Experience Unlimited – 1977- Free Yourself
Let HOPE be bigger than FEAR.
Stay CALM and be POSITIVE.
But, stay HOME and LISTEN to some FUNK and SOUL.
One of the great forgotten sounds of mid-70s Funk was the Washington D.C.-based ensemble Experience Unlimited (later shortened to Eu). Though best later known as pioneers of the “go-go”subgenre of dance/funk, and for their Billboard-charting hit “Da Butt” in the late-80s. The group was a potent collective of Jazz-Funk musicians, in the vein of innovators like War, Earth, Wind, & Fire, and similarly overlooked DC contemporaries Oneness Of Juju. Experience Unlimited were renowned for their ostentatious instrumentals, winding and precise rhythms and grooves, and party-ready jams, all of which are on full display on their debut record Free Yourself, which came more than a decade before their greatest commercial success, but is no less heavy on the Classic Deep Funk sounds.
A1 It’s All Imagination 3:23
A2 Functus 4:50
A3 Peace Gone Away 4:45
A4 Free Yourself 7:57
B1 Hey You 3:38
B2 People 6:09
B3 Funky Consciousness 9:08
By Kevin Coombe
An excerpt from the liner notes from the Vinyl Me, Please reissue of the Black Fire Records original album.
….By 1974, Experience Unlimited had outgrown Valley Green. The band was famous, at least in Southeast D.C., and crowds filled the playground behind their apartment whenever they began to rehearse. Fans yelled requests, interrupted the band, and disturbed tenants, especially in the summer months when all of Valley Green’s windows were open. Stephenson identified an empty retail space on Howard Road, conveniently located between Congress Heights and Anacostia Park. The property was owned and managed by James Banks, D.C.’s former Director of Housing. A supporter of Stephenson’s community work, Banks offered up the space at a nominal monthly rent. The building’s considerable depth allowed Experience Unlimited to subdivide three sections. The plan was to support both rents and band expenses by outfitting the front section as an Afrocentric record store and head shop, with the store’s wares housed behind glass, a dedication to peace, love, and community connection. The central quadrant would then act as an office, the rear as a rehearsal space. Experience Unlimited timbale player David Williams and drummer Anthony “Block” Easton, who had replaced Roundtree after he left the group, managed the retail space and focused on procuring vinyl. Malik Edwards added finishing touches in the store’s glass windows with detailed artwork and lettering for an apt name: The House Of Peace. The operation was a success and Experience Unlimited used their profits to buy instruments, sound and lighting equipment, much of it from the Sears department store and local music shop that employed Tony Fontaine. Soon, Experience Unlimited had a self-contained sound and light rig which they could set up on any stage in the region.
It was during a 1976 Summer In The Parks booking with Oneness Of Juju that Experience Unlimited and their manager first met the man behind Black Fire. Jimmy Gray was hungry for progressive talent and, after Experience Unlimited completed their work for Wayne Davis, he offered them an album deal. The timing could not have been better. Roughly one year prior, D.C.-based writer, promoter, booking agent and label owner Max Kidd had presented Stephenson with an original composition, “Hey You, Come Together,” and a contract for a single. The deal stalled after Kidd suggested bringing in session musicians for studio recordings. Gray felt that the band was capable of recording an entire album, and since Kidd’s Cherry Blossom imprint had depleted the last of its funds releasing an Elvans Road Ltd. single during mid-1976, Gray’s Black Fire Records emerged as the band’s only viable option.
While Experience Unlimited remained a rock ensemble at their core, for Free Yourself, the band chose a safer route for a mid-1970s, Black D.C. group. They mixed in bits and pieces from funk, soul, afro-Latin, and jazz influences, while still allowing Donald Fields unbridled guitar solos, most notably on “Funky Consciousness.” But for the most part, they grabbed as much from Stevie Wonder and the Soul Searchers as they did like-minded D.C. groups like Brute, Aggression, T.A.A.C.K., and Public Notice, all of whom had documented their ideas in regional studios by 1977. Free Yourself saw the band using acoustic guitar to underscore Davis’s haunting vocal harmonies on its ballad “People,” at the same time that it offered up a raucous, then-contemporary hip-hop breakbeat on “Funky Consciousness.” Though the original deal with Max Kidd was long dead, his composition “Hey You” remained. Overall themes of love, understanding, peace, freedom, and social awareness directly reflected the group’s evolution from their earliest basement days to bastions of D.C.’s Black community with The House Of Peace.
Malik Edwards strove to illustrate Experience Unlimited’s world on Free Yourself’s cover: a sun for consistently good vibes; winged male and female beings representing freedom and the black experience; a butterfly fused to the female’s heart representing positive change; archangel Gabriel’s trumpet joined to the male, symbolizing the circle of life, from the beginning to the end.
Experience Unlimited’s Free Yourself was released in 1977, shortly after Oneness Of Juju’s Space Jungle Luv. It ranks among the most obscure Black Fire releases; most copies were consigned to The House Of Peace with some distribution stretching up the coast, where copies made it into the crates of only the deepest hip-hop DJs.
Buy the reissue from Vinyl Me, Please