Funk, in its classic sense, was essentially a hybrid of soul and rock that borrowed cues from jazz and gospel as well. It was an aggressive form of music, and often conveyed a topical message. It is epitomized by the soundtracks to early 1970’s blaxploitation movies, which were essentially gangster or cop movies set in the ghetto. It was an organic outgrowth of James Brown’s aggressively danceable soul and George Clinton’s warped, druggy Gospel and doo wop; it borrowed tempos and electric guitar pyrotechnics from rock, as in the case of Sly & The Family Stone. The Isley Brothers, an r&b combo dating back to “Shout” in the early 60’s, reinvented itself as a slick, modern funk band and saw the most cash rich days of their lives. Miles Davis released On the Corner in 1972, an album that was considered blasphemous by jazz purists, but was embraced by the funk generation; its influence of funk-leaning artists of the 1980’s, from Vernon Reid on down, was immense.
It is the form of black-identified music that is most closely related to rock; all of the sonic thrills one seeks in psychedelic music, heavy metal, or progressive rock are here. But it is still black music; the most convincing funk number by a white group was probably Wild Cherry’s 1977 fluke “Play That Funky Music (White Boy)”
Funk was characterized by its tight rhythms and horn sections. Its lyric matter generally were either reports from the ghetto, or sleazy invitations to party. It never really gained the respectability of soul or r&b, but it is a vital music that still sounds fresh today.
Funk’s heyday stretched from about 1969, when Sly & The Family Stone were at their peak, to around 1980, when disco had supplanted funk as dance music, and rap was on the horizon. However, funk never really disappeared; it has enjoyed a tremendous renaissance due to its appearance in movies, and much of its music has been sampled by electronica and trip-hop artists, electronica being the primary domain of contemporary funk. It continues to inform rap, hip-hop, and soul. Prince can dish out the real thing when he’s in the mood. Lenny Kravitz and Red Hot Chili Peppers are other names among dozens who owe debt to funk. Tricky’s 1995 Maxinquaye is a primo example of electronica that is also recognizable funk, in spirit and sound.
Beyond the names on this list, there are many more incusionworthy, from Brick to Dazz to Cameo to Slave to Graham Central Station to The Gap Band to Bobby Womack to L.T.D. to the Brothers Johnson, to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s rebirth as funkster, to many others. A part two will eventually have to be compiled.
Consider this an overview, not exactly a “best-of”; it is geared towards the typical rock listenener. A funk devotee would have a different pantheon, although P-Funk would still probably top the list, and many of the same names would appear.
Some important/influential funk artists/songs include:
1. Funkadelic: Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow
“Mommy, what’s a Funkadelic?” Although Funkadelic answered that question, which opens their debut, on the debut, a better answer might be this title track from their 1970 sophomore album. It opens with profundo proclamations like “Freedom is free of the need to be free” “The kingdom of heaven is within!” and “Open up your funky mind and you can fly” over a cacophony of raunched guitar noodling from master of funk Eddie Hazel, with otherworldly electronic bleeps and blips; after two minutes of this bizarre musique concrete, the rhythm fades up and in. We’re taken on a runaway freight train through a house of mirrors; willfully disorienting stereo separation tricks send a hyperfuzzed organ riff careening from right to left, while the bass, drums, and Hazel’s guitar gain forward momentum; the freakazoid pronouncements become freakier and more frightening, and the whole thing is 10 minutes of utter nervous-system stimulation. It cops rock riffs along the way, and Hazel plays like a sleazy Hendrix, which I mean as a big compliment. Funkadelic and Parliament were two bands presided over by George Clinton in the 70’s; Funkadelic was more rock-oriented, Parliament more dance-oriented. Many prefer Funkadelic’s later work, but their Westbound albums of the early 70’s are where it’s really at; with their rock-based funk. The title is a double loaded proposition; the cover is noteworthy for the sexy nude model on it, too; it conveys a vivid pun on the title.
