Funk is a music genre that originated in the mid-late 1960s when African American musicians blended soul music, soul jazz and R&B into a rhythmic, danceable new form of music. Funk de-emphasizes melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground. Funk songs are often based on an extended vamp on a single chord, distinguishing it from R&B and soul songs centered around chord progressions.
Like much African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ, anddrums playing interlocking rhythms. Funk bands sometimes have a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets, and in some cases, a trombone, which plays rhythmic “hits”.
Many of the most famous bands in the genre also played disco and soul extensively. Funk music was a major influence on the development of disco music andafrobeat, and funk samples have been used extensively in genres including hip hop, house music and drum and bass. It is also the main influence of go-go.
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The word funk basically refers to a strong, generally offensive odor. The anthropologist/art historian Robert Farris Thompson, in his work Flash Of The Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, funky has its semantic roots in the Kikongo word “lu-fuki”, which means “bad body odor”. He says: “Both jazzmen and Bakongo use funky and lu-fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art, for having ‘worked out’ to achieve their aims … This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the irradiation of positive energy of a person. Hence ‘funk’ in American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals.” African-American jazz musicians originally applied the term to music with a slow, mellow groove, then later with a hard-driving, insistent rhythm, as it implies a bodily or carnal quality. This early form of the music set the pattern for later musicians.
The music was slow, sexy, loose, riff-oriented and danceable. Funky typically described these qualities rather than a distinct genre. In early jam sessions, musicians would encourage one another to “get down” by telling one another, “Now, put some stank on it!”. It is possible that the word funk was derived from a blend of the Kikongo term lu-Fuki (preserved by the African American community) and the English term stankand stinky. At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as “Funky Butt”, a piece by Buddy Bolden. As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, when “funk” and “funky” were used increasingly in the context of Soul music, the terms still were considered indelicate and inappropriate for use in polite company. According to one source, New Orleans-born drummer Earl Palmer “was the first to use the word ‘funky’ to explain to other musicians that their music should be made more syncopated and danceable.”
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Funk creates an intense groove by using strong bass guitar riffs and bass lines. Like Motown recordings, funk songs used bass lines as the centerpiece of songs. Slap bass’ mixture of thumb-slapped low notes and finger “popped” (or plucked) high notes allowed the bass to have a drum-like rhythmic role, which became a distinctive element of funk. Some of the best known and most skilful soloists in funk have jazzbackgrounds. Trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker are among the most notable musicians in the funk music genre, with both of them working with James Brown, George Clinton and Prince. Some 1960s/70s funk bands are Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Kool & The Gang, Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Blackbyrds, The Ohio Players, The Brothers Johnson, and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
Funk utilized the same extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths. However, unlike bebop jazz, with its complex, rapid-fire chord changes, funk virtually abandoned chord changes, creating static single chord vamps with little harmonic movement, but with a complex and driving rhythmic feel.
The chords used in funk songs typically imply a dorian or mixolydian mode, as opposed to the major or natural minor tonalities of most popular music. Melodic content was derived by mixing these modes with theblues scale. In the 1970s, jazz music drew upon funk to create a new subgenre of jazz-funk, which can be heard in recordings by Miles Davis (On The Corner) and Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters).
In funk bands, guitarists typically play in a percussive style, often using the wah-wah sound effect and muting the notes in their riffs to create a percussive sound. Guitarist Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers andEddie Hazel of Funkadelic were notably influenced by Jimi Hendrix‘s improvised solos. Eddie Hazel, who worked with George Clinton, is one of the most notable guitar soloists in funk. Ernie Isley was tutored at an early age by Jimi Hendrix himself, when he was a part of The Isley Brothers backing band and lived in the attic temporarily at the Isleys’ household. Jimmy Nolen and Phelps Collins are famous funk rhythm guitarists who both worked with James Brown.
The distinctive characteristics of African-American musical expression are rooted in West African musical traditions, and find their earliest expression in spirituals, work chants/songs, praise shouts, gospel and blues. In more contemporary music, gospel, blues and blues extensions and jazz often flow together seamlessly. Funky music is an amalgam of soul music, soul jazz and R&B.
James Brown and others have credited Little Richard‘s saxophone-studded, mid-1950s road band as being the first to put the funk in the rock’n’roll beat. Following his temporary exit from secular music to become an evangelist, some of Little Richard’s band members joined Brown and the Famous Flames, beginning a long string of hits in 1958.
