Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
Season 5: Episode 1:What Makes Funk, Funk?
We’ve got the beats:
- I mentioned the backbeat in the What Makes Rock & Roll, Rock & Roll? article. A backbeat is when the emphasis is on the second and fourth beats of each measure.
You know it from Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Beatles:
- The What Makes Ska, Ska? article went over putting the accent on the offbeats, meaning on the “ands” between the beats.
You’ll hear this in rocksteady & reggae, too:
- And in the What Makes Disco, Disco? article, I talked about the “four on the floor” beat, with a heavy bass drum on each of the four notes.
We know it from every disco song, ever:
Now, what happens if you put the main emphasis on only the first beat?
You get funk.
One man is responsible for this rhythmic change.
You know him as the “Godfather of Soul” and “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business.”
But he’s also the Creator of Funk.
James Brown was already a star.
He had joined the Famous Flames in 1953 as the drummer, but soon became the lead singer.
Bobby Byrd, who led the group, recognized that Brown was going places and figured giving Brown center stage was better than letting him leave to start his own group.
Byrd didn’t want the competition.
Despite the success of their singles “Please Please Please” and “Try Me,” all the original members left the group, except for Byrd. Brown put a new band together and rehearsed them to perfection. And if they played a bad note or danced out of sync or showed up late, he docked their pay.
So, they got very good.
He knew what he wanted. He taught the band to play his new songs by standing in front of each member singing their part until the player learned it. He began treating every instrument like a drum. Funk is all about the rhythm, whether it’s a scratchy guitar part, or a percolating horn section, or the drums themselves.
Brown said the first funk song was 1964’s “Out Of Sight.”
That’s when he started thinking about using every instrument as a rhythm instrument.
It’s not the funk of his later songs “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” or “Cold Sweat.”
But it where the rhythm’s emphasis started to shift to the “1.”
Sure, stuff happens on the other beats, but the “1” is always accented. This comes straight from African music.
Now, Africa is a big place, and we shouldn’t lump all its music together.
But you’ll find the “1” stressed in juju music from Nigeria, soukous from the Democratic Republic of Congo, highlife from Ghana, and many other styles.
Whether Brown explicitly knew this or not doesn’t really matter, but he got the idea somewhere.
It’s part of funk’s “unapologetic blackness,” as historian Kevin Powell called it. Funk is intertwined with race and the lingering effects of history on black people. The civil rights movement of the 60s certainly plays a role.
The only black people on the charts at the time played inoffensive, genteel music. Berry Gordy, head of Motown Records, saw to it that all their releases could be sold to the largest audience possible.
That naturally included white people, so Motown songs were about love and other universal emotions, and their performers were elegant, sophisticated, and dignified.
All their urban or rural edges were polished off.
James Brown’s funk, however, was directed towards a mostly black audience. He used hip slang, and that infectious funk groove. Some of his songs, and many funk songs to come, stay on the same chord through the entire song, because funk is about the beat. Chord changes are optional.
That’s not to take anything away from 1970s white funk acts like Wild Cherry and The Average White Band. In the 60s, however, Sly Stone put together a band of blacks and whites and men and women called The Family Stone.
America wasn’t used to seeing integrated groups on TV. It was disconcerting for a lot of people then, though we’d think nothing of it today.
Sly & The Family Stone’s songs could be smooth like Motown, but mixed in a little psychedelia and had that funky rhythm. A big part of their sound was Larry Graham’s bass guitar playing. He invented a technique that we now call slapping and popping. As a child, he had played in his mother’s band. When she fired the drummer, apparently to save money, young Graham had to play in a way that implied drums.
He did this by slapping the strings with the side of his thumb to imitate the bass drum. This usually happens on the 1.
Then he imitated the snare drum by pulling a higher string away from the bass’s body and letting go.
That created the popping sound.
A little slapping and popping goes a long way. But when used judiciously, it’s doggone funky. It’s a prominent part of Sly And The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
Like James Brown, George Clinton started in a different genre.
He created a doo wop band in the 1950s called The Parliaments. Due to contractual problems, he lost the rights to The Parliaments’ name, so he brought the backing band to the front of the stage and they performed as Funkadelic.
When he regained the rights to “The Parliaments,” the same group of musicians now had two names and were signed to different labels.
It became more of a collective than a band, and there were multiple spin-offs with different members taking the lead role. Some albums were released under one musician’s name, like a solo record, but they were by all the same players.
Later, they would tour as Parliament/Funkadelic. Everyone called them P-Funk.
Where James Brown would fine his musicians for playing a note out of place, George Clinton gave P-Funk players all the freedom in the world.
Not only could they write and/or improvise their own parts, they could wear whatever they wanted. Their outfits got wild. There were no rules.
Except to make it funky.
