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.
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.
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.