1960s: James Brown and the development of funk
By the mid-1960s, James Brown had developed his signature groove that emphasized the downbeat – with heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure to etch his distinctive sound, rather than the backbeat that typified African American music. Brown often cued his band with the command “On the one!,” changing the percussion emphasis/accent from the one-two-three-four backbeat of traditional soul music to the one-two-three-four downbeat – but with an even-note syncopated guitar rhythm (on quarter notes two and four) featuring a hard-driving, repetitive brassy swing. This one-three beat launched the shift in Brown’s signature music style, starting with his 1964 hit single, “Out of Sight” and his 1965 hit, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag“.
Brown’s innovations pushed the funk music style further to the forefront with releases such as “Cold Sweat” (1967), “Mother Popcorn” (1969) and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” (1970), discarding even the twelve-bar blues featured in his earlier music. Instead, Brown’s music was overlaid with “catchy, anthemic vocals” based on “extensive vamps” in which he also used his voice as “a percussive instrument with frequent rhythmic grunts and with rhythm-section patterns … [resembling] West African polyrhythms” — a tradition evident in African American work songs and chants. Throughout his career, Brown’s frenzied vocals, frequently punctuated with screams and grunts, channeled the “ecstatic ambiance of the black church” in a secular context.
In a 1990 interview, Brown offered his reason for switching the rhythm of his music: “I changed from the upbeat to the downbeat…. Simple as that, really.” According toMaceo Parker, Brown’s former saxophonist, playing on the downbeat was at first hard for him and took some getting used to. Reflecting back to his early days with Brown’s band, Parker reported that he had difficulty playing “on the one” during solo performances, since he was used to hearing and playing with the accent on the second beat.
Other musical groups picked up on the riffs, rhythms, and vocal style developed by James Brown and his band, and the style began to grow. Dyke & the Blazers based inPhoenix, Arizona, released “Funky Broadway” in 1967, perhaps the first record of the soul era to have “funky” in the title. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band was releasing funk tracks beginning with its first album in 1967, culminating in the classic single “Express Yourself” in 1970.
The Meters defined funk in New Orleans, starting with their Top Ten R&B hits “Sophisticated Cissy” and “Cissy Strut” in 1969. Another group who would define funk in the decade to come were The Isley Brothers, whose funky 1969 #1 R&B hit, “It’s Your Thing“, signaled a breakthrough in African-American music, bridging the gaps of the rock of Jimi Hendrix and the upbeat soul of Sly & the Family Stone and Mother’s Finest.
P-Funk and the 1970’s
In the 1970s and early 1980s, a new group of musicians further developed the “funk rock” approach innovated by George Clinton, with his main bands Parliament and, later, Funkadelic. Together, they produced a new kind of funk sound heavily influenced by jazz and psychedelic rock. The two groups had members in common and often are referred to collectively as “Parliament-Funkadelic.” The breakout popularity of Parliament-Funkadelic gave rise to the term “P-Funk“, which referred to the music by George Clinton’s bands, and defined a new subgenre.
“P-funk” also came to mean something in its quintessence, of superior quality, or sui generis, as in the lyrics from “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” a hit single from Parliament’s album “Mothership Connection“:
I want the bomb. I want the P-Funk. I want my funk uncut.
The 1970s was probably the era of highest mainstream visibility for funk music. George Clinton played a masterminding role in Bootsy’s Rubber Band and several other bands he put together, including Parlet, the Horny Horns, and the Brides of Funkenstein, all part of the P-Funk conglomerate.
Funk music was exported to Africa in the late 1960s, and melded with African singing and rhythms to form Afrobeat. Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician who is credited with creating the music and terming it “Afrobeat”.
In the early 1970s, when funk was becoming more mainstreamed, artists like Parliament Funkadelic, Rufus & Chaka Khan, the Isley Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Ohio Players, Labelle, Confunkshun, among others, were successful and getting radio play but according to Billboard Magazine, only Sly & the Family Stone had singles which made it to #1. In 1970 ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ hit # 1 as did ‘Family Affair’ in 1971 affording Sly and Funk crossover success and greater recognition unlike some of their equally talented but moderately popular peers before the arrival of Disco around the middle of that decade which remained hugely popular until the early 80’s. Herbie Hancock starting with his 1973 “Head Hunters” album continued playing funk throughout his entire career. In fact, all of his 70’s albums after “Head Hunters” were heavily influenced by Funk. It was the main driving force of Hancock’s 70’s music, most of it being instrumental. He was also one of the first big jazz artists to switch his sound to funk.
