How the Capital of Funk Is Fighting to Keep Its Legacy Alive
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Dayton, Ohio, has long been ground zero in the world of funk. Now, with venues shutting down, it’s battling to keep that reputation alive.
By Stephen Starr
When Dayton’s Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center — aka the Funk Center — opened in December 2017, locals delighted in it marrying a proud musical tradition with hope for the revival of a city long down on its luck. Built to celebrate the Ohio city’s reputation as ground zero of the funk world, the center drew volunteers and experts from the Netherlands, Japan and the U.K. and superstar names from Dayton’s 1970s and ’80s funk scene, who pieced together the decades-old instruments, records and memorabilia on display. Tickets to the opening ceremony sold out in days.
But 18 months later, the Funk Center finds itself without a home. The building that housed it is under renovation and its owner, who originally offered the space for free, is now asking for rent the museum can’t afford. “I was surprised and shocked,” says David R. Webb, Funk Center president and CEO. And the Funk Center isn’t the only monument to Dayton’s place in funk history to shutter recently.
Before the Funk Center opened, Gilly’s, the famed jazz-funk joint that once attracted the likes of Tony Bennett and B.B. King, closed in November 2017. A year earlier, another family-owned music venue, the Hara Arena, shuttered in Trotwood, west of downtown. For a city fighting to reinvent itself, these closures have added to a sense of loss that’s disproportionately affected Dayton’s Black community. And while music venues have opened in downtown Dayton, they cater to opera, ballet and orchestral music, and tickets are comparatively expensive.
I think something’s going to come together for us.
David R. Webb, Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center, Dayton
Yet neither Webb nor Dayton is giving up: They’re fighting to keep Dayton alive as a funk hub for future generations. Billboard-topping artists and groups from the city such as Steve Arrington, the Ohio Players and Zapp are still touring, reminding fans of that legacy. Last year, street murals were unveiled depicting Dayton’s legendary funk artists. This summer, the city is organizing 52 outdoor concerts, including four dedicated funk acts. Webb, meanwhile, is desperately searching for alternative accommodations for the Funk Center. He’s in the midst of a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000 that would help secure a $100,000 state grant, and he continues to be on the lookout for a venue in downtown Dayton. At stake is one of American music’s modern legacies.
“I think something’s going to come together for us,” says Webb. “We’re a one-of-a-kind museum in the world.”
Dayton’s claim as the funk world capital has been rarely disputed. Local musicians, DJs and scholars estimate that between 1972 and 1998, 16 funk and R&B groups connected to Dayton produced more than 110 charting singles. Zapp’s 1980 track “More Bounce to the Ounce” was named in 2016 by Billboard as the greatest funk song of all time. Without Dayton, there’d likely be no Daft Punk or “Uptown Funk.”
Unlike Detroit’s Motown, the “Dayton sound” was not rooted in a producer-driven theme but in an organic, eclectic mix of divergent voices. Zapp star Roger Troutman’s use of the talkbox voice synthesizer in the 1980s was the precursor to tracks such as 1996 hit “California Love” and a sound sampled by a generation of West Coast rappers and R&B artists. Furthermore, instead of moving to major cities, groups such as the Ohio Players stayed in Dayton, helping to encourage and develop new acts.
To be sure, what’s happening in Dayton is being replicated across America. From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Asheville, North Carolina, clubs that gave funk pioneers their first airing are shutting down by the truckload, largely owing to rocketing rents. Many venues, such as several in west L.A., have been replaced with housing complexes. In Washington, D.C., gentrification has taken a huge toll on the capital’s predominantly Black go-go funk scene. Dayton’s funk venues that had survived are simply lying empty. Jazz and soul, funk’s close cousins, have proven immune to the decline, in part, experts say, because they attract a different, increasingly White, demographic.
“We still book a lot of funk and new music genre blends incorporating funk, soul-jazz and hip-hop,” says Zander Andreas of San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room, a West Coast funk institution. “But I can say that straight-up classic funk, while still relevant, is merging into new genre creations.”
Nu-funk and well-known rap and R&B artists are also playing a role in subsuming funk. “The use of funk music samples in hip-hop introduced a new generation to the genre … although the millennials may not know that they are listening to funk,” says ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby.
But the impact of this setback to funk is hitting Dayton in unique ways — which isn’t surprising given how central the music form has been to the city. Webb says that 85 percent of the more than 10,000 people who visited the Funk Center during its 18 months were out-of-towners. “Dayton, through the Funk Center, was a link for music fans touring between Motown in Detroit and the Stax Museum [of American Soul Music] in Memphis,” says Webb. Without the center, local businesses such as bars, restaurants and hotels are losing out on those customers too.
Workers at the local Smokin’ Bar-B-Que restaurant say they used to receive 15 to 20 customers on their way to or from the now-shuttered Gilly’s — a five-minute walk away — on Friday and Saturday nights. Now that custom is lost. These setbacks add to earlier losses Dayton’s broader music scene has suffered. An entire district of music venues centered on the once-thriving and predominantly African-American West Fifth Street area is now a decrepit shadow of its past. Iconic venues that in the 1970s hosted Ella Fitzgerald and Queen, such as Palace Theatre (Dayton’s equivalent to New York’s Apollo Theater) and Pop Mason’s Flamingo Club, no longer exist.
Still, Dayton and its funk aren’t going down without a fight. Webb is used to challenges. It took him a decade of work to open the Funk Center because he had to find people to work for free. Since they had to move in March, he and his team have worked “day and night” to empty the facility of its 1,000 priceless funk music articles and archives.
And some of Dayton’s funk icons argue that evolving by adopting newer music strands is the best way to keep the genre alive — even if the venues that hosted funk musicians are either closing or focusing instead on hosting jazz performers. “With every era, things change; things are added,” says Steve Arrington, the former frontman for Slave, before referring to funk’s own rise: “Just as soul had to share with us [funk artists] when funk came down the pipe.”
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