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After Almost 60 Years, Kool & the Gang Still Get the Party Started

Cofounder George ‘Funky’ Brown tells all about their new album and tour: ‘The best is yet to come’


spinner image members of kool and the gang waving after their performance on good morning america
Kool & the Gang perform on “Good Morning America” on April 13, 2023.
Paula Lobo/ABC

Celebrate good times! A year ahead of its 60th anniversary, Kool & the Gang, the longest continuously performing R&B group in history and hip-hop’s oft-sampled band, just released a new album, People Just Wanna Have Fun, and launched the Kool & the Gang Rock the World Tour (through Sept. 24), led by two original members, bassist Robert “Kool” Bell, 72, and keyboardist/drummer George “Funky” Brown, 74. After selling more than 70 million albums with tunes including “Celebration” and the Pulp Fiction soundtrack hit “Jungle Boogie,” the band defines its legacy in two new songs that sound like a call and response: “Let’s Party” and “We Are the Party.”

At his Woodland Hills, California, home, where People Just Wanna Have Fun was recorded, Brown talks with AARP about the band’s new music, his battle conquering drugs and why the Gang may never retire.

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spinner image the album cover for kool and the gang's people just wanna have fun
The album cover for "People Just Wanna Have Fun."
Astana Music Inc

What’s the new album like?

It’s pure, straight-up Kool & the Gang. It’s good to put out a wholesome message like ours. There hasn’t ever been so much turmoil on this planet — people storming countries, constant mass murders here. There is no better reason to shine our light on people coming together and having fun.

Was it tough recording during the pandemic?

Not at all. We had ultraviolet lights, ozone fans, we made sure we wore masks. That stuff works.

spinner image george brown robert bell dennis thomas and ronald bell of kool and the gang pose for a photo together at the 2019 marian anderson award
(Left to right) George Brown, Robert Bell, Dennis Thomas and Ronald Bell of Kool & The Gang at the 2019 Marian Anderson Award at The Kimmel Center on Nov. 12, 2019 in Philadelphia.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

The album has some of the last studio work by two founding horn players, Dennis ‘Dee Tee’ Thomas and Kool’s brother Ronald ‘Khalis’ Bell. How painful is that loss?

Oh man, it’s been very difficult. We started out literally in grade school. When I go into my studio every day, I feel them. It’s painful, but you must move on, take it to the next level and leave a greater legacy. That’s what they would want.

What inspired the new album’s nostalgic closing track, “99 Miles to JC”?​It’s an homage to Jersey City. It’s us coming back off the road in some van, and we can’t wait to get home. The family is waiting. Grandmother’s going to give you a hug. Mom has food on the table. Dad’s coming home from work. It’s Americana. We still have a great love for that place.

How do you stay engaged playing the same songs over and over?

You hear the energy of the crowd — everybody is giddy, like children. That electricity goes through you, and you’re ready to perform. It’s never the same. Sometimes it’s totally perfect. And when it’s not, it can sound even funkier.

Your group and Earth, Wind & Fire were always on parallel paths. Are they friends or rivals?

​We see them as very good musicians with fantastic songs. They helped us realize we were doing the right thing with our type of upbeat, happy music. We were both trying to move the culture along to a higher place.

Your memoir Too Hot: Kool & the Gang & Me talks about your struggle with prescription drug addiction and depression. Was it the pressure of the music industry?

Yeah. Anxieties build up. They become a real bogeyman, and you find ways to chase them away: sleeping aids, calming aids, a little marijuana. It started when I was in my 20s. The greatest thing I did was get help. I went into rehab for a couple weeks, less than most people do. It’s a cautionary tale.

Your band began as the Jazziacs. Do you ever regret leaving jazz for more limiting genres like disco and pop?​No regrets. I still love jazz bigtime. We’re planning a jazz album, and when we tour, some of the dates will be jazz shows. We can put on our new shoes. I have five beautiful sons all going to college. I don’t think it could have happened if I stayed in jazz, because it’s tough to make a good income.

spinner image kool and the gang performing on soul
Kool & The Gang on "Soul!"
Kool & The Gang

Kool & the Gang is one of the most sampled acts in history, and you’re among the most sampled drummers — but shouldn’t they all have paid you?

I’m calling all my attorneys right now! Thank you for waking me up. [Laughs] It doesn’t bother me at all, not one iota. I’ve been totally blessed, and the band feels the same way. There’s no need to go, “We were the backbone of hip-hop, and we need to be compensated!” Nah, we don’t care. We’re honored.

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You’ve worn several hats over the years. What gives you the most pleasure?

Let’s see: songwriter, singer, keyboardist, drummer, producer, author. Here’s what gives me the most pleasure: an umbrella stuck in the sand on a beach in Hawaii or Florida or Thailand or the Bahamas. Lying on a cot, chilling out. That’s it.

spinner image george brown and robert bell of kool and the gang
George "Funky" Brown (left) and Robert "Kool" Bell
Courtesy KTFA Entertainment Inc.

Other passions?

I like basketball. And martial arts. It’s cathartic and frees your mind. Years ago, I was into flying, but I gave it up. Too many people scared me, talking about how dangerous it was.

What music do you listen to?

Classical music if I’m home alone. Jazz late at night or to clear my mind or if the mood is there. Or when I’m going down the 405 or 101. I listen to pop music when I’m looking for ideas and what’s new.

Is the golden age of funk and R&B over?

The best is yet to come. It’s like the Wall Street crash. Humanity has conflicts, they get resolved and we move on. I look for the higher side of humanity. That’s what Kool & the Gang and groups of our nature do. We’re saying, “We’re better than this — now let’s take it to the top!”

Will the band ever retire?

​I guess there’s an end in sight, but we don’t see it yet.

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