2. Sly & The Family Stone: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
Sly & The Family Stone had been gradually moving in a funk direction ever since their party soul debut; by the time of Stand! in 1968, the band had tightened its rhythms and was exploring longer grooves. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” a 1969 single included as bait on Greatest Hits is where Sly’s transformation from soul to funk is complete; the bass is taut, the guitar clipped, the horns fat. Its lyrics are terrifying; “Lookin’ at the devil/ Grinnin’ at his gun/ Fingers started shakin’/ I began to run/ Bullets started chasin’/ I began to stop/ We began to wrastle/ I was on the top…”. It marked a departure from this Haight Ashbury band’s earlier, brighter statements like “Dance To The Music”, and “Everyday People” which are name dropped in a sinister new context in this song. Their next move would be the sprawling and scary There’s A Riot Goin’ On in 1970, Sly Stone’s most Afrocentric offering, and his very best funk. On it, this track re-appears as “Thank You For Talking To Me Africa” as a much slower number, with the bassline emphasized and a restless guitar punctuating the groove; Sly’s bad-buzz vocals recontextualizes the whole thing.
3. The Meters: Cissy Strut
“Cissy Strut” should be familiar to Quentin Tarantino fans; it appeared in both Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. It’s a tight little funk instrumental with a terse lead guitar, and always-busy jazzy drum, and a good organ solo. What you’re hearing is pretty much the very definition of New Orleans style funk; The Meters were produced by Allen Toussaint and led by Art Neville, older brother to the Neville Brothers. “Cissy Strut” spearheads The Meters’ excellent self-titled 1969 debut album; it reached #23 on the pop charts and #4 on the Black charts. The Meters’ next album, Cabbage Alley is usually considered their best. In the 60’s, the band worked as in-house sessionmen for Sansu records, and played on records by Earl King, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, and Betty Harris. In the 70’s Robert Palmer and Paul McCartney both used them as backing musicians. The Meters began to disintegrate following the 1976 The Wild Tchoupitoulas project, which united all the Nevilles; an acrimonious split with Toussaint, in which they lost their name, ended their forward career momentum. In 1990, the Meters reformed.
4. Kool & The Gang: Jungle Boogie
This horn-rich slab of hardcore funk was a #4 hit in 1974, and helped solidify Kool and the Gang’s newfound status as commercial juggernaut; the band would remain one of the most commercially successful funk acts in history, well into the 1980’s. Eminently danceable, it has a great chorus, and nice throaty vocals from Robert “Kool” Bell. Bell and his brother Ronald, from Jersey City, NJ, were sons of a professional boxer, and developed an interest in jazz; Kool and the Gang evolved from a neighborhood jazz combo called the Jazziacs, which the brothers formed in 1964. Most of the Jazziacs were to remain together for over 30 years.
5. Stevie Wonder: Superstition
Stevie Wonder obviously needs no introduction. By the time he had a #1 with “Superstition” in 1973, the 23-year-old was already a ten year recording veteran, with 31 chart singles to his name. The song was from his classic 1972 album Talking Book, which took him from the status of superstar r&b performer to auteur; the self-produced effort was one of the most enduring albums of the early 70’s, and established Wonder as a performer who could take funk in a tight pop direction without sacrificing any of its essential elements. The song itself ought to be familiar to anyone reading this; it kicks off with drums before its infectious keyboard riff kicks in, and Wonder delivers a smooth, self-assured and soaring vocal while the horns swirl and bop. Wonder, of course, never was a strictly funk performer; Talking Book also included the non-funky “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”. But he was as good at it as anyone; later hits like “Living For The City” and “Master Blaster” are good funk, too.
6. Curtis Mayfield: Superfly
Mayfield already had a long, successful soul career as leader of The Impressions, who had a string of big hits in the 1960’s, including “People Get Ready” and “It’s All Right”, by the time he embarked on a solo career in 1970. As a solo performer, he was an essential, vital one. He tightened his rhythms up and pursued a hard funk sound that wasn’t reticent about expressing political views and voicing ghetto concerns in unflinching detail. His 1972 soundtrack to the blaxploitation flick Superfly, is his crowning achievement in a long, illustrious career. Part movie instrumental, part individual songs, the album takes all the shootings and dope deals and hustling and poverty of the ghetto and spells it out in vivid color. “Superfly” benefits from its catchy horn riffs and exotic instrumentation, which includes plenty of percussion and what sounds like backwards guitars; Mayfield’s falsetto vocal conveys the self-assuredness of the baddest blaxploitation antihero. In doing so, he helped open a window into a segment of society people were doing their best not to acknowledge in the early post-segregation years.
