This article was originally written for Funkdub by DJ Shikubu back in 2006 – does it stand the test of time? Have your say below… A Spotify playlist has been compiled by 3DJ to accompany the re-publishing of this article in 2016, you can find it here.
Funk music was formed from a blend other styles such as jazz, soul and R&B and is characterised by the use of not just drums and bass to create rhythms but the tight coordination of all a band’s instruments.
Often developed from epic jam sessions and endless live performances, funk has been blessed with a series of flamboyant characters who brought the spirit of theatre to popular music. Though funk’s most dominant period was the 1970s, its influence has extended far beyond, with samples of numerous classic tracks forming the foundation of many a contemporary hip-hop and R&B number.
Roy Ayers musical career has spanned several decades and an ever-changing range of musical genres from LA jazz to, more recently, afro-beat and acid-jazz. In 1970 he formed the group Ubiquity, an ever changing combo who embraced everything from jazz to soul to pop to disco, but always with an undertone of funk. Throughout the 70s Ayers produced a series of funk-fusion albums both with Ubiquity and as solo projects.
Coffy OST (1973)
Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975)
No discussion of funk music would be complete without mention of James Brown, the self-styled “Godfather of Soul”. Responsible for some of the most famous examples of funk/soul and with an immense back-catalogue behind him, it is difficult to argue with that particular moniker. Despite an early brush with the law, James Brown was a musical force from an early age, recognising the importance of performance and showmanship. Scoring his first hit in 1956 with “Please, Please, Please”, it wasn’t until a decade later and “Papas Got a Brand New Bag” that Brown essentially invented funk music, using not only drums but all the instruments in the band to forge out tight rhythms. A string of hits followed including “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and the political anthem “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Over the years Brown worked with a huge range of musicians and singers who acted both as his backing groups, and were recorded variously under the banners of the JBs and Maceo & the Macks, as well as with solo artists such as the long serving Bobby Byrd. Many of the musicians, such as Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley went on to record with future funk outfits such as P-Funk. Throughout his career James Brown has been no stranger to controversy with numerous well documented encounters with the US legal system, and a variety of acrimonious splits with wives and musicians alike. Despite this he has continued to record and perform right up to the present day, and is now often to be found on the festival circuit. His most fruitful period though was undoubtedly between the mid-60s and mid-70s when he was responsible for creating and defining what became the sound of funk.
Live at the Apollo (1963)
The Payback (1974)
George Clinton and Bootsy Collins
George Clinton casts a large shadow in the history of funk. His original group, The Parliaments, were a 50s doo-wop outfit, before ultimately evolving into the psychedelically influenced Funkadelic in the late 60s. Working with an ever expanding roster of musicians including Bootsy Collins, Sly Stone, Bobby Womack, and many of James Brown’s former collaborators, Funkadelic and the slightly revised Parliament were essentially the same group recording under different names – Parliament producing the more commercial output and Funkadelic the more off-the-wall psychedelia (legend has it that their second album was recorded in a single day while the entire studio was tripping on acid!). The two factions eventually came together under the umbrella of P-Funk and it was during this era that Clinton’s funk became more publicly acceptable epitomised by the hit “One Nation Under A Groove”. Never less than flamboyant, Clinton placed the accent of theatrical stage performances, employing similar tactics to one time label mates Kiss in terms of on stage visuals, including on one tour a giant spaceship (Spinal Tap springs to mind at this point). Indeed Clinton did not regard his style as “black music” but sought to take in a variety of forms from soul to all out rock. His lengthy career has been characterised by a chaotic whirlwind of collaborations often overlapping with each other. He has latterly worked with hip-hop greats Public Enemy and nu-funk maestro Prince (or whatever moniker he goes by these days).
Funkadelic – Funkadelic (1970)
Parliament – Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo System (1977)
William “Bootsy” Collins
Forming the link between the two giants of different eras of funk, James Brown and George Clinton, while being major artist in his own right. The bass player with a penchant for flamboyant stage attire (lace body-stocking and hot-pants with his signature star-shaped shades) performed briefly with James Brown as part of one incarnation of the JBs, before being recruited to George Clinton’s far reaching P-Funk project. Simultaneously to his time with P-Funk he produced a string of seminal albums of his own with Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Ahh . . . The Name Is Bootsy Baby (1977)
Disco-funk outfit the Dazz Band scored a string of hits in the early 80s including “Let It Whip” and “On the One for Fun”.
Keep It Alive (1982)
Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire were a Chicago based octet formed by brothers Verdine and Maurice White and featuring Phillip Bailey (later of “Easy Lover” fame with Collins!). Known for their extravagant stage shows they begin life as a classic funk group recording the soundtrack for the first ever Blaxploitation film “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song”. In the late 70s and early 80s they displayed their pop sensibilities with hits such as “Boogie Wonderland”.
