Since MN2S represents countless great live acts from funk’s earliest days, and several DJs with formidably funky record collections, we take a look at the origins of one of music’s greatest genres.
Funk was born from the influence of many genres: jazz, R&B, soul, and African grooves. It existed in an early form in New Orleans since the mid-1900s. Over the decades it has influenced jazz, R&B and soul music in return, and it gave birth to the entire genre of hip-hop. But despite its multiple points of origin, funk is often traced back to the work of one man.
The Godfather of Funk
From the early 1950s, James Brown had a successful career as a soul singer, with hits like ‘Think’ and ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ electrifying audiences around the USA. It was his rigorous focus on live performance that led to his development of what became known as funk in the mid to late 1960s.
A notoriously hard-nosed bandleader, Brown would make his band play sections of songs over and over again until they were flawless. In rehearsals and in onstage introductions, Brown would have his band vamp (play a riff around one chord) until he signalled the start of the next song. In 1967, Brown put his band’s vamping on wax for the first time.
‘Cold Sweat’ is often cited as the first proper funk song, with its one-chord, bass and drum-focused instrumental now fully divorced from the traditional harmonic structures of R&B. Most importantly, ‘Cold Sweat’ is based entirely around what Brown called ‘The One’ – the first beat of a bar. Bootsy Collins explains all below:
The movement begins
After the success of ‘Cold Sweat’, many other R&B artists began to get funky. Sly & the Family Stone’s singles ‘Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ and ‘Family Affair’ reached number one on the Billboard charts, bringing the genre huge exposure and new fans.
Artists signed to established R&B labels like Motown and Stax began to take their music in a funkier direction, with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes all focusing on the effervescent One and polyrhythmic grooves.
Before Kool & The Gang became the ‘Celebration’ hitmakers, their music was as funky as it gets: a tight instrumental unit with a strong horn section.
As well as making headway in the charts, funk became attached to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Many of the artists stood up for their rights as African Americans, and many songs celebrated Black pride. James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ brought listeners to tears at his concerts, so great was it to see a successful musician celebrate his Black identity. The sound of funk, after all, is “unapologetic Blackness”.
In 1970, James Brown’s band quit over a financial dispute, so he hired a new band which featured William ‘Bootsy’ Collins and Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins. He dubbed this band The J.B.’s, and they played a more pared down, hard-hitting funk than his previous group. But it wouldn’t last. One year later, Bootsy and Catfish quit The J.B.’s to join another funk luminary on his search for the eternal groove: Doctor Funkenstein himself, George Clinton.
The Mothership has landed
Next to James Brown, George Clinton is the principal architect of funk as we know it today. His bands Parliament and Funkadelic (comprised of the same members) pushed funk to its limits, creating the first fully fleshed-out funk albums, and an entire funk mythos based on Clinton’s cosmic fantasies.
Parliament/Funkadelic’s ‘P-Funk’ style added an intergalactic weirdness to the genre, and brought in distorted electric guitars and synthesizers resulting in a complex, experimental sound.
According to modern funk torchbearer D’Angelo, Earth, Wind and Fire vs P-Funk is funk’s Beatles vs Rolling Stones. Where Clinton and co. created music for the funk faithful, Earth, Wind and Fire managed to mould funk into slick chart-topping hits with mainstream appeal. But their music was no less inspirational. EWF brought an Afrocentric philosophy to their funk, with African-inspired interludes and Ancient Egyptian iconography on their records.
One Nation Under a Groove
By now, funk had truly taken off as a genre, and artists like Chaka Khan with her band Rufus, the Fatback Band, and KC and the Sunshine Band tore up stages across the globe. As the 80s came around, funk began to change with the times, but The One remained its key foundation, and that never changed.