Disco music owed a great deal to funk. Many early disco songs and performers came directly from funk-oriented backgrounds. Some disco music hits, for example “I’m Your Boogie Man” by KC & The Sunshine Band, “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan also known as The Queen of Funk Soul, and “Le Freak” by Chic, included riffs or rhythms very similar to funk music.
1980s and stripped-down funk
In the 1980s, largely as a reaction against what was seen as the over-indulgence of disco, many of the core elements that formed the foundation of the P-Funk formula began to be usurped by electronic machines and synthesizers. Horn sections of saxophones and trumpets were replaced by synth keyboards, and the horns that remained were given simplified lines, and few horn solos. The classic keyboards of funk, like theHammond B3 organ, the Clavinet Hohner and/or the Fender Rhodes piano began to be replaced by the new digital synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7. Electronic drum machines began to replace the “funky drummers” of the past, and the slap and pop style of bass playing were often replaced by synth keyboard bass lines. As well, the lyrics of funk songs began to change from suggestive double entendres to more graphic and sexually explicit content.
Rick James was the first funk musician of the 1980s to assume the funk mantle dominated by P-Funk in the 1970s. His 1981 album Street Songs with the singles “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” resulted in James becoming a star, and paved the way for the future direction of explicitness in funk.
Prince used a stripped-down instrumentation similar to Rick James, and went on to have as much of an impact on the sound of funk as any one artist since James Brown. Prince combined eroticism, technology, an increasing musical complexity, and an outrageous image and stage show to ultimately create a musical world as ambitious and imaginative as P-Funk. The Time, originally conceived as an opening act forPrince and based on his “Minneapolis sound“, a hybrid mixture of funk, R&B, rock, pop & New Wave, went on to define their own style of stripped-down funk based on tight musicianship and sexual themes.
Bands that began during the P-Funk era incorporated some of the uninhibited sexuality of Prince and state-of-the-art technological developments to continue to craft funk hits. Cameo, Zapp, The Gap Band, TheBar-Kays, and The Dazz Band all found their biggest hits in the 80s, but by the latter half of the 80s, funk had lost its commercial impact.
Afrika Bambaataa, influenced by Kraftwerk, created electro funk, a minimalist machine-driven style of funk with his single “Planet Rock” in 1982. Also known simply as electro, this style of funk was driven by synthesizers and the electronic rhythm of the TR-808 drum machine. The single “Renegades of Funk” followed in 1983.
While funk was all but driven from the radio by slick commercial hip hop, Contemporary R&B and New Jack Swing, its influence continued to spread. Rock bands began adding elements of funk to their sound, creating new combinations of “funk rock” and “funk metal“. Extreme, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, Jane’s Addiction, Prince, Primus, Fishbone, Faith No More, Infectious Grooves, Incubus and Rage Against the Machine spread the approach and styles garnered from funk pioneers to new audiences in the mid-to-late 1980s and the 1990s. These bands later inspired the underground mid-1990s funkcoremovement and current funk-inspired artists like Outkast, Malina Moye, Van Hunt, and Gnarls Barkley.
In the 1990s, artists like Me’shell Ndegeocello and the (predominantly UK-based) acid jazz movement including artists and bands such The Brand New Heavies, Incognito, Galliano, Omar and Jamiroquai carried on with strong elements of funk. However, they never came close to reaching the commercial success of funk in its heyday, with the exception of Jamiroquai whose album Travelling without Moving sold about 11.5 million units worldwide. Meanwhile in Australia and New Zealand, bands playing the pub circuit, such as Supergroove, Skunkhour and The Truth, preserved a more instrumental form of funk.
Since the late 1980s hip hop artists have regularly sampled old funk tunes. James Brown is said to be the most sampled artist in the history of hip hop, while P-Funk is the second most sampled artist; samples of old Parliament and Funkadelic songs formed the basis of West Coast G Funk.
Original beats that feature funk-styled bass or rhythm guitar riffs are also not uncommon. Dr. Dre (considered the progenitor of the G-Funk genre) has freely acknowledged to being heavily influenced by George Clinton’s psychedelic funk: “Back in the 70s that’s all people were doing: getting high, wearing Afros, bell-bottoms and listening to Parliament-Funkadelic. That’s why I called my album The Chronic and based my music and the concepts like I did: because his shit was a big influence on my music. Very big”. Digital Underground was a large contributor to the rebirth of funk in the 1990s by educating their listeners with knowledge about the history of funk and its artists. George Clinton branded Digital Underground as “Sons of the P“, as their second full length release is also titled. DU’s first release, Sex Packets, was full of funk samples, with the most widely known “The Humpty Dance” sampling Parliament’s “Let’s Play House”. A very strong funk album of DU’s was their 1996 release Future Rhythm. Much of contemporary club dance music, drum and bass in particular has heavily sampled funk drum breaks.
