Funk in the 80s | Features | MN2S

Funk was born in the 60s and perfected in the 70s, but some of its best music was created in the 1980s, much of it by MN2S artists like Chaka Khan, Fatback Band, George Clinton and Kool and the Gang. We take a look at the genre in this great decade.

As we explored in our History of Funk feature, the genre’s origins go way back, drawing on African polyrhythms, New Orleans jazz and a variety of other sources. But the genre as we know it was condensed and perfected in the 1960s by one man: James Brown.

Although Brown continued to record and perform great music in the 70s and 80s, he was no longer funk’s leading artist.

One Nation Under a Groove

Brown was usurped from the funk throne by George Clinton, who took the genre to new heights with his exuberant productions in the studio and on the stage with his bands Parliament and Funkadelic. Though P-Funk as a movement would never end, the original two bands were dormant in the 80s. Funkdelic’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies was released in 1980, but for the rest of the decade, the solo careers of the main players took priority.

George Clinton released his first solo album in 1982. Computer Games, though involving many original P-Funk members, was far removed from the group’s 1970s work. With barely any guitars and an emphasis on drum-machine rhythms, Computer Games is representative of the new direction funk had taken at the turn of the decade, and of the more minimalist, electronic style that would dominate 80s dance floors. As rock and pop artists picked up synths to make New Wave, funk artists picked up these electronic instruments and completely remade the genre.

Though Clinton’s Computer Games was popular and well-received, it was another P-Funk affiliated group that really kick-started funk’s electro era. Zapp, featuring vocoder maestro Roger Troutman, released their debut album in 1980 and it took the US R&B Charts by storm.

It was clear that the huge bands with multiple guitarists, drummers and horn sections of the 70s had given way to a newer electro-funk that would define the 80s. But although George Clinton and Zapp were successful with an R&B-loving audience, and their music has had immeasurable influence, it was other artists that took 80s funk into the mainstream.

Funk in the Mainstream

Since its inception, funk had been popular on the US R&B Charts. James Brown had had mainstream chart success, but it wasn’t until 80s that the genre became a mainstay on the Billboard Hot 100. One artist who successfully took funk into the mainstream was Chaka Khan.

Khan had built a hugely successful career as the singer in the band Rufus. Usually billed as ‘Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’, the group’s band-based R&B/funk was typical of the 1970s, if often exceptional for its quality. In the early 80s, Rufus (now named ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’) released the single ‘Ain’t Nobody’. The song was a departure from the band’s usual instrumentation, as made clear by its inclusion as a studio bonus track on the horn-filled live album Live at the Savoy.

‘Ain’t Nobody’ was filled with pop hooks, but it was based around an undeniably funky core. It reached number 22 on the Billboard Chart. Khan’s biggest mainstream success would be with her next release: the solo single ‘I Feel For You’. The song reached number one on the UK Chart, and number three on the Billboard Chart, where it remained for 26 weeks. When the song won a Grammy in 1985, the award was given not to Chaka, but to another artist: the track’s writer, Prince.

Prince was an artist who worked in all kinds of genres, but funk was always his foundation. 1982’s 1999 became one of the first funk albums to dominate the mainstream charts, and later funk hits like ‘Kiss’ became some of the most popular funk songs of all time. Prince famously played a huge range of instruments. And though he was an outstanding drummer and guitarist, his music is full of groundbreaking experimentation with drum machines and synthesizers.

Other artists of the time taking electronic funk into the mainstream include Motown’s Rick James, and of course Fatback Band and Kool and the Gang, now MN2S artists. Fatback Band changed its name to simply Fatback, and released synth-based classics like ‘Gotta Get My Hands on Some (Money)’.

Kool and the Gang’s 80s output needs no introduction. As one of the 70s tightest instrumental funk outfits, Kool and the Gang transitioned smoothly into the 80s, transforming into the hit machine behind ‘Fresh’, ‘Get Down on It’, ‘Celebration’ and ‘Ladies Night’. Unlike many of their peers, the Gang never completely replaced their horn section, instead they mixed horns, synths and hooks to make some of the decade’s biggest hits.

We may always view the 1970s as funk’s heyday, but with the arrival of electronic instruments, many of the most popular funk tracks were scaling the mainstream charts in the 1980s.

To see some 80s funk legends in action, book Chaka Khan, Kool and the Gang, George Clinton or Fatback Band now.

Header image is Prince by Yves Lorson from Kapellen, Belgium, under CC BY 2.0.

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