Funk is a musical style advanced primarily by African-American artists like James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s, and further developed in the 1970s by other notable performers such as Kool and the Gang, Parliament/Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder.
Funk’s definitive musical traits include dynamic syncopated rhythms driven by sixteenth-note divisions of the beat; crisp and active rhythm guitar playing; vocals which tend toward the spoken or shouted variety characteristic of earlier soul music; technically demanding, melodic bass lines; and horn sections employing jazz-based instruments for percussive effect. Funk’s influence may be readily observed in modern hip-hop in the form of direct sampling from funk riffs or through the employment of funk song structures.
Lyrically, funk embraces everything from the personally vulgar to the politically significant, serving from its early days as one of the most powerful and direct musical affirmations of cultural “blackness” in America.
The most prominent difference between funk and the soul music from which it most directly evolved is the complexity of funk rhythms. Designed explicitly to provoke the audience to dance, funk rhythms are usually presented in small, repeated ideas that through the repetition become quite danceable, despite their individual intricateness. To offset the active nature of its rhythms, many funk songs utilize simplified structures that are built around the primary riff or riffs of a song rather than the traditional, harmony-based model of song form.
Another defining element of funk is the use of the bass guitar as a source of both melodic and rhythmic interest. Traditionally, the bass had served to solidify the harmony in popular music and was overlooked as a musical contributor, but through the development of soul, the bass guitar became a stronger voice within a song. For example, the bass line alone is enough to identify some soul and funk songs, such as “My Girl,” “ABC,” and “Brick House.” Bootsy Collins (of Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown’s band) and Larry Graham (of Sly and the Family Stone) are two of the most important bassists in funk music, with funk’s other bass innovation, “slap bass,” attributed to the work of Graham.
While the electric guitar may be the center of attention in rock and roll, it takes a back seat to the bass in a funk setting. It is used as an extra percussion instrument, with guitarists playing heavily rhythmic parts, occasionally even muting the strings to eliminate all definite pitch to highlight the effect, turning to the use of a “wah-wah” pedal for variation of the sound.
Though the horn section usually plays as a whole in funk, it is not uncommon for instrumental solos to become part of a song’s framework in the tradition begun in the early days of jazz and continued through the rhythm and blues of Louis Jordan and soul music of the 1960s. The preeminent funk soloist is undoubtedly saxophonist Maceo Parker, who has played with all the legendary acts in funk and continues to perform with funk-influenced bands today.
Origin of funk
“Funk” is a quintessential example of a word whose essence was redefined by a collective choice to seize control over lexical meaning. Traditionally, “funk” had been used to refer to body odor or the scent associated with sexual relations, and as “jazz” before it, was considered an inappropriate word for polite conversation. The implication of the word was well suited to accommodate the suggestive nature of funk’s lyrics and repetitious rhythmic contortions and eventually its use in the new context supplanted the earlier definitions in common perception. Musically, funk combines elements from the African-American musical tradition, most notably those drawn from soul, jazz and rhythm and blues.
James Brown and funk as a genre
James Brown is generally considered the first artist to present funk in a complete form, and would not have done so, through his own admission, without the influence of Little Richard. Brown observed that Little Richard had introduced funk in rock and roll with his band, The Upsetters, in the 1950s, and when Little Richard’s group disbanded, some of those musicians found themselves in the Famous Flames, Brown’s band. It proved to be a fruitful union, with Brown’s first number-one song coming not long afterward, and marking only the beginning of his foray into funk. Although Brown began to produce records that had traces of what we would recognize as funk, the genre was not stylistically solidified in his work until the mid-1960s.
A string of records released from 1965 (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”) through 1968 (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and Proud) served to define the funk genre for the public and provided the groundwork for the explosion of funk which took place in the 1970s when other artists began to employ the sorts of riffs, rhythms and vocals that Brown and his band had struck upon. Notable early funk pioneers include Dyke and the Blazers, The Meters and The Isley Brothers. The Meters never garnered the amount of public attention that some other funk bands did, but many musicians consider them to be one of the finest and musically tightest bands of that era, and they cultivated a small and loyal fan base during the 1970s. The Isley Brothers, on the other hand, experienced a great deal of commercial success, most notably the hit, “It’s Your Thing.”
