Then & Now: Funk

Of all the genres of popular music, perhaps none is less satisfying to analyze than funk. Why? Funk—a close cousin of R&B, jazz, and soul—has one overriding purpose: To make you get up and dance. And what’s the good of writing about dancing when you could just be dancing instead?

But without any doubt, funk—and the larger quasi-genre of dance music—deserve a place in our Then & Now series. Even if funk borrows heavily from its musical relatives, it’s a unique and groundbreaking style that quickly spread beyond its American birthplace to find a rabid international audience.

What’s more, it’s difficult to hear modern dance music that doesn’t lean on classic funk’s syncopation and emphasis on rhythmic elements over melodic ones. What’s more, the enduring appeal of classic funk all but ensures that there will be a healthy and global revival scene for the foreseeable future.

Funky Beginnings

Whichever way you slice it, there’s a thick streak of funk running through the story of American popular music. While we associate“funk” with the pioneering bass and drum-led music of ‘60s artists like James Brown, the term has much deeper roots in American music.

As early as 1907, the cornetist Buddy Bolden—an artist many consider the wellspring of all jazz to come—was playing a song entitled, alternately, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” or “Funky Butt.” We don’t know what it sounded like; Bolden himself never saw the inside of a recording studio. A bona fide star in his native New Orleans, around this time he suffered an episode of alcohol-induced psychosis, later diagnosed as schizophrenia. He would spend the rest of his days institutionalized.

But Bolden’s creation—catchy, humorous or obscene, depending upon your perspective—was here to stay. One of the premier New Orleans bandleaders of the day, he played blues-inflected proto-jazz; if it probably didn’t sound much like modern funk, his choice of shading and perspective would have major and lasting effects. His sound was raucous, earthy, and designed to make people move. Sound familiar?

It’s only appropriate that this spirit of funk would next be carried forward by a drummer. Earl Palmer was a show-business kid, raised in the Tremé District of New Orleans and performing as a tap dancer by the age of five. After demeaning service in the U.S. Army in WWII—like most African-American servicemen, he was relegated to secondary support tasks for white infantrymen—he returned to New Orleans where he studied percussion. Soon he was an in-demand session player, appearing on hits by Fats Domino, Little Richard, and a Who’s Who of early New Orleans rhythm & blues and rock & roll artists. He would go on to play on literally thousands of recording sessions; his union recorded him cutting 450 in 1967 alone. But most of all, Earl Palmer would bring the funk.

According to many of his colleagues and collaborators, Palmer was the first musician to use the term “funky” to describe the syncopated, danceable feel so characteristic of the genre. His work on early sessions like Fats Domino’s recorded debut, “The Fat Man,” recorded in 1949, doesn’t sound much like funk music, but it’s a crucial step in the evolution of both rock and roll. By emphasizing the back beat—in this case, the heavy snare hits on the 2 and 4 beats—Palmer changed the song’s rhythmic emphasis. If it sounds unremarkable today, that’s because—at least in Western music—nearly all subsequent popular music has followed this essential pattern.

In the early days, rhythm & blues and rock & roll were so closely related as to be nearly indistinguishable. This would change over the course of the ‘50s, a decade when rock—in large part popularized by white artists adopting African-American performers’ styles—became an American and then a global sensation. Lacking the same commercial investment, rhythm & blues would grow at a more sedate pace (though not in African-American communities, where it was perhaps the dominant genre of the mid-century period).

And as rhythm & blues grew, powered by forward-thinking musicians like Earl Palmer, it would spawn a new genre. Pushing the rhythmic elements to the forefront, and subtly altering that essential backbeat to give it a distinctive “kick,” it would distill Palmer’s “funky” to an essential core: Funk.

Of all the rhythm & blues stars pushing the genre ahead, none would have a greater impact than James Brown, an artist who—nearly 35 years after his last hit single, “Living in America” from 1985—continues to cast a massive shadow over dance music in general and funk in specific.

