Reading Love, Peace, and Soul, author Erika Blount Danois’ excellent upcoming book on the groundbreaking Soul Train, I began thinking about 1970s music and the many yesteryear funk bands that once populated the Black pop charts. Built on the foundation of gospel, jazz, soul and rock, funk was the energetic little brother who was more ambitious and had no problem being the wild child in the canon of pop.
While the often costumed electric bass strummers, wah-wah guitar screamers and stylish synthesizers were once soul-stomping staples of radio and stage, in the 21st century new funk music units have virtually disappeared. Seeing the names of artists James Brown, the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire and countless other funky folks made me think about those soulful yesterdays when heavy funk music still mattered beyond the aural ideas of sample happy producers.
Paging through Love, Peace, and Soul, I slowly began tripping through time and space, and within minutes crash-landed back in an era when funk was an art form worshipped in basements and bedrooms, where fans played James Brown records continuously or mimed air bass as the latest Bootsy Collins single spun on the turntable.
Brown, whose 1967 hit “Cold Sweat” is often sited as the first true funk song, would later be anointed as the “father of funk.” Many of his early funk hits—including “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” “Super Bad” and “The Payback”—inspired peers like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and an entire generation of hip-hop artists. “Brown’s cockiness and swagger is all up in the DNA of rap,” says writer/director Nelson George. Earlier this year, George’s most recent film, Finding the Funk, began making the rounds at film festivals. “Simply put, if there was no James Brown, there would be no hip-hop.”
Coming into maturity in the 1970s (that post-civil rights era when everything seemed possible), funk—with its relentless rhythms, dynamic grooves and powerful horn sections— became the chocolate-colored soundtrack to a golden age of Blackness.
Occasionally, one could catch a glimpse of our funk heroes on television, as when Sly Stone made appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin and The Dinah Shore Show. Later, purely music-driven programs like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special gave exposure to the “uncut funk” of the Commodores (“Brick House”), the Ohio Players (“Fire”) and Kool & the Gang (“Hollywood Swinging”).
While the word funk began as one of those bad words your mother might slap you in the mouth for saying aloud, over time it became a synonym for freedom: freedom from the conventional sound of soul, polite behavior on the mic, and three-piece suits as appropriate attire. As George Clinton sang on Funkadelic’s 1978 “One Nation Under a Groove,” funk was a way “out of your constrictions.”
In its time, funk became deeper than just the music, transforming into a movement that represented everything from blowout kits to double-knits, Afro-Sheen to gangster lean and the way brothers bopped to Bohannon to sisters dropped to their knees when dancing to “Pick Up the Pieces.”
Although funk music played year round, it was during the steamy summer months that it really came alive. I attended my first funk concert in the summertime, when Graham Central Station played Pittsburgh. At the time Graham, who years later would become a mid-life mentor to Prince, had been literally chased away from his position as bassist for Sly & the Family Stone, and was determined to do his own funky thang.
Marveling at a massive crowd that resembled extras from a Blaxploitation movie, I listened carefully to Larry Graham playing in his trademarked style, slapping the strings of his instrument like a maniac on songs like “Hair” and “The Jam.” That 1975 show was my first live funk experience and, I realized that night, was the best way to hear the music. Indeed, most funk sounded better and more intense when removed from the three-minute “constrictions” of then seven-inch disc formats.
“Funk changed my life,” says Detroit native and producer Ira McLaughlin, who in 1976 witnessed P-Funk’s iconic Mothership landing for the first time. “In Detroit, we heard funk on the radio and we just wanted to belong.” Like many of us growing up with funk, McLaughlin spent many hours grooving to music, drooling over the lusty photographs on the covers of Ohio Players albums and digging the bizarre alien sci-fi dreams of Pedro Bell’s acid fueled P-Funk album covers.
Producer Brian Bacchus, who has worked with Norah Jones and Gregory Porter, grew up a New York City kid tuned into the funk. “I was heavily into the Brooklyn-based Mandrill back in the early Seventies, but radio killed off funk a long time ago,” he says. “With a few exceptions, like Prince or the Isley Brothers, guitars began to mostly fade from Black radio in the Eighties.”
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.