Post by Adrianna Highgate and Arianna Swindell
When many think of the 70s, they think of brightly colored clothing and the diverse musical landscape. Within the Black community specifically, the 1970s was a time of inspiration and experimentation across every sector of life. While Black people in America have always been creative, the new exposure due to the increase in technological efficiency helped push Black creatives to the forefront of American society. Black musicians, in particular, continued to break records and make new ones. However, one cannot ignore how the upbeat and energetic dances correlated to the popular music of the 70s helped make the music popular and vice versa. While dance has been a prominent aspect of Black music across all genres, dance was critical to funk and disco because it helped push Black music and style into the mainstream media.
Funk and the Groove
To put plainly, funk defies definition. Funk, the slang term, is typically used to describe something negative or a bad smell. Funk, the music genre, stems from African American musicians characterized by sixteenth-note rhythms, synthesizers, a prominent baseline, and a loud horn section. Funk was all about working towards and establishing a “groove” that allowed the listeners to be in a carefree and creative state. Many cite the James Brown Band for creating funk from a unique blend of soul, gospel, and blues in the mid-1960s (see below). Additionally, musicians like Larry Graham contributed to funk by incorporating the staple “slap bass” technique that many associate with funk today. Because the genre was concurrent with many others and many musicians are included in the genre, funk evolved throughout the 70s and 80s, expanding its boundaries and continuing to defy the definition.
When discussing funk, one cannot ignore the dances that helped characterize the genre. As stated above, funk music was made to “groove” to, and the musicians themselves perpetrated this fact by creating “funky” dances and moving in sporadic ways.
Many state that the name “funk” stems from the dance “funkybutt” and Funky Butt Hall in New Orleans that many prominent musicians and figures in that day attended/played at such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong. Dancing is embedded in the genre. Popular dances included the funky chicken, mashed potato, camel walk, and of course, James Brown.
Disco and its Dances
Dance is integral to the character of disco itself. In fact, the term “disco” was coined to describe the danceable music played by disc jockeys (DJs) at parties. In the 1960s, the disco genre originated in underground clubs – “Discotheques” – that became safe havens for marginalized people to escape race riots, bigotry, and homophobia present in most other spaces. In addition to this, there was a widespread cultural stigma against alternative music genres popular with young people. Although discotheques such as Studio 54 and Paradise Garage emerged for a somewhat niche audience, the release of the film “Saturday Night Fever” made disco’s popularity explode into the mainstream.
Disco’s recognizable features (“four on the floor” beats (created by Earl Young), syncopated electric bass lines, repetitive vocals, etc.) made it the perfect candidate as the soundtrack for a dance movement. Popular dances include The Hustle, The Get Down, The Bump, and the Bus Stop.
Starting in 1971, The Soul Train television program started off by broadcasting local Chicago talent to a small, local audience. However, the program quickly gained national recognition. The show was known for showcasing new advancements in Black media and culture, including dances. The line dance was one of the most iconic segments of the show. In fact, the dancers were so important to the show that Soul Train launched a hit group featuring two of their star dancers in 1977: Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, who were active in Shalamar through the late 1970s and 1980s.
From funkybutt to The Hustle, the dances of the 1970s defined the genres of funk and disco. With the introduction of new forms of Black media, this new era of creation allowed the African American community to experience music and dance together. Funk and disco were created to be a soundtrack for a movement, both social and literal.