Gratitude (live) (1975)
The Fatback Band
From the early 70s to the mid-80s, The Fatback Band moved from being the funkiest of funk outfits with hits like “Spanish Hustle”, “Fatbackin” and “Do the Bus Stop”, through disco, before eventually becoming early purveyors of hip-hop. Around the same time as the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was taking the world by storm, Fatback (as they were by then known) were collaborating with King Tim III on their own hip-hop number, though this innovation has largely been overlooked in the mists of time.
People Music (1973)
Larry Graham was a highly influential bassist who for six years pounded out the rhythms on (and indeed wrote) some of Sly & the Family Stone’s best-loved songs during their most productive period. He eventually moved on to form Graham Central Station with whom he produced a number of highly regarded classic funk albums, developed through continual touring and live performance. He continued working and touring following the eventual demise of Graham Central Station, including collaborations with Prince’s New Power Generation.
Graham Central Station (1974)
Known most recently for proving the voice of South Park character Chef, Isaac Hayes began his career as a writer for the Stax record label, penning such classic’s as Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. Having established himself behind the scenes at Stax, Hayes went on to record a string of hit albums including “Hot Buttered Soul” which featured just four epic tracks. His best known work remains the seminal soundtrack for Blaxpolitation flick “Shaft”, which spawned a whole generation of sound-a-like movie scores.
Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
Shaft OST (1971)
The Isley Brothers enjoyed a long and illustrious career, taking in a variety of styles, always seeking to move with the times. An early hit with rock ‘n’ roll stomper “Twist and Shout”, later made famous by the Beatles, was followed by a brief spell with legendary guitarist Jimi Henderix in their ranks. The late 60s saw them achieve relative success with the Motown label before breaking free to produce their own distinctive brand of funk in the early 70s with hits such as “It’s Your Thing” and “Fight the Power” reflecting the political and cultural climate of the times. They ultimately changed direction once again with “Harvest for the World”.
It’s Our Thing (1969)
3 + 3 (1973)
Rick James rose to fame in the late 70s and early 80s with his distinctive “punk-funk” style. Best known for the massive hit “Superfreak” which was famously sampled by the ridiculously trousered MC Hammer for his equally massive hit “U Can’t Touch This”
Street Songs (1981)
Kool & the Gang
Throughout the 70s Kool & the Gang were purveyors of pounding funk, even prompting James Brown himself to dub the “the second baddest”! Their music was the product of epic improvised jam sessions and energetic live performances along with a willingness to experiment with other genres such as jazz and latin, producing hits such as “Jungle Boogie” (as resurrected by Quentin Tarrantino in “Pulp Fiction”). As the 80s dawned and funk’s star began to wane, Kool & the Gang reinvented themselves by producing a string of funky feel-good party tunes including “Ladies Night”, “Celebration” and “Get Down On It”, destined to forever feature on” The Best Party in the World… Ever!” type compilations.
Spirit of the Boogie (1975)
The Last Poets
The original line-up of The Last Poets produced just one album together, though the various members recorded under the same name in several guises. Coming off the back of the politicised funk of the late 60s, their black urban poetry with limited instrumentation expounded extreme racial politics and acted as the pre-cursor to the subsequent hip-hop movement.
The Last Poets (1970)
Like many of soul’s biggest stars, Curtis Mayfield’s earliest musical influence was gospel. Mayfield had a string of hits with The Impressions during the 60s, including “People Get Ready”, displaying a social awareness uncommon in black popular music at the time. He went solo in the 70s with his self-titled first release, featuring the glorious “Move On Up”. For many his best known work remains the soundtrack to “Superfly”, which along with Isaac Haye’s “Shaft” is synonymous with the Blaxploitation films of the time. Mayfield went on to record several other soundtracks in the mid-70s, before his music took a rather more commercial and less critically acclaimed turn. In 1990 he was badly injured when a lighting-rig collapsed on top of him, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. His health deteriorated over the next few years before he finally passed away in 1999 – a tragic end to a truly great talent.
Superfly OST (1972)
The Nite-Liters / The New Birth
The Nite-Liters originally performed as a backing group for Motown artists, as well as producing tight funk arrangements in their own right. They ultimately joined forces with other vocal groups to become The New Birth.
The Nite-Liters (1970)
Different Strokes (1972)
The Ohio Players
The Ohio Players’ legacy to funk is based on three albums released during 1974 and 1975, “Skin Tight”, “Fire” and “Honey”. Their style was heavy, dirty funk, and it was with this that they achieved their best success.