7. James Brown: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine)
Brown, of course, is the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul, a title only the late Sam Cooke or Ray Charles might be able to compete with him for. He’s also one of the uncles of funk, although he has more competition for that title. “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine)”, from 1970, was big not just for its unrepentant title and hook, but also for the kick-ass hard funk backing from the JB’s, which included bassist William Collins and guitarist Phelps Collins (Bootsy and Catfish respectively, who would soon join George Clinton’s P-Funk). Brown counts it off and one of the all time classic funk grooves is in motion; bass heavy, with clipped, ringing guitar, echoed piano, and Brown’s inimitable vocals. The song was a #2 on the Black charts, but the pop charts were more resistant, where the record stalled at #15. Brown would continue to have hits for years to come, although this was something of a highpoint; after 1975, Brown never had the chart presence he had enjoyed since the early 60’s.
8. War: Cisco Kid
War had its roots in a late 60’s band called Nightshift, which backed football hero Deacon Jones, who was trying to get a music career going, singing in clubs. A talent scout brought them to the attention of the Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon, who was looking for a black funk group to back him following the dissolution of Eric Burdon & The Animals. With Burdon, the band cut two albums, and had a hit with the largely improvised “Spill The Wine”. However, Burdon proved to be difficult to work with, and the band fired him in 1971 and re-launched their career as a slow-jam funk band with a new “debut” War. As funk, War was quite rock-based and not very danceable; they favored very long instrumental jams that built atmosphere more than they delivered adrenaline; they also were fairly successful at it, notching a solid string of hits through the mid 1970’s. What made them interesting in particular was the very palpable Latin flavor to their funk; “The Cisco Kid”, a #2 hit from 1973 is one of their best, with its polyrhythms and low-riding vibe. War reached #1 in 1973 with The World Is A Ghetto, which included this hit and the title smash. They ran out of gas by the early 1980’s, but reunited for an album in 1994.
9. Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band: Do Your Thing
Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band aren’t well remembered now, but they were one of the premiere proto-funk groups of the late 60’s and early 70’s. They were given a leg up by comedian Bill Cosby, who hired them to open for him at gigs. “Express Yourself” is their biggest hit, from 1970, but I’ve always been more partial to the 1969 #11 hit “Do Your Thing” which is a hyperkinetic piece of minimalist funk. The song, which appears during a climatic scene in the movie Boogie Nights, features a very spare instrumentation led by a tense guitar and jumpy bass; drums dual with tambourine to create a simple polyrhythm, and Wright contributes a buzzed vocal and scat singing. The song builds to a frightening guitar and bass dominated jam; it’s a very edgy track. The band broke up in 1973; drummer James Gadson and guitarist Al McKay later joined Earth, Wind, and Fire.
10. Parliament: Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)
One of the only auteurs to manage to helm two distinct bands at the same time, in any genre, George Clinton will forever be synonymous with funk. From Parliament, we get the blistering anthem “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)”, from 1976, which saw Clinton resisting the avenue most early 70’s funk pioneers took in the late 70’s: disco. “Give Up The Funk” is a primal and powerful funk bomb delivered by a stellar lineup that includes ex-JB’s horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker plus Bernie Worell on keyboards and Bootsy Collins on bass. It has great Gospel inflected vocals and one of the fattest bass riffs ever. Mothership Connection is about as good as it gets; while any number of P-Funk albums could be nominated as best, there’s something fairly flawless about this one; its impact on rap and hip-hop cannot be underestimated as well.
11. The Commodores: Machine Gun
The Commodores, as Lionel Richie’s band, are mostly remembered for lightweight pop hits like “Easy” and “Three Times A Lady”, both polite pieces of easy listening soul. However, on the band’s 1974 debut, Machine Gun, they are still a hardcore funk group, with tight, danceable rhythms and polyrhythmic fireworks. “Brick House” is their classic funk hit, but “Machine Gun” itself is a breathtaking keyboard driven instrumental, somewhere on the borderline where funk meets disco. It’s as 70’s as a smiley face, but it also delivers some hardcore jollies in a spacey sort of way. As a single, it performed fairly well; #7 on the Black Charts and #22 on the pop charts. Subsequent releases from the Commmodores drifted into middle-of-the-road territory, assuring them of commercial success, but perhaps costing them immortality; look at Machine Gun as the road not taken.
