Bring On The Funk

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One thing is clear, google the term Funk Music or go to the Wikipedia Page entry “Funk” and you will be presented with a college musicology course on Funk Music. What is Funk music? Funk music is a genre that originated in the mid-1960’s and is succinctly defined as “The distinctive characteristics of African-American musical expression are rooted in sub-Saharan African music traditions, and find their earliest expression in spirituals, work chants/songs, praise shouts, gospel, blues, and "body rhythms" (hambone, patting juba, and ring shout clapping and stomping patterns). Funk music is an amalgam of soul music, soul jazz, R&B, and Afro-Cuban rhythms absorbed and reconstituted in New Orleans.”

Wow, that is a paragraph full of so much meaning, insight and information. Funk music is a stepping stone in the journey of the music of African-Americans from the first communal singing to blues to soul to the music that dominates the current musical landscape. Funk music is fun, danceable music that can carry some serious themes.

My introduction to funk as a teenager in suburban Bergen County, NJ was not to James Brown, the grandmaster of all things Funk, but to one of his early adopters, the psychedelic/funkadelic Sly and the Family Stone who I got to see play on May 10, 1968 at the Fillmore East in NYC with me sitting on the 4th row center. What could be better? A later Sly and the Family Stone Fillmore concert from October 4 and 5, 1968, was miraculously recorded and recently released on July 17, 2015. Go get this 4 disc album now. For an amazing review of the album check out Pitchfork’s review of this ground breaking album.

Sly was my introduction to Funk but any discussion of Funk must start with James Brown and his signature groove emphasizing the downbeat, an emphasis on the first beat of each measure and the syncopation on all bass lines, drum patterns and guitar riffs. In a number of interviews available on the web, James Brown vociferously guarded his music. His pit bull attacks on performers or recording artists who he deemed had plagiarized or stolen his music are the stuff of musical legends. His feuds and enmity against these artists lasted a lifetime. Generations of dance music artists, rappers and hip hop stars flagrantly sampled so much of Brown’s music, I’d like to think Brown would have been pleased he was among the artists whose work was ripped off by such a large group and still is, even today.

Speaking of live albums, the seminal James Brown and the Famous Flames live album, 1963’s “Live at the Apollo” is required listening. It is #25 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of all time. Get it, stream it, put it on your playlist and let the naysayers pry this album from your cold dead hands – apologies to Mr. Heston.

So when you pack your musical Go Bag for that desert island, and want Funk represented all you need is these two live albums recorded in NYC at two iconic venues, the Apollo and the Fillmore East in the years 1962 and 1968. And I hope it is not lost on you, dear reader, of the two years these records were released, 1963 and 1968 in which this music was made, played and heard. 1963, civil rights, presidential assassination, the escalation of the Vietnam War and 1968 – Nixon’s election, the apex of the Vietnam War, skullduggery in the run for the White House, escalating racial tensions.

I assert that while there is plenty of great music, from pop to rock to soul to country, during these two years, it was the Groove of James Brown and the Funkadelic Everyday People of Sly and the Family Stone that framed those tumultuous years in such a way that resonates to this day. Like other styles of African-American musical expression during the 60’s (and other eras obviously) including jazz, soul music and R&B, Funk music accompanied many protest movements during and after the Civil Rights Movement. Remember James Brown’s “Say It Loud?” “Funk allowed everyday experiences to be expressed to challenge daily struggles and hardships fought by lower and working class communities.”

Funk Music contributed to many different musical genres, most definitely to the Disco era of the 1970’s. Before there were Disco Clubs there was the music. “Disco” is derived from “discothèque (French for "library of phonograph records”, and later was used as a term for nightclubs in Paris), even later for a dance track by U2. Common thought was that the early history of disco music found its inspiration in the Philadelphia R&B sound and the convergence of African-American, Italian and Latino communities, which adopted traits from psychedelia, including psychedelic soul groups like the Chambers Brothers and especially Sly and the Family Stone, which in turned influenced Isaac Hayes, Willie Hutch and the Philadelphia Soul sound. A lot of cross-pollination going on.
But perhaps it was an Italian who can be credited as the father of Disco, Giovanni Giorgio Moroder, an Italian singer, songwriter, DJ and record producer. Moroder is frequently credited with pioneering Italo disco and electronic dance music (EDM). He produced Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” which could be considered the first EDM hit. And Moroder credits James Brown and Sly as some of his most important inspirations. Bringing on the Funk has had a lasting influence up to the here and now.
A great example is the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who after 32 years in the music business continue to utilize the same basic formula for their success and longevity: a bit of funk, usually manifested in Flea’s bass lines, and of rock, thanks to a changing cast of guitarists and a whole like of energy. It was Sly and the Family Stone’s Parliament-Funkadelic song “If You Want Me to Stay” that encompasses RHCP’s celebratory spirit.
Funk music has permeated many genres of music, the key being a danceable groove. From James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Tower of Power to Parliament/Funkadelic to the Ohio Players to Chaka Khan to Afrika Bambaataa to Rick James to Prince to Living Colour to Faith No More to Outkast to Jamiroquai and many, many more, Funk is everywhere in the music we listen to.
I am writing this article on tonight’s the 60th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. Interesting to think 60th and its connection to the 1960’s and the aforesaid Funk Master’s James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. I assert that if you look at the nominees of this 60th Grammys, the Rap, Hip Hop, and artists of color have overtaken the traditional Rock n Roll and pop artists. That said, all these nominees from all the musical genres present at the award show owe a great, significant and awesome nod to the amalgam of "body rhythms" (hambone, patting juba, and ring shout clapping and stomping patterns) embodied by soul, R&B, New Orleans, Afro-Cuban roots each of which were exploited by James Brown and Sly Stone. Now, let’s all “Dance to the Music”.

#funk #jamesbrown