Friday, November 22, 2013

What is Funk?

Perhaps you've wondered... no, not likely.
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.
Funk is believed to come, at least partialy out of soul music. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, grew up singing gospel songs in his youth and is largely credited with the invention of Funk. James Brown's songs 'Out of Sight' in 1964,  'Papa's got a Brand New Bag' in 1965 and 'I Got You(I feel good)' are believed to be the first funk songs ever. Before this example, most forms of music, including Soul, Blues and Rock n Roll were straight-ahead examples of 4/4 time music, with the clap or drumbeat hitting the second and fourth beat of every bar. With 'Papa's got a Brand New Bag' Brown shifts the emphasis on the beat from the usual second and fourth beat to the first. In Papa's got a brand new bag, the emphatic horn-blast on the first beat comes every two bars, but this formula would lend itself to much more funky music later on. Although James Brown is credited with starting this emphasis 'On the One', many other musicians would learn from it. 


Bass-Driven Music

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.




On The One: The James Brown funk formula of hitting on the first beat allowed for musicians a kind of open space for interpretation. Musicians quickly discovered that, so long as the band was together on the first beat, the other three beats were a kind of space to create almost whatever funky-sounding riffs may have come to mind. This became the basis for most, if not all funk. A talented man named Bootsy Collins was 'discovered' and hired to play bass for James Brown. He became a showcase player in Brown's ensemble, learning quickly what 'On the one' was all about. James Brown, however, was well-known to be very strict with the musicians that were his employees, usually avoiding too much improvisation and often collecting fines from members of the band if he caught them making a mistake during a performance. As a result Bootsy Collins (and his brother 'Catfish' Collins) would leave James Brown's band in the early 70s. Bootsy would take everything he learned about 'On the One' and a whole lot of funk power with him. Later, he joined up with George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic entourage. Bootsy and George Clinton would take 'On the one' as far as it could go. (Sometimes they even went to outer space!)




Funk as Black Activism/ Social Commentary
Months after Martin Luther King Jr was murdered, James Brown released the song 'Say it Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud' It seems only natural to think that this historic incident caused a change in the subject-matter of Brown's music, but the change in message also came with a change in the sound. By the late 60s & early 70s, funk bands were getting louder and more bombastic, cranking up the bass and wearing outrageous costumes or clothing onstage. They were still playing 'On the One' but with more power and enthusiasm. Were they trying to make a statement by playing 'blacker' than before or were they just inventing a new kind of  more aggressive funk? It was probably a combination of both.

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's 'Children':
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.

'White' Funk/Rock-Funk: Some clever musicians figured out that you didn't actually have to play 'on the one' to sound 'funk-ish'. In fact, if the bass was playing on the one, and the guitar was strumming some 'funky' sounds, the drummer could actually play a full-on rock beat that landed on the usual 2nd and 4th beat. This could be called 'White' Funk or Rock Funk, and is not exclusive to white musicians or rock bands.  In fact, there's many bands both funk and rock that have slipped in a song or two in the Rock-Funk stye that have actually come out with a pretty good tune when all is complete. It's usually characterized by playing funky sounds over top of what is essentially a steady rock drum-beat. At this point, I'm tempted to post a video of Wild Cherry and 'Play that Funky Music', but rather than disrespecting the idea of this type of music with a novelty song, I think the focus should be on the positive. If Rock-Funk is to your liking, the Doobie Brothers Long Train Running is likely the best example.


Disco (AKA: the Philadelphia Sound)
Similarly side-stepping the 'On the One' formula, numerous songwriters and musicians use funky-ish sounds overtop of a straight 4/4 drum structure that hits evenly and steadily on all 4 beats to make an easy-dancing version of Funk. A little syncopation with the drummer's high-hat sound and the help of a small string ensemble instead of a horn-section and suddenly you have a very-catchy, super duper happy sound that makes you dance even if you don't want to and don't know how. Disco was (and still is), insanely popular and as a result, many bands that were originally considered true funk bands, like Kool & The Gang, made the switch to Disco to pop-out a couple of hits and cash in on its success. Some people insist that there is a difference between Disco and the 'Philadelphia Sound', but I can't truthfully say that i can hear it myself. I think that the famous songwriting team of Gamble & Huff, who are among the originators, and being from Philadelphia, probably have a marketing-interest in keeping their songs seperate from what is known worldwide as Disco. Gamble and Huff are responsible for much of this type of music; they wrote songs for the O' Jays, Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass and many more. Other than that, I really don't think there's much difference; Disco and 'the Philadelphia Sound' are pretty much the same thing and that's why I put them in the same category. Instead of picking a Disco song and having you readers fight over whether or not you've heard enough of Gloria Gaynor, I've posted a Disco drum lesson by Gina Knight to help you get dancing and drumming. BTW: When Ms. Knight says "4 on the floor", she's referring to hitting the bass drum (on the floor) on every and all 4 beats in 4/4 time, which is a trick still used today by all house music and electronica music, hence the relentless and repetitive thump thump thump thump of most modern and vintage dance music that usually annoys almost everybody when they hear too much of it, (especially when the douche next door owns a f-ing sub-woofer). For more on Disco, check out Very Us Mumblings' special blog on Disco!

80s Funk
If Micheal Jackson was the king of pop in the 1980s, then the title of king of funk likely had to be shared between two artists: Prince and Rick James. Rick James and his band had been funking the hell out of theatres and nightclubs for a few years before his album Street Songs became a huge success. His follow up titled Cold Blooded was also successful, but the Street Songs album, with its top hit 'Super Freak' would be the album that made Rick James the legend that he is today. The song Mr. Policeman on the same album is a unique funk-reggae mix sound that incorporates some of James' street-wise lyrics.

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 Today.
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. 

Notes:
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
'Professor' Bootsy Collins teaches at Funk U. Collins and partner Cory Danzinger created the online-only Funk University for those who want to learn the basics of Funk bass-playing and more from those best qualified to teach it. Collins occasionally tours with his own band and appears on recordings by many different artists as a hired studio musician. He has also made several designs of custom bass-guitars in the 'Space Bass' style.
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.