By: Gabrielle Brim
Funk music was developed during the late 1960s by jazz and rhythm and blues musicians. Most of its musical elements were derived from the innovations of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. The rhythmic foundation of funk music, known as “The One” was obtained from James Brown’s song, “Papa’s Got a New Bag.” “The One” allowed beat one in a measure to be played by the bass drum and bass guitar. This new development in rhythm established the foundation for the various polyrhythmic riffs that were played by the horns, drums, bass, etc. On the other hand, Sly and the Family Stone created a funk style that used technology from rock music, such as the fuzz box and vocal distorter, and included a blues-rock guitar style. In addition, one of the musicians in the band, Larry Graham, changed the bass guitar into a percussive instrument by pulling, thumping, plucking, and slapping the strings.
Not only did Brown and Sly and the Family Stone contribute to the sound of funk but also its message. The content of their music contained themes for social and political change that challenged the existing circumstances within society and politics. In fact, Brown was inspired by the Black Power Movement and created songs like, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself),” that represented black pride and empowerment. Conversely, Sly Stone wrote songs based on the themes of universal love and harmony, and world peace. He also addressed society’s racial views in songs like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.” The musical styles of both Brown and Sly and the Family Stone were significant in the development of funk music.
Elements of Funk
Within funk music, the rhythm is placed above the melody. The syncopated and repetitive rhythms on the bass and drum, known as the groove, provides the foundation to the sound of funk music. The groove contains a heavy downbeat on the first beat, called “The One”, and an accented snare drum beat on the second and fourth beat. There is limited harmonic progressions within funk, which are often centered on one or two chords. In addition, group singing is more prominent than lead vocals. Furthermore, the horn arrangements from rhythm and blues music was incorporated in the sound of funk as well as the solos from jazz, the guitar timbres of rock-and-roll, and the vocal style of soul. Funk music also has ballads that have a slow or moderate tempo. As time progressed, funk musicians began to incorporate innovative technology, such as synthesizers, to give the music a new texture.
The content of funk consisted of party themes, social and political commentary, love, and relationships. It was derived from the experiences within the poor and working-class communities of African Americans. As a result, the lyrics also contained commentary about urban life, deindustrialization, and the impact of economic changes on African American communities. In addition, funk artists wrote music to encourage African Americans after two recessions that occurred during 1973-75 and 1980-82. This recession increased poverty within cities due to deindustrialization and fiscal conservatism. Additionally, opportunities for Blacks to advance economically and in the workplace were limited. In response to these socioeconomic conditions, funk musicians used their music to bring African Americans together to celebrate life and to be joyful despite their situations.
Some notable funk artists include Kool & the Gang and Parliament Funkadelic. Kool & the Gang were known to be one of the earliest funk bands from New Jersey. Some of their songs include “Get Down on It”, “Jungle Boogie”, and “Celebration”. Additionally, Parliament Funkadelic was known for their unique style, called P-funk, that was created by the band’s founder George Clinton. Their music supported Black-self determination and liberation. Some songs by Parliament Funkadelic include “Flash Light”, “One Nation Under a Groove”, and “Chocolate City”.
Commodification of Funk
In the 1980s, record companies were dominating the production and marketing of Black music in efforts to expand its consumers. However, companies mandated Black funk groups to produce a sound that was more pop-oriented and standard. As a result, crossover formulas emerged and became common. In addition, horns were eliminated from funk groups for economic and creative reasons. Record labels reduced production budgets and their support for national tours. In addition, record labels limited the broadening of the consumer base for black music. As a result, funk’s audiences remained primarily African American.
While funk began to disappear in the mid-1980s, hip-hop DJ’s began to sample heavy funk beats, bass lines, guitar, horn riffs, and sung phrases. Using these samples, DJs began to develop hip-hop and rap styles. In addition, funk musicians featured in songs of rap artists, such as Roger’s collaboration with Tupac and Dr. Dre in “California Love”. Also funk influenced hip-hop to adopt their own vocabulary and use of humor for delivering knowledge.
Funk music has unique style that allows you to sit back and enjoy life. It is one of the most creative genres that celebrates Black creativity and culture. It was one of my favorite genres of music because it allows me to forget about the challenges and burdens of life. In addition, it allows me to celebrate the good and valuable things in life, such as love, freedom, and my friends and family.