Clinton and team developed a mythology around the band’s origin. They thought it important to show black people in nontraditional roles, such as being astronauts. As Clinton put it, “And nobody had seen ’em on no spaceships!” So P-Funk concerts of the 70s included a spaceship that flew over the audience and landed on the stage. From its door, Dr. Funkenstein would emerge.
It’s more than I can go into here. But the point was to show that black people can be, and do anything.
Funk was black music for black people.
Simultaneously, Hollywood was releasing films directed at a black audience. A genre called “blaxploitation” included movies like Shaft, Superfly, and Cleopatra Jones.
There was even a subgenre of blaxploitation horror movies.
The accompanying soundtrack albums included a lot of funk music.
Following the Civil War, many free blacks moved north for factory jobs. A lot of those jobs are gone now, so we call that area the Rust Belt, primarily Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Though James Brown was from South Carolina, Sly Stone from California, and George Clinton from New Jersey:
The epicenter of 1970s funk was Dayton, Ohio.
More charting funk artists came from Dayton than any other city. It was home to bands like Ohio Players, Slave, Sun, Zapp, Heatwave, Faze-O, and Lakeside.
Lakeside was named after Lakeside Amusement Park, and the roller coaster there inspired Ohio Players’ song “Love Rollercoaster.”
There’s an urban legend that it includes the scream of a woman being murdered outside the studio, but drummer Jimmy “Diamond” Williams said it’s just singer Billy Beck doing “one of those inhaling-type screeches like Minnie Riperton.”
No one’s sure how the rumor started but it spread nationwide when Casey Kasem repeated it on his syndicated American Top 40 radio show. Williams said, “The band took a vow of silence, because you sell more records that way.”
Not only did the Ohio Players remember their roots, they never relocated.
They stayed in Dayton and became mentors to high school age musicians there.
Likewise, Zapp started the Troutman Institute, named after the four brothers in the band. The institute buys and renovates low income properties in and around Dayton and offers low interest loans so people can buy their own homes.
Perhaps the most astounding thing a funk musician ever did for a city happened in Boston.
Boston was a segregated city. The Irish stayed away from the Italians, the rich stayed away from the poor, and the blacks had the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods. It was still that way when I lived there in the late 70s. Maybe any of you familiar with the area now can let me know if it’s any more integrated now.
On April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out that night in cities all over the country, including in those black sections of Boston.
James Brown was booked to play at the Boston Garden the following night. But city officials worried that it would bring the riots into the downtown area. The police wanted the show to be canceled, but Mayor Kevin White knew that canceling or even postponing the concert would be seen as racist. That could make things even worse.
One of White’s assistants, a young black man named Tom Atkins, came up with the idea of broadcasting the concert for free so people would stay home to watch it there.
Brown didn’t like the idea because he thought people would indeed stay home, after returning and getting refunds for their tickets. He was going to lose money. And that was before they told him that it wasn’t just going to be on WGBH radio, but on WGBH television, too. He was very angry when he found out.
Brown and his manager said they were going to lose $60,000. The city told him they could come up with $10,000. Given the circumstances, they finally promised they’d find the rest somehow.
WGBH is the Public Broadcasting System station in Boston.
They were used to airing classical concerts and operas.
With no experience with louder, more varied instruments – and very little notice – they did their best to set up their equipment, hoping the sensitive microphones wouldn’t be destroyed by the volume.
The only hitch in the show was a tense moment when young black men from the audience started climbing on to the stage. The mostly white police were ready for violence and approached them, but Brown asked them to step back. They did.
Then he asked the crowd to get down off the stage. They didn’t.
So he schooled them.
“We are black!,” he told them. “Don’t make us all look bad! Let me finish the show. You make me look very bad because I asked the police to step back and you went and you wouldn’t go down. Now that’s wrong, that’s wrong. You’re not being fair to yourselves and me neither. Or your race. Now I ask the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. It don’t make sense. Now are we together, or are we ain’t?”
The few people remaining on the stage got off. WGBH immediately repeated the concert. It was close to midnight by the time the second airing finished. Even protesters need their sleep.
There were no riots.
Technically and politically, the show and the broadcast were a success. More than a hundred other cities burned that night. There were riots and looting and 40 deaths. 20,000 people were arrested.
Boston was saved by an artist.
The event raised Brown’s profile nationwide.
Following the murders of Dr. King and Malcom X, he was as much a spokesman for black people as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and John Lewis.
So he spoke his mind. He fought for civil rights, but he was also bothered by black on black crime.
Like he did on the stage in Boston, he asked black people to respect themselves. He told them to “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).”
Funk was surpassed in popularity by disco, but all those funk records reemerged in hip hop.
One of the most used samples is a few measures of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum break from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”
It’s an appropriately named song. And a reminder:
That we’re one nation under a groove.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Out Of Sight
Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
Sly & The Family Stone
It’s Your Thing
It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who to Sock It To)
Theme From Cleopatra Jones
Up For The Downstroke
Pick Up The Pieces
Average White Band
Play That Funky Music
More Bounce To The Ounce
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