It's a Badu World

This is a story about Erykah Badu's newest project, but let's start with another soul icon.

One of the most important—and overlooked—moments in the recent history of pop music—hell, pop culture—occurred at the end of the 2006 Grammys. Just when it seemed the awards ceremony was destined to go down as merely another meaningless yawner in its tepid history, out popped Sly Stone, sporting an oddly creepy, bright yellow mohawk that lurched toward the ceiling. Stone wore a silver lamé outfit and a football-sized belt buckle with "Sly" written on it in glitter. He hunched over the keyboards, head cocked like a retreating, feral animal, as he punched the classic chords of his soul/funk/punk/rock classic "I Want to Take You Higher" on his keyboard.

The audience, made up primarily of young, overly processed pop singers, American Idol winners and aging sellouts, didn't quite know what to make of it. It was weird. It was a touch unnerving. It was not particularly "professional."

But, damn, it was funky. I mean that sort of specialized funkiness that populated the charts in the '60s and '70s, the kind that blended the outtasight camp of bedazzled costumes that referenced outer space with an experimental, dance-inducing backbeat. The kind of funkiness that was without boundaries, to the point where 30-minute jams and nonsensical lyrics and giant boots and fake spaceships descending onstage—what was with that space theme?—somehow formed a loose philosophy centered around expanded consciousness. That philosophy was concocted of a steamy mix of psychedelic drugs and lysergic bass lines, and it's main tenet was simple: Free your mind and your ass will follow. Though Prince, OutKast, Gnarls Barkley and others clearly comprise its bloodline, the world hasn't seen anything like it since.

It's hard to know if Erykah Badu's similar soul-space-child persona is an act or a genuine manifestation of a certain funky consciousness. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter much. What matters is that recently Badu has picked up the mantle of communal musical experimentation mixed with a Sly-esque fruit-loop philosophical wisdom and carried it into the 21st century. Specifically, she'll carry it into the grand opening of the House of Blues this week, in the form of her new improvisational band/project, the Cannabinoids, a collection of 10 other musicians intended to, as Badu told me recently, "put some fire up under the ass of hip-hop in Dallas."

That fire will be kindled by on-the-spot compositions of each musician—"warriors in their craft," as Badu describes them—riffing off each other, using eight turntables, three MP3 players, Badu's rolling drum machine she calls "the funkbox" and two keyboards. The name of the group is derived from a bit of lingo more suited to High Times than Popular Science. "I was thinking, 'OK, what kind of name could explain how we will be the conduits of people's emotion and stimulate other people to create, kind of like hot coals touching each other?'" Badu explains, "and I thought 'cannabinoids.' A cannabinoid is one of the conductors that showers through the brain, THC being one of them, after experiencing smoking marijuana, so it's the stimulant that actually affects the thinking. That's exactly what we're gonna do, we're gonna go through the minds of the central audience and start to spark all kind of creativity."

If any team is capable of pulling off such an endeavor, it's the crew hand-picked by Badu to join her onstage. Local hip-hop stalwarts such as Headkrack, Skin, Picnic and Symbolic One are part of the mix, bringing different skills to the table.

Badu has christened each band member with new names, consisting first of the cannabinoid they represent, then a "character name" that relates to the part of the brain each member is connected to, followed by what that part of the brain does. Picnic, for instance, is known as "MARINOL as corpus callosum aka white matter (connects right and left cerebral hemispheres)."

OK, that's weird, of course, but Badu is doing nothing but fulfilling the legacy of Sly Stone's alternative consciousness. The Cannabinoids have all the earmarks of '60s/'70s funk: They orbit around a vital, dominating bandleader. They are centered around a specific, loosely conceived concept. That concept is odd, otherworldly and has a relationship with mind-expanding drugs. And, most important, they are a collection of mind-blowing (and I use that term specifically) musicians.

The Cannabinoids will take the stage following Badu's solo performance. If you aren't a ticket holder, $10 gets you in to see what the hell happens. Of course, this is the kind of project that could fail; it is nothing if not risky. But that's where things get interesting: The Cannabinoids have all the elements that make for a legendary endeavor, one in which minds and asses are freed simultaneously. And frankly, in this day and age of pointless awards and boring, fresh-scrubbed pop, I'll take one or the other and be perfectly happy. To achieve both? Well, that would be truly transcendent.

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Jonanna Widner
Contact: Jonanna Widner