In the world of funk, you have to travel pretty far to get more than two degrees of separation from Zigaboo Modeliste. A godfather of groove who transformed various New Orleans street beats into an infinitely pliable rhythmic vocabulary, Modeliste is one of the most sampled drummers on the planet.
As the motor and co-composer for the legendary New Orleans rhythm and blues band the Meters, Modeliste laid a foundation of funk for the hip-hop nation. A short list of artists who have sampled his beats, often without authorization, starts with Ice Cube, LL Cool J, NWA, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Naughty by Nature, and Queen Latifah.
These days, the Oakland-based Modeliste is deep into a gloriously productive second act. After a decade off the scene following the messy dissolution of the Meters in 1977, Modeliste has taken his time building a small empire, complete with record label, educational videos, and publishing. It's a mark of the man that rather than becoming embittered after bad business decisions torpedoed the Meters at the height of their national visibility Modeliste decided to take on the music business on its own terms.
"When I started at seventeen or eighteen, I saw a lot of great songwriters and artists who put a lot of great music in the world, who had a lot of success, but at the end of the day someone handled their publishing and wouldn't pay them," said Modeliste, 61. "I could tell you a whole bunch of stories like that but I don't want to dwell there if I don't have to. I want to take the bull by the horns."
Usually heard around the region with his hard-driving New Aahkesstra, Modeliste is stepping out with an entirely different kind of show this week. The three-day celebration that opens on Friday at Yoshi's, "Zigaboogaloo," features an all-star New Orleans funk revue with associates old and new, including Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), who recorded two classic albums with the Meters in the mid-Seventies, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and bassist David Barard.
In typical New Orleans fashion, the musicians are linked through a skein of intergenerational connections. While Modeliste has never played with Payton before, he's known the trumpeter since he was a child through his father, the esteemed bassist Walter Payton. And Modeliste soaked up rhythms as a child from the Mardi Gras Indians, the ceremonial parade societies in which Donald Harrison Sr. long played an important role.
"I haven't seen or talked to Walter Payton in ages, but he taught my stepson trumpet," Modeliste said. "He was one of the finest musicians to come out of New Orleans and a fine gentleman, and Nick didn't fall too far from the tree. He's the ultimate trumpeter player. And Donald is a monster on the saxophone. This lineup is rare, rare, rare — spices that have never been in the same pot. This should be a delicacy of funk and gospel and Indian and rhythm and blues, all of these things wrapped into one savory gumbo."
Modeliste didn't just lay down the grooves that defined the Meters' instrumental R&B hits such as "Cissy Strut," "Look-Ka Py Py," and "Chicken Strut." He co-wrote the tunes that established the Meters' signature sound, featuring lean, muscular, and emphatically danceable rhythms that directly inspired neo-groove outfits such as Galactic, the Greyboy Allstars, and Medeski Martin and Wood.
"I think Zigaboo is one of the most influential drummers around from the Seventies," said Nicholas Payton, who opened his 1998 Verve CD, Payton's Place, with "Zigaboogaloo," a deeply funky tribute to Modeliste. "Some of the things he was doing on the drums had never been done before in R&B or in any type of music for that matter. He just knew how to get right to the pocket at all times."
Modeliste was still a teenager when he joined the band led by keyboardist Art Neville. Modeliste's cousin, bassist George Porter Jr., was already in the group, along with guitarist Leo Nocentelli, when the drumer came on board in 1966. Producers Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn quickly recruited the band as the house rhythm section for their Sansu label.
"You play six nights a week, you're bound to get tight if you explore," Modeliste said. "We had this high-powered engine and we had six nights a week, every week playing in the Quarter to fine tune it. When we started actually recording, we knew how to play together. We knew how to breathe together."
The band turned out a slew of Top-40 R&B hits in the early Seventies, and played on dozens records by musicians such as Earl King, Betty Harris and Lee Dorsey. When they made the move to Reprise in 1972, it seemed like the band was on the verge of breaking through to a national audience.
The ambitious Wild Tchoupitoulas project, which expanded the group's sound with Neville brothers Aaron, Charles, and Cyril and two members of the Mardi Indians, indicated the band was looking for new directions. Despite critical praise and high-profile gigs like opening for the Rolling Stones on the band's 1975 world tour and recording with Paul McCartney, too much bad blood had been accumulated.
"We did a lot in the short period of time in terms of contributing music," Modeliste said. "But if you sign bad contracts from the very onset, there's no way that can be a healthy scene later. The group started blaming each other. It was a very tragic thing because it was like a really beautiful ride while it was going, with so much potential."
While Porter, Art Neville, and Nocentelli refounded the band as the Funky Meters, and the Neville Brothers became more famous than the original Meters ever did, Modeliste moved to LA hoping to break into the studio scene. But with the ascendance of disco, his funky beats weren't in vogue and he stopped playing music for a while.
By the time he came to the Bay Area in the early Nineties, Modeliste was ready to get his own thing going. He gradually returned to band leading, assembling Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra, an excellent ensemble well-versed in the Crescent City grooves he helped invent. While still something of an underground phenomenon in the Bay Area, he's an institution in New Orleans, where he returns regularly for gigs, particularly during the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"It started off as a thing to play some New Orleans music, because that's my whole heritage," Modeliste said. "A lot of people in California love to dance, but they don't have the whole story. We try to fulfill the whole agenda with dance music. Now I can stretch a little bit, I can use horns, and I was never able to do that with the Meters."