12. Billy Preston: Outa Space
In a very similar vein to “Machine Gun” is the keyboard driven instrumental “Outa Space” from former Apple artist Billy Preston, which could easily be mistaken for “Machine Gun”, although it was recorded in 1972. It reached #2 on the pop charts, heralding in a brief period of major success for the music veteran Preston; he’d hit the top 10 again with “Space Race” “Will It Go Round In Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing”, although the latter two, from 1973-1974, are more in a soul vein than funk. His funkiest songs were always his instrumentals. By the 1980’s, his hits had dried up, although he’s still an in-demand session player.
13. The Ohio Players: Love Rollercoaster
The Ohio Players are best known for their hardcore horn-driven funk and their erotic album covers, which were designed to shock as much as titillate. In many respects, the Ohio Players music was a continuation of late-60’s era Sly & The Family Stone in sound and execution, although the mid 70’s saw them discofying the beats somewhat. “Love Rollercoaster” is an absolute classic from 1975, recorded during the band’s peak era at Mercury records; it takes a Sly Stone-esque chorus, horns, and vocals, and gives them a more contemporary dance floor sheen; the result is one of the purest examples of mid-70’s funk. Like most funk groups, the disco era and the early 80’s saw their popularity sapped; by 1981 the band had pretty much fallen apart. Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Love Rollercoaster” in 1996. Honey, was their best album. A number of strange urban legends surround this cover; some claim the model was murdered during the sessions, while others insist she’s ingesting glue, placed in the honey jar as a practical joke. Neither legend is true. Fire and Skin Tight are also excellent albums (with good covers); any anthology that focuses on the Mercury years will deliver all the goods.
14. Isaac Hayes: Theme From Shaft
Veteran Isaac Hayes had been one of the chief producers and songwriters at Stax, and as such was one of the principle architects of the Memphis-based Stax soul sound, which replaced Motown in popularity as the 1960’s wound down. He launched his own solo career in 1967, and scored big with his 1969 offering Hot Buttered Soul, one of the ultimate make-out albums of all time, notable for its 12-minute version of “Walk on By” and its 18-minute version of “By The Time I Get to Phoenix”, both vaguely psychedelic, strings-heavy soul numbers. The imposing shaved-headed Hayes managed to parlay his image into a successful acting career in the 1970’s as well; aside from scoring the music to the legendary 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft, he also co-starred in it. “Shaft” is one of the most recognizable funk hits of the early 70’s; its essential riff is irresistable, and Hayes’ gruff vocals are at once both menacing and humorous. The strings work, a horn section gets a good workout, and the entire package is something of a theme for a whole generation.
15. Cyril Neville: Gossip
Once a prized rarity, until Rhino stuck it on a Neville Brothers compilation (which has since gone out of print), “Gossip” is such an oddball entry into the genre that it deserves mention here. Cyril Neville’s big gig in life was as member of the versatile New Orleans funk band the Neville Brothers, although in 1970 he released this lone, strange single. It’s a heavy-duty psychedelic funk number, with a pounding bass and, of all things, an incessant sitar. Neville delivers a great loose vocal somewhat reminiscent of the Stax tradition and the single is one of the most peculiar, but foot-stompin’ good slabs of late 60’s proto-funk. The single never charted, and for a long time was selling in the three digits whenever you were lucky enough to find it. Now that it’s not quite so rare, it’s worth a listen; talk about roads not taken.
16. Earth Wind and Fire: Shining Star
Earth Wind and Fire became one of the biggest acts in music in the mid 1970’s, racking up a string of #1 albums. Led by drummer and multi-instrumentalist Maurice White and vocalist Philip Bailey, the band took what were essentially JB’s-style grooves and piled on them immense amounts of production; their albums were dense and busy affairs with horns galore, polyrythms, multiple vocals, and unusual instruments tossed in wherever possible. Together with this, they employed an expensive and gaudy circus-like stage show that matched P-Funk in sheer spectacle. “Shining Star” from their 1975 breakthough That’s The Way of The World is a sassy piece of bottom-heavy funk with a jazzy bent to it; the rhythm is tight and bold, the vocals are rough and rude on the verses, falsetto and keening on the chorus; the horns are pure electricity. One of the best cuts from a very excellent funk band. It and the album reached #1, the single picked up a Grammy for best r&b performance. The band’s remarkable commercial clout -they dominated the charts in the late 70’s- had softened considerably by the late 1980’s, especially after some key lineup changes. But EWF continues making albums to this very day. Illumination, from 2005, made the top-40 pop album charts and top-10 on the r&b charts.
