Ah, funk. Few things are more ridiculous or more fundamental. One might say it was a dominant black style from the early seventies (at the latest) through the early eighties,
and there have been a thousand revivals and echoes ever since. It coexisted with the windup of soul proper, and overlapped with it. It started before and ended after disco, and
was fundamental to its underpinnings. Its decline as a dominant movement coincided with the beginnings of hip hop: here again funk is fundamental.
Funk is characterized by an emphasis on rhythm unprecedented in American music (but already present in a different form in Jamaica, e.g.). Often it has a single brief melodic or at least
figural hook played over and over, usually on horns (though also, and more as time went on, at times on synths). But the momentum is carried by the bass, which is more at the front than in any
previous style of American music. Indeed, such funk bass players as Bootsy Collins innovated ways of bringing the bass forward, such as the thumb slap. Funk songs tend to be
long and non-developmental: indeed, they are relentlessly repetitive, and must be understood as occasions to dance. There may not be a single defensible lyric in the entire
history of the form. Because the performances are not based on the song at all but on creating a semi-permanent atmosphere of rhythm, the performers, freed from song
presentation and faced with the task of drawing eyes while they played the same thing over and over, mutated into the most hyper-weird, overthetop actors the world had yet
conceived, and the stage shows were insane spectacles of excess.
Three acts must be mentioned in even the most superficial account of the form: James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic (George Clinton, Bootsy Collins etc), and Prince. But there were many other
interesting or at least fun performers.
The 4-disc set below could hardly be bettered as a summary of the form: an excellent compromise between focus and coverage.
The Memphis band scored an instrumental hit in 1967 with "Soul Finger," then almost all went down in the plane crash that killed Otis Redding, then reformed as an extremely crack funk and soul outfit. They
were the backing band for Isaac Hayes on Shaft. Listening to the Bar-Kays is a series of lessons in the black pop of their era. holy ghost is about as hot as you could want it.
and his band in the sixties invented the form as a version of soul that lost more and more melody, drove home more and more rhythm, sometimes
ditched the verse-chorus form, introduced a number of of stage excesses, and so on. "Cold Sweat," "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud" (ok: maybe there was one defensible
lyric), "Sex Machine," 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Feel Good," Get Up Offa That Thing" etc are the paradigms of the form. Brown himself was of course a great soul shouter, and the idea of building a vocal performance around the
extreme repetition of a single catchphrase suggested more and more that the instrumentation could mlore or less do the same: the effect was to build
a song out of modules instead of progressions or cycles. James Brown's sound was unique,
and is one of the great achievements in American popular song. Certainly the analogy to sex of the extended, uh, rigid pumping was
lost on no one. Brown's music always had tremendous momentum, pushed by the great horn charts, and great urgency, pushed by Brown's hoarse
perfectly controlled shout, that later funk often lacked.
"Word Up," one of the consummate pieces of pop ever made, would practically be enough. But there were other great moments (along with much dreck) notably the feral
"Attack Me With Your Love," which provides the eternal thought: "bushwhack me with your love. baby." They were from NYC, where singer/writer etc Larry Blackmon went to Julliard. (Julliard???)
Originally, they were very P-Funk, but by the early eighties had worked themselves into an eclectic but coherent groove that combined funk, hip hop, new wavem and anything
else they could get their hands on. They were fun; they were smart; for a couple of years they were fucking perfect.
Yet again from Ohio, Confunkshun was a fun if kind of generic funk band. I'm not sure any of their songs
would stack up with the best of the Ohio Players or even Slave, but on the other hand there's almost nothing bad either. Well, here's
a good one: chase me.
When disco faded in the eighties, and before hip hop became a dominant mainstream black pop form, pop funk was the basic mode.
P-Funk and their ilk were not that chart-friendly (though they charted), but bands like Gap, Dazz, and Zapp crafted 4-minute actual songs
in a funk mode. No one was better than the Gap band, which consisted of three brothers from Oklahoma. They had a kind of slow, gentle surface, with an amazing evil synth-bass groove underneath.
The paradigm example is the great "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," but they made a number of great songs and big hits, like "Early in the Morning."
Kool and the Gang
They had two incarnations, and both kicked ass. They originally came from Jersey, led by Robert "Kool" Bell (not to be confused with the greatest baserunner in the history of baseball, "Cool Papa" Bell), and their first approach was the hardass seventies funk band of jungle boogie and hollywood swingin.
rarely has funk been looser, simpler, cooler, or more fun. The other incarnation
was a much slicker early eighties pop band whose lead singer was named JT. This is who performed, e.g. get down on it, "ladies night, "let's go dancing," "she's fresh." I saw them long about '81, and they were still
funky no doubt. I don't believe I've ever seen a tighter band: they just completely kicked ass. Even "Celebration" was great until they started playing it everywhere all the time.