Funk is a major element of certain artists identified with the Jam band scene of the late 1990s and 2000s. Phish began playing funkier jams in their sets around 1996, and 1998’s The Story of the Ghost was heavily influenced by funk. Medeski Martin & Wood, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Galactic, Jam Underground, Diazpora, Soulive, and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe all drawing heavily from the funk tradition. Lettuce, a band of Berklee College Of Music graduates, was formed in the late 1990s as a pure-funk emergence was being felt through the Jam band scene. Many members of the band including keyboardist Neal Evans went on to other projects such as Soulive or the Sam Kininger Band. In April 2008, they released a new album entitled Rage!
Since the mid 1990s the nu-funk scene, centered around the Deep Funk collectors scene, is producing new material influenced by the sounds of rare funk 45’s. Labels include Desco, Soul Fire, Daptone, Timmion, Neapolitan, Kay-Dee, and Tramp. These labels often release on 45 rpm records. Although specializing in music for rare funk DJ’s, there has been some crossover into the mainstream music industry, such as Sharon Jones’ 2005 appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
In the early 2000s, some punk funk bands such as Out Hudand Mongolian MonkFish perform in the indie rock scene. Indie band Rilo Kiley, in keeping with their tendency to explore a variety of rockish styles, incorporated funk in to their song “The Moneymaker” on the album Under the Blacklight. Prince, with his recent albums has given a rebirth to the funk sound with songs like “The Everlasting Now“, “Musicology“, “Ol’ Skool Company”, and “Black Sweat“.
Funk has also been incorporated into modern Urban Pop & R&B music by many female singers such as Beyoncé Knowles with her 2003 hit “Crazy In Love” (which samples The Chi-Lites‘ “Are You My Woman”),Jennifer Lopez in 2005 with Get Right (which samples Maceo Parker‘s “Soul Power ’74” horn sound), and also Amerie with her song 1 Thing (The Meters‘ “Oh, Calcutta!”).
From the early 1970s onwards, funk has developed various subgenres. While George Clinton and the Parliament were making a harder variation of funk, bands such as Kool and The Gang, Ohio Players and Earth, Wind and Fire were making disco-influenced funk music.
Funk rock (also written as funk-rock or funk/rock) fuses funk and rock elements. Its earliest incarnation was heard in the late ’60s through the mid-’70’s by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Gary Wright, David Bowie, Mother’s Finest, and Funkadelic on their earlier albums. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who utilized Funk Rock from the late ’80s to the mid 2000s, is an example of a modern Funk Rock band.
Many instruments may be incorporated into funk-rock, but the overall sound is defined by a definitive bass or drum beat and electric guitars. The bass and drum rhythms are influenced by funk music but with more intensity, while the guitar can be funk-or-rock-influenced, usually with distortion. Prince, Jesse Johnson, and Fishbone are major artists in funk rock.
Electro music is a hybrid of electronic music and funk. It essentially follows the same form as funk, and retains funk’s characteristics, but is made entirely (or partially) with a use of electronic instruments such as the TR-808. Vocoders are often used. Early artists include Herbie Hancock, Zapp (band), Afrika Bambaataa and Vaughan Mason & Crew.
Go-go originated in the Washington, D.C. area with which it remains associated, along with other spots in the Mid-Atlantic. Inspired by singers such as Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-go”, it is a blend of funk,rhythm and blues, and early hip-hop, with a focus on lo-fi percussion instruments and in-person jamming in place of dance tracks. As such, it is primarily a dance music with an emphasis on live audience call and response. Go-go rhythms are also incorporated into street percussion.
Funk metal (sometimes typeset differently such as funk-metal) is a fusion genre of music which emerged in the 1980s. It typically incorporates elements of funk and heavy metal. It features hard-driving heavy metal guitar riffs, the pounding bass rhythms characteristic of funk, and sometimes hip hop-style rhymes into an alternative rock approach to songwriting. A good example of a funk metal band is Living Colour and they have been said to be “funk-metal pioneers” by Rolling Stone.
Funk jam is a fusion genre of music which emerged in the 2000s. It typically incorporates elements of funk and often exploratory guitar, along with extended cross genre improvisations; often including elements ofjazz, ambient, electronic, Americana, and hip hop including improvised lyrics.