On Funkadelic’s self-titled debut album, the song “What Is Soul” has George Clinton repeatedly inquiring, “What is Soul?!”, the rest of the band responding, “Man, I don’t know!”, and Clinton answering back with lines like, “Soul is a ham hock in your corn flakes”, “Soul is a joint rolled in toilet paper”, “Soul is the ring around your bathtub” and others. The call-and-response comes and goes over nearly eight minutes of slow, heavy rhythm overlaid with jamming from guitar, organ, and what sounds like harmonica. At the end, we get the directive, “Soul is you, baby”.
Clinton shuns a general characterization of soul, offering us instead some humorous and illustrative examples over improvised music. The message: don’t try to define soul; learn from these directions and get into the feel of it for yourself. As with soul, so with funk.
One good way to get into the feel of funk is to consider where it came from. Funk evolved from the innovations of several of the most original artists of the last Century who started out in a variety of other musical genres. James Brown, who began as a soul and R&B singer, developed his singular funky sound from the late 60’s onward by changing the emphasis in rhythm from the down beat (one-Two-three-Four) to the first beat (ONE-two-three-four). Bootsy Collins, bassist in Brown’s JB’s ensemble during the recording of some of his funkiest classics, has testified to how Brown’s phrase “On the One” became an ethos for Brown and his band–an entire approach to their music and performances that went well beyond the change in emphasis.
Brown had a lot of help in fashioning his sound. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, on the trombone and sax, were jazz musicians who contributed not only to Brown’s sound, but also, later, to Parliament-Funkadelic’s and Prince’s. Both did (and continue to do!) things on the horns that no one had heard before (two favorites: here and here).
If nothing else, funk is known for its distinctive bass lines. The bass “slapping” technique, now widely used, was originally developed by Larry Graham, of Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station (well exemplified here). And Bootsy Collins developed a unique “space bass” sound that’s downright putrid.
Before they were Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton’s group sang doo-wop. Hardly believable given that the sound of their first few albums in their guises as Funkadelic and Parliament are basically unclassifiable–an undeniably uncalled for and wholly unholy mixture of psychedelic rock (every bit as heavy as Jimi and Zeppelin), soul, blues, Gil Scott-Heron-ish rap, rhythm and blues, gospel(!), bagpipes(!?), and, well, funk. Truly amazing. Their massive collective would go on to house many preeminent musicians. For now I’ll just mention one who deserves wider recognition, Bernie Worrell. A classically trained child music prodigy, Worrell created an original sound on the keyboards that George Clinton dubbed “The Woo”. A good illustration of his creative genius can be heard on the classic P-Funk track, Flashlight, where his keys do the work normally assigned to the bass. There’s a short documentary on him, worth checking out, in which musical legends of the past few decades, from across genres, express their awe and belief that history will treat Worrell as a genius unappreciated by his time.
Another musical prodigy who sang in a doo-wop group but also worked as a DJ and record producer (in the Bay area) prior to his funk-formation is the incomparable Sly Stone. He’ll get his own post at some point, but there is little that sounds more original and un-reproduceable to me in popular music than much of the music of Sly and the Family Stone. The intros to several of his songs I think give a good taste for his creativity (e.g., this and this). Miles Davis reportedly made his band listen to “In Time” over and over for hours to learn from Sly’s sound.
There are other important innovators I haven’t mentioned. And there are other ways of getting a feel for funk. Here I’ve focused on the confluence of tremendous creative energy present at its origins. It seems to come from all angles–in each instrument and in their combinations, song writing, new ways of using the human voice, lyrics, live performance, dance moves, album artwork, song titles, and more. The new styles are pursued with a kind of easy going abandon and go-for-broke energy that is as rare as it is a pleasure to behold.
I must recognize, of course, that any new thing that catches on will of course be accompanied by bursts of creativity. Well, perhaps that just means that all creative things are spiked with a little bit o’ funk. In fact, I think the P-Funk crew actually acknowledges and embraces the universality of funk that accepting this suggests. According to the P-funk mythology that stretches over several concept albums, “the funk” is an intergalactic, life-giving force that has been brought to Earth by funky aliens and has curative powers–both physical and spiritual. Bootsy Collins has been known to say that funk is just “making something from nothing”. And George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, and Bootsy Collins have collaborated with musicians from all over the map since their heyday–Buckethead, Primal Scream, Talking Heads, Prince, Deee-lite, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Outkast, Gov’t Mule, Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, and William Shatner(!?) for starters.
Funk influenced and continues to influence musicians in many genres: jazz, disco, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, house, go-go, drum ‘n’ bass, acid jazz, etc. Sadly, as a genre in its own right, it no longer commands the kind of following that many of the genres that owe so much to funk do. Which is not to say there aren’t some great funk bands around today which deserve bigger followings (more on that in later posts). Still, I do think there was a unique burst of creativity in the heyday of funk that is extremely difficult to follow up on. And the highly unconventional and often unstructured song formats are more difficult to base a growing tradition on than, say, most of rock n’ roll or some funk-influenced genres with more traditional song structures.
So where did all that creative funk come from? George Clinton gave as good an answer as any when asked where he got all his funk from. He replied that he was born in an outhouse.