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What It Is!

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That Rhino Records excels in the soul/R&B arena is without question; the label has issued scores of must-own compilations including 1994's The R&B Box and 1997's award-winning Beg Scream & Shout!, both six-disc sets. Yet occasionally one hears the complaint that Rhino never unearths those über-obscure tracks collectors seek, tunes by musicians who, by dint of regional isolation, industry vicissitudes or mishandled career moves, were destined to be one- or no-hit wonders.

Rare Grooves, then, is happy to report the arrival of some 91 "Funky Soul and Rare Grooves," the subtitle of Rhino's What It Is! four-CD box. They're plundered from the Atlantic/Atco/Warner Brothers vaults -- therein lies one obvious limitation, but those vaults are nothing if not voluminous -- all housed in a sharply-designed 7" x 7" hinged clamshell box and abetted by an 82-page book featuring colorful track annotations (some contributed by the musicians themselves).

Note that the musical roster itself isn't inherently obscure; heavyweights such as the Bar-Kays, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, LaBelle, the Meters, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin all show up. The handful of honkies bum-rushing this box (Cold Blood, Hammer, Herbie Mann and, uh, Lulu) may raise a few eyebrows too.

But any collection bringing together under one cover the likes of the Natural Bridge Bunch (hand-clapping party anthem "Pig Snoots," penned by raunch king Andre Williams), the unfortunately but aptly-monickered the Unemployed (a rousing stank-groover called "Funky Thing -- Part I"), Rasputin's Stash ("Mr. Cool," a funkier-than-typical bit of street swagger from the black rock legends) and not the "A"-side chart hit by the Beginning Of The End but its steaming instrumental flipside ("Funky Nassau -- Part II") deserves your undivided attention. As liner notes man (and Wax Poetics writer) Oliver Wang observes, the 91 cuts here essentially outline "a shadow history of funk."

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