Skin Tight (1974)
A precocious talent with a penchant for huge collectives of musicians – la George Clinton, Prince based his early musical development around lengthy funky jams and the overt sexuality that would become his trademark. Throughout the 80s Prince dominated the music scene, producing numerous albums including “1999”, “Purple Rain” and “Sign O’ the Times”. The early 90s saw Prince become “Symbol” or “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, response to a very public dispute with Warner Bros., and arguably disappearing up that small but perfectly formed arse in the process. Despite this it is impossible to deny that throughout his long and prolific career he has, both through his own output and his wide-ranging work with others, worked resolutely to keep the funk alive.
Purple Rain (1984)
Quantic Soul Orchestra
Contemporary funk outfit Quantic Soul Orchestra, have recently released their second album “Pushin’ On” on the Tru-Thoughts label. Having already produced two albums of jazzy grooves under the title of Quantic, founding father Will Holland chose live funk instrumentals to be his next project. Strictly no samples.
Pushin’ On (2005)
The band that launched Chaka Khan with a fusion of funk and rock ‘n’ roll, their hits included “You Got the Love” and “Ain’t Nobody”.
Rags to Riches (1974)
Along with James Brown and George Clinton, Sly Stone is one of the most influential figures in the history of funk music. Stone was already established as a successful writer and producer by the time Sly & the Family Stone released their first album in the late 60s. Over the course of six years the Family Stone recorded a series of ground-breaking albums and singles, including the tracks “(I Want to Take You) Higher, “Everyday People”, “Dance to the Music” and “Family Affair”. Their style was of funk fused with psychedelic rock driven along by the pounding rhythms of Larry Graham’s bass, and often with political undercurrents. Like George Clinton, Stone disapproved of the dividing of music into “black” and “white”, seeking instead to draw on a range of styles. Always a flamboyant and controversial figure, and certainly no stranger to the world of drugs, Stone’s great talent was ultimately to ebb away following his period of great success and innovation. The Family Stone effectively disbanded in the mid-70s, after which Sly Stone never really recaptured the same level of creativity. He was subsequently to be seen with George Clinton’s P-Funk collective, but ultimately simply faded into obscurity as his personal demons got the better of his considerable talents.
There’s A Riot Going On (1971)
Tower of Power
With an ever changing line-up, Tower of Power were producing funk jams throughout the 70s and beyond. Their horn section meanwhile appeared on recordings by everyone from Santana to Graham Central Station, Rufus and Elton John.
Live and Living in Colour (1976)
The Undisputed Truth
The Undisputed Truth tried to take Motown into a rather more theatrical and funky direction than they had previously been know for. Their early albums were politically charged and featured the original version of “Papa was a Rolling Stone” (made famous soon after by The Temptations), before later reverting to a more disco influenced dance-floor anthems like Funkdub favourite “You + Me = Love”.
Face to Face with (1972)
Sister label to legendary soul company Stax and responsible for the discovery of Booker T. & the MGs. Stax/ Volt records laid many of the foundations for the future of funk with artists such as Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes, and the release of the soundtrack to the first Blaxploitation film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”.
Charles Wright & the 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Most famous for their killer hit “Express Yourself”, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Rhythm Band achieved relatively short-lived success with series of albums in the late 60s and early 70s.
In the Jungle, Babe (1969)
Express Yourself (1970)
The Blaxploitation films of the 70s typically depicted black urban culture in varying levels of gritty realism, with funk driven soundtracks playing a fundamental part. Unable to get the backing of any studio, Mario Van Peebles financed the making of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” himself. The film, which depicted black culture from a black perspective, was aimed at a black audience and unexpectedly became a massive hit. Suddenly the Hollywood studios realised that black movies could have a massive audience and opened the door for dozens of blaxploitation films to be made.
Top Blaxploitation Films/ Soundtracks:
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song [Earth, Wind & Fire] (1971)
Shaft [Isaac Hayes] (1971)
Superfly [Curtis Mayfield] (1972)
Black Caesar [James Brown] (1973)
Coffy [Roy Ayers] (1973)
Yarborough & Peoples
One hit wonders Yarborough & Peoples came together via The Gap Band and scored chart success with “Don’t Stop the Music” in 1980.
Zapp, formed by the four Troutman brothers and backed by George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, scored their first hit in 1980 with techno-funk number “More Bounce to the Ounce”. Roger Troutman followed this with his highly acclaimed solo album “The Many Facets of Roger”. He recorded variously with Zapp and as a solo artist before working with hip-hop stars 2-Pac and Dr Dre on “California Love”, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Keith Sweat. Shockingly Roger was shot dead by his brother and former band-mate, Larry, before he turned the gun on himself.
This article was originally written for Funkdub by DJ Shikubu back in 2006 – does it stand the test of time? Have your say below…