There aren't many illusions as to what is funk. Unlike Goth (in my previous blogs), there is no debate as to how it came to be or what it is. However there are a lot of differing opinions as to what's 'funky'. I've seen numerous guitar players on YouTube claiming they're playing funk by showing off their skills at quickly rattling a pick across what they view as funky chords and then walk through the most complicated progressions of changes that a person can imagine and smile at the end, proud of their funky accomplishment. While some of these guitar players are closer to funk than others, the vast majority seem to have skipped a lesson on the basics.
Disonant chords and quick strumming aside let's get back down to the root and learn... What is Funk?
Funk as an extension of Soul.
While the beginnings of funk may have relied on the beat of the bass-drum or blasts from a horn ensemble, the body and 'basis' of the fully-realized funk band lay mostly in the bass. Of course, this bass, is not the big acoustic or 'stand-up' bass of jazz musicians and orchestras. It's the electric bass guitar that gave Funk the added pop and bounce that it needed to fulfill its destiny. And rather than using bass as the accompaniment to song, it became the backbone of the tune, usually laying down the main riff or hook of the song. Sly and the Family Stone's 'Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again' , featuring Larry Graham on bass is probably the first example of real funk bass.
Funk as Black Activism/ Social Commentary
Sly and the Family Stone certainly wrote the song Everyday People about race/ethnic relations, I'm sure, but they also went one step further than most others and actually used the N-word in their attempt to express the problems of race. Parliament & Funkadelic, however, made numerous songs about race relations including 'Free Your Mind (And your ass will follow)' and the future-foretelling song 'Chocolate City' which suggested that the growing population of African Americans would eventually elect black mayors and even a black president. Social statements never seemed far from the mix with Parliament-Funkadelic. The song 'Cosmic Slop' about a mother who resorts to turning 'tricks' in order to make ends meet and raise her children was just one of several songs that seem to tell a story of the ghetto while at the same time entertaining a funk audience that wanted to dance.
Funk has inspired many to take up an instrument and play something funky. Not all of those who tried actually achieved what is thought of as real funk, though. Instead, there are a couple of well-known offshoots of Funk that don't enjoy the sort of musical respect of the original idea, yet they were very successful in terms of record-sales and music-fans.
Disco (AKA: the Philadelphia Sound)
Prince, at one time was an opening act for Rick James and, by comparison, was only at the beginning of a long career in the early 80s. Prince's music and albums weren't nearly as exclusively funk as some other musicians. He often switched his musical styles from funk to R&B to blues to rock, as was characteristic of his biggest hit album: the soundtrack to the movie Purple Rain. Prince & the Revolution's biggest funk hit single was likely the song 'Kiss' from the Parade album in 1986. Prince's songs and videos are difficult to find on youtube and the internet, likely due to the strictness of copyright imposed by Prince's past recording companies.
There was plenty of good funk in the 1980s, if you look beyond Prince and Rick James, but by the time the decade was over, funk would fade into the background as rap/hip-hop became the dominant form for most African American music. Perhaps ironically, it seemed Rick James who had seen the future of which direction the music would go, on his album Cold Blooded in 1983 he recorded the song P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P. with pioneering rapper Grand Master Flash and James' iconic bass-riff from 'SuperFreak' became the backbone of rapper MC Hammer's massive hit 'Can't touch 'dis' which was one of the biggest hits of the 1990s.
Prince's music would live on, very successfully, well into the nineties and beyond. His career took a very strange turn for a while in the early 2000s when, due to his dispute with his record company, Prince was forced to stop using his own name for a while. He has since made the transition to the present time in good standing thanks to strong live performances and loyal fans.
Rick James, on the other hand is well known to have become addicted to cocaine and would come to lose most of the success that he'd achieved in the 80s. A couple of rather horrific incidents involving holding a young girl hostage and the beating of another woman landed Mr James in Fulsom Prison for 2 years. Later in the nineties, his drug addiction is believed to have caused him a mild stroke. He passed away in 2004 from heart failure due to his addiction, stroke and also diabetes.