The 1970s and P-Funk
One could say that the successors to Brown’s funk legacy took the torch, and, in some cases, ran very far with it. The 1970s brought a slew of performers who were dedicated to exploring the musical idioms that Brown had concretized in his work. An iconic testament to the potential for absurdity, George Clinton and his bands (alternately Parliament and Funkadelic) explored the psychedelic fringes of funk, earning an ongoing stream of devoted fans through their entertaining live shows and unique funk voice. “P-Funk” serves as the abbreviation by which Clinton’s music is referred to, regardless of the source band.
Along with Parliament-Funkadelic, there were many other purveyors of funk in the 1970s, making it the genre’s most vibrant and culturally-relevant decade. Some of the most prominent groups were Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Bar-Kays, The Meters, [[War (band)|War], and The Commodores. It should be noted that Bootsy’s Rubber Band was a project of George Clinton bassist, Bootsy Collins, who is known as much for his outrageous clothing as he is for his playing.
While Kool and the Gang achieved a great deal of commercial success, they did not expand on the existing notions of funk in any transparent fashion. The same cannot be said of Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power, both of which created bodies of work characterized by more sophisticated song forms and a greater variation in the way the horn sections are used. This further musical showmanship helped to cultivate a wider audience for these groups, beyond the typical funk listener.
As Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power introduced elements of jazz into funk, many of jazz’s most important performers were attempting to work funk into their own genre. Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderley were interested in exploring the notion of “jazz-funk,” particularly as a parallel to some of Miles Davis’s work combining rock and roll with jazz in what would come to be called jazz fusion.
The influence of funk spread through its incorporation into the newly developed African style of Afrobeat in the musical work of Fela Kuti. Funk also provided much of early disco’s musical foundation, and both genres were associated with the African-American populace, using, in many cases, funk musicians to make the disco records.
The 1980s and stripped-down funk
The instrumentation that had been typical for funk bands through the 1970s fell out of favor in the 1980s as horn parts were played by synthesizers or the complexity of the parts was greatly reduced, eliminating one of the most consistent, enticing, and innovative elements for which funk had been known. The commercial aims of the time led to a fair amount of mechanization, which meant fewer musicians to pay, even if it required purchasing new equipment. Drum machines became typical fixtures, and the unique “slap bass” technique began to disappear from the new songs and new performances.
Rick James (“Super Freak” and “Give It To Me Baby”), Queen (“Another One Bites the Dust”) and Prince (“Kiss”) were the most important practitioners of the style in the 1980s. All three eschewed horn sections in favor of a typical rock band setup, limited to guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. While the music that they produced was in its own way very effective and successful, their work evinced a severe departure from the richness of the funk sound that one finds in the 1970s. As the 1980s bore on, funk was replaced on the musical radar by heavy metal and new wave music, which sought to find a musical setting that used the new synthesizers as the primary accompaniment.
Through Afrika Bambaataa, funk did make an attempt to use the new technologies to its own ends and as a result, the sub-genre Electro Funk (or simply, Electro) was born. The music in this sub-genre was created almost entirely by synthesizers and drum machines.
Though funk had vanished from the airwaves by the end of the 1980s, a new generation of rock bands began to incorporate elements of funk into their style of playing and they termed the combination “funk rock” or “funk metal” depending on the appellation of their non-funk style. Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, Primus, Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine drew upon the wellspring of the funk vernacular and propagated the style in varied ways.
The influence of funk also extended to the United Kingdom, weighing in on the musical minds of acid jazz performers. While many musicians found themselves drawn to the funk of their musical forebears, funk proper has yet to regain the foothold it had during the 1970s.
Funk still pierces the musical consciousness, however, particularly via the lens of hip-hop, which regularly turns to funk for samples and inspiration, primarily because the two genres share the goal of getting people to dance, and also because the quality of the older recordings makes the newer products sound “vintage.” James Brown and P-Funk are both regular sources for current artists ranging from Jay-Z to Outkast and beyond.
Funk also plays a role in the world of the jam band, which peaked in the late 1990s but still continues to pop up from time to time. Medeski Martin & Wood, Robert Randolph and The Family Band and Galactic all employ now-traditional funk rhythms and place value on improvised solos as a throwback to the earlier days of funk, albeit they do so with different instrumentations than would likely have been found in the 1960s and 1970s.