What would it take for funk to get its proper respect? In the 2001 DJ documentary Scratch, filmmaker John Carluccio demonstrated a way to notate turntable scratches and cuts on sheet music. Having always thought James Brown breaks and vamps deserved the same technical admiration as jazz solos, I considered at the time that funk music could profit from, like, a written score of its own for drums.
Could funk split jazz’s claim as an African-American classical music, with Clyde Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” break universally revered in the same way as, say, John Coltrane’s divine sax solos on A Love Supreme? A man can dream.
With this month’s VH1 documentary Finding the Funk, Nelson George shuts it down for anyone withholding funk its propers. Veteran cultural critic, author (City Kid) and director (Brooklyn Bohème), George raised over $20,000 on Kickstarter to fund the passion project, his third long-form doc. “I ran into legendary producer Arthur Baker at the Standard Hotel in Miami and we started talking about music,” George says via Sunday morning email from a brownstone in his native Brooklyn.
“Arthur had been a huge fan of funk music and knew I’d been working on documentaries,” he continues. “Out of that conversation came the idea of the doc. I’d spent a lot of my years as a journalist covering funk-based bands, and had good relationships with George Clinton, Mtume, Nile Rodgers and Bootsy [Collins]. We pitched it to VH1 and they supported us.”
All those legends of the genre appear in Finding the Funk, along with a posthumous James Brown, a well-versed D’Angelo, elusive funk pioneer Sly Stone, Sheila E, P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and more. The result, narrated by Questlove, is must-see TV for any self-respecting funkateer. Funk deserves its own PBS miniseries treatment—from its New Orleans beginnings to James Brown’s innovations to Sly Stone’s reinventions to Parliament-Funkadelic’s transmogrifications, not to mention the hip-hop interpolations of Dr. Dre. But Finding the Funk couldn’t be a better, more thorough introduction.
Hearing out Questlove on Prince is always highly entertaining (see the drummer’s 2013 memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues for proof), and his astonishment at “777-9311”—written and performed by Prince with The Time’s Morris Day, and percussively all over the one while somehow remaining in the pocket—stands in for every Minneapolis Sound devotee who adores the track.
“The one,” as any funk lover will be quick to explain, denotes the first beat in a measure of music. James Brown insisted on slavish devotion to the one from bands like the Famous Flames and the JBs; JBs’ bassist Bootsy Collins taught it to George Clinton after migrating to his camp in 1972; and Clinton exaggeratedly “clowned it” on the 1978 Parliament funk classic, “Flash Light.”
Clinton’s reflections in Finding the Funk are as introspective as they’ve ever been on camera, dating at least back to 1987’s Rolling Stone Presents Twenty Years of Rock & Roll. What’s changed is the 72-year-old’s voice, now sounding as haggard and raspy as a bluesman. The same holds true for 70-year-old Sly Stone, appearing here in an über-rare interview.
“At some early screenings that came up, but I didn’t want to do [subtitles],” says Nelson George. “I just thought subtitles were disrespectful and would actually be very distracting. They weren’t speaking a foreign language—just a very funky version of English. It’s also why you hear my voice in the film sometimes repeating an answer to help viewers, especially during the George Clinton and Sly interviews.”
Comparing the devotional fan bases of P-Funk and Earth, Wind & Fire with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of rock, a clear-eyed, smiling D’Angelo hits several points like a true apprentice. “I knew D had a vast knowledge of funk,” Nelson says. “Questlove had really urged me to get him into the doc. We did the interview out at a hotel in Jersey and it was really fun. His enthusiasm is quite apparent, and it reflects the direction his new music is taking. The pink guitar he plays in the film was a gift from The Time’s Jesse Johnson, who has been teaching D guitar the past few years. He’s writing songs on guitars now more than piano. When his new music is finally released, it’ll have a very funk-oriented flavor.”
The presidents of funk—Brown, Sly, Clinton, Prince—are well known, but George highlights the genre’s foot soldiers as well, acknowledging bands like Heatwave, Lakeside, Sun, Slave and Zapp. Finding the Funk pinpoints the unlikely, unsung Dayton, Ohio as a ground zero of funk bands like the Ohio Players and Bootsy’s Rubber Band. (Heatwave, Lakeside, Sun, Slave and Zapp all hail from Dayton as well.)
I last saw Nelson George on the right bank of Paris four years back, at Le Fumoir for drinks. He was globetrotting then, interviewing locals and expatriates the world over for Black Atlas, an African-American-targeted extension of American Airlines. He was almost done with Brooklyn Bohème, his doc on my 1990s ’hood of pre-gentrification Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. As Black scribes mutually influenced by worldly renaissance men like Gordon Parks and Richard Wright (George once wrote a seminal Village Voice column called Native Son), I had to ask about his transition from music journalist to filmmaker.
“That I’m a very active documentary filmmaker is a bit of a surprise to me,” he freely admits. “I’d always loved filmmaking and thought I’d do feature films. But after working on the BET series American Gangster, I began thinking more about nonfiction. Then I worked as a producer on the Chris Rock project Good Hair, where I had a lot of creative input, and realized I was good at it. I’m now working on a doc about the ballerina Misty Copeland. It’s become a serious part of my life.”
Both Finding the Funk and Brooklyn Bohème air throughout Black History Month on VH1 and Revolt TV, respectively. Check local listings.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.