Funk: The Groove That Makes You Think

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james-brown-funk

jungle boogie (jungle –oft attrib to Hindi jangal + boogie – prob alter of bogle – goblin, object of fear) a 1974 hit by Kool & the Gang, frequently sampled by hip-hop artists, perhaps the funkiest piece of music ever recorded.

funk (French dialectical funquer – to give off smoke) 1. A type of popular music combining elements of jazz, blues and soul and characterized by syncopated rhythm and a heavy, repetitive bass line. 2. a strong, offensive, unwashed odor.

Funk stroked onto the music scene in the late Sixties, fueled by the rise of the civil rights movement, the growth of African-American consciousness as expressed by writers like Nikki Giovanni and LeRoi Jones, comics like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory, and the growing influence of African-American record labels such as Stax / Volt in Memphis and Philadelphia International. Funk can be understood as a cross-pollination of soul, rock and jazz, with an emphasis on African-American identity and presentation.

Funk, in African-American vernacular, originally meant “a highly identifiable and/or offensive odor” or “smelly.” By the late ‘60s, “funky” grew to represent all sorts of characteristics that were earthy, musty, shady, physical, emotional, sexual, sweaty – diametrically opposed to anything clinical, judgmental, or antiseptic — characteristics often associated with caucasians, the ruling class, or “the man.” By identifying yourself with “funk,” you identify yourself as the “other.” You elevate the status of the underdog and reject a polar mode of thinking, working towards an integration of opposites. Funk music, in its best form, is the integration of both halves of human consciousness – ego and id, heart and loins, black and white – in the words of funkmeister George Clinton, “the groove that makes you think.”

Funk music can be traced back to the days of the jazz offshoot be-bop and its inheritors and to the roots of rock and roll — Louis Jordan, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Robert Johnson, Little Richard – African-American musicians who were not ashamed of themselves, who took chances, challenged the musical mores of their day and became great innovators in the continuum of African-American music.

While James Brown is considered by many to be the first overtly funky artist (many funkologists identify Brown’s 1964 hit “Out of Sight” as the first funk record, others swear by the Isley Brothers’ 1964 release “Testify, Pts. 1 & 2,” featuring searing lead guitar by Jimi Hendrix), other artists were experimenting with the sound that was to be known as funk — the Meters in New Orleans, Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs and Al Green in Memphis, Ike & Tina, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and other artists in cities across America were all feeling the funk — shifting the emphasis from the backbeat of R&B to the heavy downbeat on the first beat of the measure, dropping it “on the one,” and filling the spaces with horns and guitar, while the bass was elevated from solely rhythm to a force of its own. Sly Stone’s integrated Family introduced an unsuspecting nation to funk at Woodstock. Funk “orchestras” soon became the norm: seas of vocalists, walls of horns, guitars and percussion sections, decked out in flashy, fantastic costumes and jamming together in choreographed time-step. Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players and the Commodores made funk the ultimate party music, not just with their bizarre conceptual humor, but their sheer excess — huge ensembles of musicians and dancers, all jamming on the same groove as long as they possibly could, people levitating, huge props flown in from the wings, fireworks and flame-throwers, pure spectacle!

Funk as a genre almost did not survive the 1980′s. Disco was a funk-derived genre, and its rise and the later “disco sucks” backlash created an environment hostile to all sorts of African-American music. The availability and convenience of the synthesizer and the drum machine made large funk bands seem cumbersome and economically obsolete. Artists like Prince, Cameo and Kool and the Gang successfully adapted to the new environment to survive and achieved chart success through the ‘80s and ‘90s as funk paved the way for the next development in African-American music — hip-hop.

– Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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