According to Bacchus, the funk movement of the Seventies was a perfect storm of social climate and musicianship that many young people were first exposed to in public school. “When music was taken out of the school system, the concept of forming a band became passé,” Bacchus says.
While lately I’ve been digging the sounds of Cali funkateer/ hip-hop producer Adrian Younge, whose Black Dynamite soundtrack made him perhaps the funkiest new school artist on the planet, for me the last great funk band was Tony Toni Toné. Comprised of Raphael Saadiq, D’Wayne Wiggins and Timothy Christian Riley, the Bay Area band were a trio of family members who emerged out of Oakland in 1988.
“Oakland is the musical hometown of Tower of Power, the Pointer Sisters and Sly and the Family Stone,” D’Wayne told me in 1994. “Whenever you hear someone plunking the bass, you know they were influenced by Larry Graham.” While not as raw as George Clinton or as innovative as Prince, these soul boys still bring the funk on “Feels Good,” “My Ex-Girlfriend” and others.
Priding themselves on coming from a funky town, Raphael Saadiq often bragged that when he was coming up, learning how to play an instrument was a rite of passage for Oakland boys. “Players used to be the ones who got all the girls,” Saadiq said. “But once hip-hop started, rapping became more prominent than playing.”
Indeed, as writer Erika Blount Danois explains, “New music technologies made it cheaper to be a soloist than to start a band. If you could operate samplers, sequencers and drum machines, there was no real reason to start a group.”
Citing the Ohio Players as her favorite funk group, Blount insisted that her children study traditional instruments. “I had my kids taking private classes in piano and trumpet. It was expensive, but I felt it was worth it.”
UCLA professor Scot Brown says, “It’s not that funk artists don’t exist anymore, it’s just that the record companies don’t see Black bands as a sacred unit anymore. Everywhere I go I see bands, but Black music industry executives are trying to find the next Chris Brown or Beyoncé.”
Currently living in Atlanta, he is working on a book about Dayton, Ohio funk bands like Bootsy’s Rubber Band and Slave. “These days, you could look at Jay Leno or David Letterman and see all kinds of White groups you never heard of, but the same can’t be said for Black bands,” Brown says. “The diversity of the Black community is no longer reflected in popular music.”
In the last two decades, funk music has continued to flounder. But there have been a few revivalists that tried to breathe new life into the genre, under the tremendous talents of D’Angelo, drummer/producer Questlove, producer James Poyser, Erykah Badu and others. Currently working towards finishing D’Angelo’s decade-plus-in-progress third disc, Questlove has described the project as “A true funk album.” For the love of the funk, I hope he’s right.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.