The two albums below do not overlap, and represent the 2 phases.
To be honest, I'd rather listen to Lakeside than PFunk or the Ohio Players. They too originate to some extent in Dayton, but spent their career in LA. Their songs were more focused than most,
with great boiling funk rhythm tracks underneath. Probably their best-known song was "Fantastic Voyage," later beautifully versioned by Coolio. But they had a slew of great songs, always with amazing bass work. your love is on the one
Perhaps Ohio *needed* the funk more than most places, but at any rate many of the best funk groups came from there. "Fire" by the Ohio Players, from Dayton, and several
of their other songs, ranked with the very best and most central examples of seventies funk. The Ohio players had several different gears,
however, and also favored a slower more soulish mode which has not aged as well. But songs like skin tight managed to do a whole bunch of things at once, including that little jazz thing. The naked black chicks on their album covers constituted the
best visual expression of funk's, er, values. one of the greatest: love rollercoaster
George Clinton had an eastcoast doowop group called the Parliaments as early as the late fifties, and Funkadelic was the name given in the late sixties
to their backup band. The whole act got more and more out of hand on stage as time went on, and soon the "songs" were sprawling structures that framed the
insane personalities. Many folks enetered and left at various times, including Bernie Worrell, Maceo Parker (recently of Prince's touring band!) and the Collins brothers, Bootsy (bootzilla)and Catfish.
Anyway, their songs "Give Us the Funk" or "She's a Bad Mamma Jamma" etc are probably what most people think of when they
think of the form. Clinton developed an insane alien soul brother persona, and used to appear onstage from a gigantic "mothership." They developed
an entire iconography, not to say language, of atomic dogs and mothers and whatnot. They were amusing, harebrained, and they got down very very hard on the bottom.
Underneath the giant sunglasses was an extremely tight band of extremely high-quality musicians, and occasionally the horns went off into jazz riffs, setting the
stage for a whole style of funk-jazz typified by Earth, Wind, and Fire. The records are great party soundtracks and happy lifemoments when you're in the right mood,
idiotic, gratiuitous irritants when you're not. bop gun.
Certainly Prince in the beginning conceived himself as a kind of funk artist, and his current (summer 04) tour is a funk tour de force. Notice that
from the beginning Prince played all the instruments on his albums, and the rhythm section was always a bit questionable: kind of thin and tinny sounding.
But that fact allowed him to pull away from the rhythm a little bit and deploy a bit more melody into the form, which he did to great effect on songs like "Head" or "Let's Work."
But his songs almost always showed the danceability and repetition of classic funk. One could say he transcended the form into more or less pure pop, or one could say that
he pushed the form in a fluffier poppier direction. His lyrics were also a bit more interesting, his songs shorter. "Kiss" is one of the great songs ever made in this vein:
utterly stripped to rhythm and voice.
Sly and the Family Stone
A lot of the shambolic party stage thing of funk was there in Sly from the beginning (1967). Also the hard rhythm and big bass, at least at times. Sly's
style was always eclectic, and he had an integrated band and an integrated audience; he was for awhile a black hippie, I guess. Still the
whole idea of the Family Stone (down to the, um, cocaine) was fundamental to funk.
A pioneer in many ways, Sylvester could be considered a funk artist, or placed in disco or synth-pop. He was also
among the first artists really to specialize in gay dance music. His amazing falsetto helps you get from, say, Little Richard
to Prince. He performed in drag. I interviewed him In Richmond a couple of years before his death from AIDS in 1988, and I would say he
was one of the sweetest, most open subjects I ever dealt with (another, btw: Cyndi Lauper). do you wanna funk is, like,
Marion's favorite song ever.
Zapp (and Roger)
Formed in the mid-seventies by a slew of Troutman bros from Dayton, Zapp hit like mad in the early eighties. They were so cool, unerpinned by Larry's percussion
and especially Roger's work on the "talk box" (do it roger) - a voice synthesizer of which he is the undoubted alltime master. You might be familiar with it
from Tupac and Dre's single "California Love," a reworking of Roger's "West Coast Poplock." Believe it or not, in 1999 in Dayton, Larry shot Roger and then himself. Both died.