“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”,
sang the ‘Godfather of Soul’, James Brown, who is credited with influencing or even creating ‘Funk Music’. His battle cry gave black Americans a sense of pride in their colour and culture and encouraged them to fight for their rights, inspiring a new musical genre.
So what is funk music?
The genre essentially evolved from the African-American soul, rhythm and blues, and jazz music of the mid-60s. It was characterised by a slower but strong rhythmic and percussive beat with a prominent, repetitive electric bassline and drum patterns. It gave more importance to the bass and less to the melody and chord progression, giving the music a hypnotic and danceable feel that went down well with audiences.
The word ‘funk’ is derived from the Latin ‘fumigare’ which literally means ‘to smoke’ and connotations linked to ‘odour’, and ‘musty’. Its adjective ‘funky’ was commonly used to describe jazz music as it was something that was ‘earthy’ or deeply felt. From ‘funky’ came ‘funk’.
Funk music traces its roots to the town of New Orleans which was a melting pot of musical influences ranging from blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and almost every genre popular at the time. Centuries of oppression faced by the African-American people gave rise to a long-ranging struggle for freedom and equality, a protest movement that came to be known as the American Civil Rights Movement.
Music played a pivotal role in inspiring and uplifting the black Americans in that struggle. Songs of protest resonated within the oppressed black community in the South and across the USA. It was their means of voicing opinions, expressing anguish, and inspiring the people.
In New Orleans, James Brown’s musical style started garnering considerable interest and set a new musical trend amongst musicians of the era. His use of polyrhythms, multiple rhythms happening at the same time, creating syncopation, gave the music that danceable feel and palpable energy and made it hugely popular.
Brown’s signature groove emphasised on the first beat, using the ‘one-two-three-four’ downbeat, as opposed to the backbeat which was ‘one-two-three-four’. Along with this, Brown also used his voice as a percussion instrument, with his trademark grunts and screams, a style later incorporated by Michael Jackson.
Many melodic instruments including saxophone and trumpet along with percussive ones like the bass and drums were prominently utilised in most funk songs and the genre usually didn’t limit itself to the regular verse/chorus structure but followed the music.
As Funk music grew in popularity, more and more bands and artists started picking up the distinctive new style pioneered by Brown. Bands such as Dyke and The Blazers, Tower of Power, and Sly and The Family Stone began imitating the popular style and achieved mainstream success. The genre appealed to a wide audience due to its ability to make people want to dance.
During the 70s, Funk became the voice of a generation as it expressed the struggles of the low-income working-class community which could identify with it. The decade witnessed the mainstream peak of funk music, with bands like Kool and the Gang, The Commodores, The Isley Brothers, and Chaka Khan achieving commercial success. This led to Funk bands getting a lot of airtime on radio stations all over America.
Funk and Disco
Other music genres like Disco that evolved later in the 70s were heavily influenced by Funk and many of the hits were sung by funk artists. Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby”, “Kung Fu Foo Fighting” by Biddu and Carl Douglas, and “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross were inspired by funk rhythms. Funk became a staple influence in lots of musical styles and genres and went on to influence numerous bands and artists through the years.
The influence of Funk music also found its way into the works of artists as disparate as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. Hendrix used riffs of funk and blues to distort them into his signature style of psychedelic rock. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic fused 60’s psychedelic rock with jazz and funk. Herbie Hancock, the pianist with the Miles Davis Quintet, formed a new band called The Headhunters and released a funk album titled ‘Head Hunters’. Close on his heels, one of the most acclaimed jazz figures of the 20th century, trumpeter Miles Davis, released a jazz-funk album titled ‘On the Corner’.
At that time there were quite a few other big names in funk music like Stevie Wonder, the Bar-Kays, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, but then in walked Chaka Khan, the Queen of Funk. She was the lead singer for the band, Rufus and Chaka Khan, before embarking on a solo career. Chaka Khan sang the hit disco song “I’m Every Woman” which had heavy funk influences.
The Synth Generation
In the 80s, Synthesizers became the next big part of funk history. Funk musicians took to electronic instruments, drum machines, and synthesizers. Synth keyboards took over saxophones and trumpets. Funk bands no longer needed a horn section as the synths could produce the required sound effects. These machines were used for creating the bass lines that were originally played on bass guitar. Rick James while experimenting with synthesizer funk, had two hit singles with “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby”.
The 80s though brought a change to the sound of funk and the lyrics became more explicit than before. This was witnessed in Prince’s experimentation with funky rhythms along with sexual themes, though the sexual element was always present in popular music. But towards the end of the decade, funk music began to decline rapidly from mainstream appeal and hip-hop, rap and contemporary R&B took over. Funk still had a big influence on modern hip-hop music, with lots of artists sampling tracks by James Brown and George Clinton. In fact James Brown was said to be the most sampled musician in history. Dr.Dre has said that he was greatly influenced by the psychedelic funk of George Clinton and P-Funk.
Funk music, however, did not quite die and continued to enjoy success through the 80s and 90s with Funk influenced bands such as Cameo, Zapp, and the Dazz Band. The early ’90s marked the birth of ‘funk rock’ with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More fusing funk and rock music together.
Similarly, modern R&B music continues to retain influences of funk. Beyoncé’s 2003 hit “Crazy in Love” samples the funk song “Are You My Woman” by the Chi-Lites, a funk quartet from Chicago. “Get Right” by Jennifer Lopez samples the funk song “Soul Power ‘74” by Maceo Parker, a trumpeter who worked with James Brown in Parliament-Funkadelic.
Contemporary artists like Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams have a major funk influence in their music. Also the new age Madonna, Lady Gaga’s new album ‘Chromotica’, heavily derives from funk music.
Evidently Funk has been a very influential genre since its onset. It peaked in the 70s and through it, sub-genres like funk rock, jazz-funk, electro-funk, and psychedelic funk were created. By the 90s funk had become a part of every style of music and numerous artists used funk methods and techniques in their music. In the end, Funk’s earthy sound, danceable beats, groovy bass lines, and drum beats made it one of the most infectious genres of music.
So let’s keep it Funky!