Funk bands always had a problem in that they were often too large to be economical for touring. Rock bands of the 60s seemed to avoid taking on too many members, or using too many gimmicks. In the 70s, however, glam-rock and art-rock ignited a wave of much larger theatrical stage productions. David Bowie may have started the trend (and he reportedly went heavily into debt by doing large-scale shows) but Parliament-Funkadelic shows were notoriously over-the-top, lavish and strange, with large sets, props, costumes, special effects and many hired people, including onstage dancers. George Clinton and his group enjoyed large stage shows and always seemed to be looking for more talent, though it was suspected that several of their shows actually didn't make money because the cost was very high. James Brown employed as many as 20 musicians at one time with 40 to 50 people in his whole entourage and somehow managed to pay them all by going from town to town in a single bus, playing one-night stands almost the entire tour. George Clinton and James Brown seemed to force bands like Kool & the Gang and Sly & The Family Stone to hire more people and try to keep up, and this sort of stage-show one-upsmanship seemed to keep going until the punk movement and disco came along to deflate the trend a little bit.
Funk bands of today, understandably, have to be of a smaller scale to survive and make money, and many funk bands have no horn-players at all. The result is a type of funk that sounds more bare-bones. Funk bands also face the same problems as any other type of band: artists of this modern era don't seem to have the lasting hit-power that they once had. One hit song doesn't last in people's minds the way that it might have in the past, so bands usually break up before they get really good, while numerous artists only have one hit, or more likely a few infrequent hits of a lower or more regional appeal.
Funk, as dance music has taken a back seat to house music and electronica, while the other side of Funk, the social commentary aspects were partially usurped by hip-hop (though very little hip-hop of 2013 seems to have the real social commentary of the rap of the late 1980s and early '90s).
Perhaps it's only my own personal opinion, but i think music lost a certain edge in the transition from Funk to rap & hip-hop and if anything suggests that I might be right its the vast number of rap-artists, dance-mix artists and musicians of all types that either sample old funk songs or attempt to re-create drum-lines and, especially, funk bass riffs that are largely from the middle eighties to as far back as the late sixties. More than a few hip-hop artists employ live drummers and bass players to give that extra pop to their live-shows, and many use back-up singers or even guest vocalists to make up for the rapper's obvious lack of singing ability. Many of the more famous funk players, both guitarists and especially bass players, are still highly sought-after to work as studio musicians on other people's albums. But, needless to say, Funk is not currently at the forefront of modern music as it once was. Instead, the great funk artists of the past seem to have inadvertently provided background music for a bunch of less-than-talented singers and rappers. Is New Music just a matter of sampling songs by Stevie Wonder? Is dance music just electronic thumps and Disco knock-offs? Do white people only like funk if it sounds more like rock? Is real funk gone for good? More importantly, will it ever come back to the forefront of modern music? I don't know for sure, but I think all of these questions, except the very last, can be answered truthfully with a 'NO', though sometimes it seems like the opposite. I've written much of my blog complaining about the state of music today, and I really don't see why we can't look to the past to inspire us. Old songs aren't there just to steal old bass-riffs and beats. We should learn from the past; especially if all we see in the present is boring or childish or obviously the result of some calculated marketing by money-grubbing corporations. Perhaps some bass-player about the age of twenty is only a few gigs away from being the next Larry Graham or Bootsy Collins. Perhaps the next Rick James is already kicking-ass in clubs & bars in your town. Maybe the next Prince will come along and re-invent funk into another new form. Too many people seem to absolutely love funk for me to think that it's gone from this modern era completely, and somehow sampling riffs from guys like Bootsy Collins doesn't seem quite the same as really listening to him play. Perhaps we don't have to re-invent funk, but simply learn, or re-learn the basics and go from there.
Mr. James Brown, Godfather of Soul and originator of Funk passed away on December 25, 2006. Long touted as 'the hardest-working man in show business', Mr Brown was still touring, and had played the Oxygen festival in July 2006, performing before approx 80,000 people.
Larry Graham, originator of the thumpin' funk bass still performs with his band Graham Central Station. He is the father of singer/songwriter Darric Graham and the uncle of rapper Aubrey Graham (AKA: Drake)
|'Professor' Bootsy Collins|
Sly Stone, former DJ, singer/songwriter and leader of Sly & the Family Stone. Sly hasn't released an album of new music since 1982. Sly spent many years in seclusion, then came out to begin a tour with some appearances in 2007-2009 and released a new album in 2011. The 2011 release is re-recordings of Sly's biggest hits with some guest appearances by famous funk players. Some news reports suggested that he was destitute from his drug addiction and living out of a camper van in California, while another report stated he has a nice home and income from royalties and that he chose to live in a camper out of some distrust of his former business associates and a dislike of "living inside". During this time he was launching a lawsuit against his former manager. Sly's paranoia about houses is said to be a result of some 40 years of drug abuse. the article is here.