Brown began his professional career performing a more-or-less orthodox style of rhythm & blues. Taking equal inspiration from the gospel standards he grew up singing and firebrand performers like Little Richard—who inspired Brown’s group the Famous Flames’ smash hit “Please, Please, Please” by scrawling the phrase on a napkin—Brown soon began to chafe at the genre’s limitations.

Having already infused rhythm & blues with his singular energy and dynamism, in the early ‘60s Brown began pushed his band deeper into uncharted territory. His singing, virtuosic though it was, began to rely less on melody than on rhythmically inventive phrasing (yes, some people call this rapping). So too the music; while much of rhythm & blues wasn’t known for its complexity—as opposed to, say, jazz—Brown increasingly stripped his songs down to a single chord, with all the instruments adding harmonic as opposed to melodic shading.

It was a fundamental reshaping of how popular music was “supposed” to be played, and it would resonate far outside the world of rhythm & blues. Songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” and “Sex Machine” would largely define not only the sound of funk—as this new genre was now called—but of the era as it was experienced through African-American eyes.

James Brown’s output would peak and then decline after the early ‘70s. Several alumnae of his band—including future funk star Bootsy Collins—would go on to have long careers of their own. But with the new decade, funk itself would begin to morph and broaden. Like many other genres, the original idiom would become a historical curiosity before resurfacing again decades later. But first, there was the world of dance music to conquer.

Dance to the Music

Dance music—as if that’s a single genre—has existed in some form or another since prehistory.    After all, the first humans to beat on animal skins stretched across horn or stick frames certainly hoped to induce a physical response from their listeners, whether it be for ceremonial, spiritual or celebratory purposes.

But to simplify matters, we’ll constrain ourselves to the roughly defined genre that arose in the late ‘70s from the mashup of rhythm & blues, funk, and disco. Disco itself is arguably merely a more polished and rigid sub-genre of funk, with that style’s playful syncopation and stabs sublimated under a four-on-the-floor kick drum beat and an insistent eighth-note pattern on the hi-hat.

What would emerge in the ‘80s from this primordial stew would take ingredients from all these genres and more. Prince, one of the most original and influential artists of the decade, would ground his work in the feel, if not always the instrumentation, of classic funk. And songs by Rick James, Cameo and others would in large part define the sound of the ‘80s, before the public’s gaze inevitably turned towards other genres.

The Revival

If classic funk had largely dropped from public view, its influence lingered in the ubiquitous funk beats that powered hits by Michael Jackson, the epic excursions of the jam-band scene, and latter-day funk aficionados like Dr. Dre, Janelle Monae and countless others. And like nearly every genre before, it found new life with an audience that had largely not yet been born during its inception.

As we’ve written about in our look back at classic soul, explicitly backward-looking artists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse and others heavily mined the sound (and look) of original soul and funk artists. Less visible (but no less active), a thriving neo-funk scene bubbles in seemingly every corner of the globe, from Munich’s Poets of Rhythm to San Diego’s Greyboy Allstars to Melbourne’s Bamboos.

And in a perhaps unsurprising restaging of the original genre’s evolution, more recently, the funk-based music of the ‘80s surged to the top of the charts once again under the guidance of producer Mark Ronson and vocalist Bruno Mars. Their chart-topping collaboration “Uptown Funk” (and the many lawsuits it engendered) owed more to the electro-funk/pop/dance music of the ‘80s than to any song released in the original funk era.

If there’s one thing our dive into musical genres indicates, it’s that our tastes are cyclical. Styles rise up—often as the result of collisions between existing idioms—and then drop from the public eye. Some of them, like punk or soul, will find themselves revived in purist or more exploratory fashion. But very few of them can claim funk’s achievement: To not only be a beloved “revival” genre but to have worked its essential DNA—the focus on danceable, syncopated and irresistible rhythm—into the very fabric of American music.

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