Welcome back to the second installment of Dr. Funkendan’s Prescription Pad, and I’m gonna start this one off with an apology: I’m sorry about the lack of funk in last week’s inaugural column. I had a few feels about 2012 that I had to get off my chest before they got stale, but we got through it. Let’s breathe. No no, TOGETHER. Okay. Deep breath. Okay.
An editor of mine recently asked me what type of music I enjoyed listening to, at which point I immediately blurted out “FUNK” before going on to list a number of other vague genres and artists. He responded dismissively, something along the lines of “I like funk music too, I just don’t see anything new happening in the genre these days.” This statement simultaneously gave me a splitting migraine and a short-lived yet serious identity crisis that took me a few days to rescue myself from. It’s not that his statement was necessarily jarring in and of itself to a self-described doctor of the funk, but that I didn’t have an immediate response. I was, for a moment, stuck.
There are a few different ways to approach the notion that he raised, and we’ll tackle them here over the next few weeks (unless I decide to wander down a yellow brick tangent road for a week or two), but I think before we delve into new vs. old, stagnation vs. evolution, and the merits of the current funk movement, I think it’s necessary to lay down a singular, simpler definition of what the funk actually is, and debunk a few myths and misconceptions along the way. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:
The Funk Manifesto.
In this country, “pop” music has always been a shifting paradigm, whether it be the rock and roll in the late fifties and early sixties, the blues-based British rock that emerged in the mid-to late sixties, disco in the late seventies, hair metal in the eighties, soft rock in the nineties, or the current electro-pop that dominates the airwaves today. Funk music slotted in with its heyday in the early to mid 1970s, when people like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton were spinning their funky webs all over the masses.
Yet even during the time when funk was the popular music of the people, there was a widespread misunderstanding as to what it was. In 1971, for instance, Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti opened his review of Funkadelic’s masterpiece Maggot Brain by asking “Who needs this shit?” and ending with the idea that “funk for funk’s sake is merely garbage,” managing to marginalize one of the greatest funk albums of all time and simultaneously completely miss the point. Funk, in actuality, does not exist for ANYone’s sake. It exists because it is a pure emotion inside all of us that, one way or another, needs to be expressed. Ever heard the phrase “everybody’s got the blues”? Everyone’s got the funk inside them too; it’s all about how you let it out.
I would argue that there are very few types of music that exist as pure, unadulterated emotion: blues music being the standard-bearer as a simple form that exists as a method for unleashing the soul. The beautiful thing about the blues is that it doesn’t tell that soul how to feel, it just gives it a framework for how to express that emotion, whether positive or negative, boisterous or miserable.
Funk music flips that on its head. In the funk, there is no set framework, no 12-bar variations or permutations to navigate. There are no rules. It necessarily exists outside of all conventions, because to capture the true spirit of what funk is, you necessarily have to leave all of that behind. It is a genre where the only requirement is that you must surrender to the feel of the music.
You see, the biggest problem I have with the notion that “there is nothing new happening in funk music” is that funk music – like blues – was NEVER new, in the sense that it isn’t a musical genre so much as an instance of feeling, so much as it is an expressed state of being in a particular moment, so much as it is a jolt of electricity that surges through you in a way that is unique to human physiology. It’s not all Sly-slapped bass runs, the tight, flying horns of the JB’s, the pockets of infinitesimal Prince-ly silence when you least expected them, or the mythical party raging in George Clinton’s mind. It’s not just the synthesizer whining over “Funky Worm,” the traditional marches of a Rebirthed second line, or the ocean waves swelling from Bernie Worrell’s keys. It’s not the current (and fresh) funkification of Lettuce, Galactic, Sharon Jones, Trombone Shorty, Soulive, Sophistafunk, Mokaad, or, really, anyone else. It is not just one of any of those, because it can and is all of those. What the funk is, is the feeling that courses through and out of your soul when the perfect sound grabs you and doesn’t let you go, shakes you around like a rag doll because it sticks to you, like gorilla glue that won’t come off until you stop thinking about it so much. It’s almost indefinable, a feeling of complete supplication before the groove.
Funk for funk’s sake is not garbage. Funk exists only for funk’s sake, and exists because it must. And to answer the question of “who needs this shit?”
We all do.