17. Chic: Good Times
Chic are included here to illustrate what happened to funk in the late 1970’s. Essentially, funk was swallowed up by the disco movement, which emphasized the fat dancefloor-ready bass, but toned down the guitar pyrotechnics; the productions tended to be glossy and slick. Electronic experimentation was embraced, including concepts that came from club deejays as often as producers. Via disco, the funk movement eventually found itself ensconced in clubs, where it ultimately evolved into electronica. Chic, generally considered the best disco band ever, had its roots in funk; guitarist Nile Rogers played in a clipped JB’s style and bassist Bernie Edwards came up with fluid, funky, danceable lines. “Good Times”, one of their most enduring hits, is from the 1979 sophomore album Risque, which was one of the most imitated albums of its day; Queen borrowed from it for “Another One Bites The Dust” and rap pioneers Sugarhill Gang essentially swiped the rhythm track. Chic wasn’t able to survive the end of the disco era; while they managed to release albums through 1984, they remained forever linked to their era. Rogers and Edwards found fruitful careers doing production and session work until Edwards unexpectedly died of pneumonia following a 1999 concert in Japan.
18. George Clinton: Atomic Dog
For the first time ever in the history of Sunday Morning Playlist, an artist makes the top-20 for the third time in a single list. George Clinton, funk’s forefather and guiding light managed an unlikely renaissance in the 1980’s after Funkadelic and Parliament finally collapsed under their own weight after over a decade of delivering the goods. “Atomic Dog” was Clinton’s first word after disbanding both motherships in 1981, from his 1982 solo album, Computer Games. Clinton enlisted familiar names to help; Bootsy, Gary Shider, and Walter “Junie” Morrison all appear. “Atomic Dog” is interesting because of its electronic vibe; after the sweaty, funky, organic 70’s, Clinton began exploring electronic textures and devices in the 80’s; similarly, funk itself had fallen from the mainstream radar but was enjoying a rebirth among the embryonic electronica movement; this coinciding of interests helped create the trip-hop hybrid and inform hip-hop, by the end of the decade. Clinton, now 65, still releases albums of uncompromising funk to this day.
19. Bootsy Collins: The Pinocchio Theory
Collins had been integral to James Brown’s JB’s, having been on “Sex Machine” among other early 70’s classics, and found a home in George Clinton’s P-Funk empire. Collins himself released a number of classic hardcore funk albums in the 70’s that bear a lot in common with Parliament’s releases of the same era. He launched his debut as Bootsy’s Rubber Band in 1976; his 1977 sophomore release Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! was a #1 on the black charts, as was Bootsy? Player of the Year in 1978. “The Pinocchio Theory”, from the former, was a #6 hit on the black charts. Its main assets are the tight and taut bass, the inventive electronic production, some Sly & The Family Stone style vocals; a jazzy horn section that recalls the JB’s that’s also imitated on synth, and Bootsy’s growl. Collins, like other funksters, lost his audience in the 80’s but kept active, releasing albums in both the 80’s and 90’s and getting some good sessionwork, including with George Clinton.
20. Prince: Dirty Mind
Here’s another exit point for funk from the mainstream; while some of it ventured into disco and came out electronica, other strains got filtered through Prince, who was just about the only performer of his generation who was routinely able to come up with hardcore funk hits in addition to his other styles, for over two decades now. “Dirty Mind” is an interesting exit point. Coming on the heels of Bootsy and the others, it’s a very un-funk type of song, heavy on synthesized beats and keyboards and accompanied by Prince’s weird falsetto voice that doesn’t conjur up the usual macho funk images. But funk is what it is, or what Prince made it to be; while he’d have much funkier hits in a more traditional vein (“Sign O’ The Times”, “Sexy MF”, et. al.), this one is early enough to be riding the end of the original wave.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Image Shack hosts my images.