used on the horns. “You’ve got to remember, there were five horns going on out there,” says Gaines. “Hell, most control rooms didn’t have five compressors.”

Mixing, in Heider’s Studio C on an early MCI 500 console, was, of course, pre-automation, done “all hands on the console”-style, which, with a 10-piece band, made for exciting mixes. “In those days, it was community mixing,” says Gaines with a laugh, “and the more community got involved, the worse the mix got. Everybody got their own fader, so you’ve got five guys at the console pushing faders up and down with their little marks. By the time you get to the end of the mix, all the faders are wide open because everybody wants to hear more of their parts and you’ve got to start all over.

“Something people forget now is that as an early engineering tool, we mixed in sections. Everybody had assigned cues: ‘You get the vocal in the bridge,’ ‘In the ride-out, I’ll catch the trumpet.’ We’d mix a verse and a chorus, screw up and stop. And then it was, ‘How’d you do?’ We’d sit back and listen, then mix the rest and splice it all together. A master mix tape usually had five or six splices in it.”

In an event typical of the career of TOP — who have been gaining audience since the late ’80s — it wasn’t until the early ’90s when the Tower of Power album was finally certified Gold. But in the meantime, “What Is Hip” took on a life of its own and remains a staple of the constantly touring band’s repertoire. “We had all those difficulties during the record,” concludes Castillo, “and I just did what I had to do and forged on. Then God brought me Lenny Williams, Lenny Pickett and Bruce Conte. It was a classic lineup. I had the best horn section in the world, the best drummer and the best bass player, and I knew it was going to be a great record. There was no doubt in my mind.”