Bow Down to Your Funk Forebearers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
That beat you can’t stop bouncing to? You have these ’80s musicians to thank for it.
By Keith Murphy
It’s an omnipresent sing-along that has become as unavoidable as a Kardashian selfie. Since its release in late 2014, the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars team-up, “Uptown Funk,” has dominated the pop landscape, mercilessly clutching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for an astonishing 10 weeks (and still counting!). But while some purists scoff at what they view as cheesy, stepped-on “funk,” the mainstream appeal of the synth-fueled, call-and-response, horn-jabbing workout is rife with irony.
“That song has actually reopened the doors for the funk,” says producer Damon “Dâm-Funk” Riddick. The studio visionary and frequent Snoop Dogg collaborator — who is working on a summer follow-up to 2009’s Toeachizown — has been credited as the keeper of the funk. “For a while it felt like funk didn’t get the respect it deserved for being a legitimate style of music,” he adds.
Now it seems like everyone is dabbling in funk’s diverse palette.
Indeed, during the ’80s, the very same acts that “Uptown Funk” brazenly takes its musical cues from were viewed as gimmicky within segregated music industry circles. The heaviest funk outfit, the trailblazing George Clinton-led Parliament Funkadelic, became million-selling critical darlings in the ’70s with its outrageous arena shows and brilliant space-age grooves. But while the rock press celebrated the sex, drugs and glorious excesses of the Mothership crew, when the style took on a more streamlined sound in the next decade, funk was often dismissed if your name wasn’t Rick James or Prince.
When Tulsa, Oklahoma, trio the Gap Band dropped its 1980 throwdown “Burn Rubber on Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” the crunchy track became an instant No. 1 R&B staple, but barely made a dent on the pop charts, topping out at No. 84. Even mainstream music scribes were cold to the new funk. “Unfortunately, the hooks are few, the humor is forced and the ballads suck,” wrote influential rock critic Robert Christgau of Cameo’s gold-selling Alligator Woman (1982), an album that featured the weird and wonderful new wave title track. Solar Records’ criminally underrated producer Leon Sylvers III found crossover accolades by adding a bow tie to the funk on such elegantly tailored cuts as The Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On” (1980) and Shalamar’s “A Night to Remember.”
But it was Zapp, the brain child of the late, gifted multi-instrumentalist Roger Troutman, that carried the biggest funk stick. “More Bounce To The Ounce” (1980), “So Rough, So Tuff” (1981), “Doo Wa Ditty” (1982) and “Dance Floor” (1982) were avant-garde revelations anchored by Troutman’s robotic talking box vocals. A decade later, the infectious party music would become the go-to sampling ground for West Coast rap. But it’s telling that Troutman’s biggest across-the-board smash was the overtly sanitized 1987 slow cut “I Want to Be Your Man,” which peaked at No. 3 on the pop charts.
Soon hip-hop’s cultural takeover expedited funk’s waning popularity as the genre became saddled with outdated stereotypes of platform shoes, rainbow afros and glittery outfits. But my how times have changed. Now it seems like everyone from the aforementioned Ronson, candy-coated it-girl Katy Perry (“Birthday”) and pop-rock band Haim (“If I Could Change Your Mind”) to soulful comeback kid D’Angelo (Black Messiah) are dabbling in funk’s diverse palette. “For years it was almost kind of taboo for a musician to say, ‘I do funk music,’” says Dâm-Funk. “But that’s changed. I do funk … not R&B, hip-hop or disco. It’s funk done in a new way.” That’s the whole funk and nothing but the funk.
- Keith Murphy Contact Keith Murphy