In the age of 20 Feet From Stardom and archival record labels, there are more chances than ever to correct the oversights of history and bring crucial background players the recognition they deserve. It’s about time that tide reached Amp Fiddler, who remains relatively unknown despite his impressive resume and close connections with legends in funk (George Clinton), hip-hop (J Dilla), and house music (Moodymann).
“I’m working at being more successful, and I would like to be exposed to more people,” Fiddler notes during a Skype conversation. “In my music, I push towards a positive conversation to create change. Without ears, that has no significance to anything.”
Fiddler, who recently released the groove-heavy Motor City Booty album, is full of stories involving chance encounters with figures who have had a large impact on the course of popular music. Before joining P-Funk, he played with Was Not Was; Don Was now heads the esteemed label Blue Note.
In the late ’80s, Fiddler agreed to help a group of local rappers in Detroit, one of whom was J Dilla. After Fiddler taught him to use the MPC to sample, Dilla went on to inspire a generation of hip-hop producers before dying in 2006. Walking down Broadway in New York City in the ’90s, “these kids” asked Fiddler to play keyboards on a session with a singer for $50; the vocalist was a young Maxwell.
There are too many of these encounters in his life to chalk up to coincidence — Fiddler clearly has a knack for finding remarkable young talent, and an aura in his playing that brings established artists to his doorstep. Still, he sidesteps the unique nature of these tales: “I’m just doing my thing, making my noise, as best I know how.”
This is a modest way to describe a career that seems unmoored from the genre delineations that hem in most artists. To take one example: Though neo-soul loves hip-hop beats, it usually shies away from a dance floor pulse; Fiddler sees no distinctions between the two, contributing to songs by Meshell Ndegeocello and Moodymann, Raphael Saadiq and Basement Jaxx. He has played on regional hip-hop records by Oakland’s Souls of Mischief along with global successes like Seal‘s eponymous 1994 album. Early in his career, he even graced rock albums from Primal Scream (Give Out But Don’t Give Up) and Warren Zevon (Sentimental Hygiene).
Fiddler credits his family members with helping to instill his agnostic attitude towards genre when he was growing up in Detroit.
“My older sister was this hippie listening to Hendrix, Bob Marley, psychedelic shit, the blues,” he remembers. “My other sister was a Motown-head. And my oldest brother was a jazz head — hardcore jazz. My dad is from the island of St. Vincent, so we listened to a lot of Calypso and reggae. My mom was into classical.”
So by the time Fiddler joined Clinton’s band, he was already comfortable switching between modes. “He had the jazzy thing, funk thing, neo-soul — he was in the midst of all of that,” Clinton recalls in a separate phone conversation.
In the ’80s, Clinton was adapting to a shifting musical landscape: the funk ensembles of the ’70s were being phased out in favor of leaner units based around jabbing synths and drum machines. Fiddler helped him move with the times.
“He had all the different styles,” Clinton continues. “That was the next evolution for us, especially mixing him with Steve Washington. Them together, they had a unique sound, a new sound for us.”
Following his stint with Clinton — “that was a serious school,” Fiddler says — he started a solo career, but the results have been more infrequent and less high-flying. His 1990 debut, With Respect, “didn’t do well,” a failure Fiddler chalks up to “internal problems” with his label at the time, Elektra. He didn’t put out another full-length until 2003 (Clinton, Saadiq, and Dilla all guested on the record). Since then he’s been slightly more prolific; still, Motor City Booty is his first album in eight years.
There’s plenty of P-Funk’s DNA in the new record, starting with the title, which riffs on the name of a Parliament album from 1978. But since this is Fiddler, roomy, rowdy funk is only the beginning of his adventures — there’s also “Soul Fly Pt. 2,” a stampeding techno-soul record, and “1960 What?” a cover of a song by jazz vocalist Gregory Porter that proceeds at a brisk house music tempo. Fiddler describes “Superficial” as “something like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder if they were together,” but the steady percolation of house also pervades this tune.
That dance motor means that Motor City Booty often resembles the output of Detroit dance music purveyors like Moodymann and Andres. (Fiddler has collaborated with Moodymann on several tracks, including the stellar “I’m Doing Fine,” which made its way onto Black Mahogani.) But while those artists are known for keeping a low profile, Fiddler says, “there’s nothing mysterious about me. I love conversation, and I want to be documented. How much time do you have on the planet?”
At the same time, he’s in no rush. “I don’t feel like things should be forced,” he continues. “I still feel like I’m under the radar, but I’m thankful to be even on the radar. Sooner or later, it’ll hit big, and it’ll hit the masses.” “I’ve always been a salesperson,” he adds. “My conversations are wide-open for possibility.”