Funk Soul Brothers by Jonny Steiner

Posted: April 13, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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They always hated the label Funk Metal, yet here they were, one of the founding members of the form. I hope the irony of dedicating an entire column to a sub-genre a scant week after saying that sub-genres were meaningless is not lost on you dear readers, but I digress. Faith No More hated the term because they felt it pushed them into a corner when they were trying so hard to do so much more. It even sounds obscure – Funk and Metal. The two styles seem so diametrically opposed that the term itself seems to be an oxymoron. Let’s examine the terms at their face value. Funk implies groove, soul and good feelings; Metal implies rage, pain, and speed. The truth is that as we will discover, the two are not as different as you think. But before I can tell you about all of that we have to have a history lesson.

Funk is a style of music that was born in the late 60s and early 70s as a development from R&B. By focusing on complex rhythms and primarily bass driven sounds, early artists in the form were able to make R&B sound more raw than ever. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, a man who collected nicknames like fake tattoos from a bag of potato chips, was actually The Godfather of Funk. With such classic recordings as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine)” James was able to showcase his airtight rhythm section and wail over songs where the melody was less important than the groove. The next founding member of the form, Sly Stone (of Sly and the Family Stone) was able to build on James Brown’s sparse raw sound to create more lush soundscapes, still heavily bass driven but now with a touch of psychedelia that made the music more radio friendly. On a side note, with men, women and black and white musicians, Sly & the Family Stone was the first fully integrated band in Rock history. George Clinton, the man probably most responsible for making Funk popular, took Sly’s psychedelic influences to their fullest and made the music the ultimate party soundtrack. This is not to say that the music lacks real creative weight.

Thematically, Parliament/Funkadelic’s long time bass player Bootsy Collins is a legend in his own right. Along with Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, Bootsy is credited with the invention of the slapping and popping method of playing bass. Instead of plucking strings, the thumb and index fingers aggressively thump on the strings, creating a popping sound. A great example of this is on the song “Thank you for Talkin’ to me Africa” by Sly and the Family Stone.

So, everyone was having a great time, the music was selling well and charting on Billboard’s top lists. What happened? The decline of the Funk era came in several stages. To begin with, the highly reviled Disco era owed much of its influences to Funk. When Punk took over in the early 80’s and Disco burnings were held in stadiums, Funk suffered the ire of the record buying community. The second stage was the development of equipment in the 80s. Synthesizers were taking over the roles of entire horn sections, and drummers were fired to make way for the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The slick overproduced sound of 80s Pop and R&B owed much to the earlier Funk days, but not in a way that its influences could be easily recognized. They are there though. Take Bandy’s 1994 hit “Wanna Be Down” – the pounding bass is there though the Rap beat disguises it.

Down but not out, Funk received two helping hands that brought its’ influence back from obscurity. In the mid-80s a black guitar player by the name Vernon Reid formed the band Living Colour, who had the noticeable distinction of being an all African-American band in a Heavy Metal world. While the Metal world at large was playing with demons and hot-chicks, Living Colour was injecting a serious dose of soul and rhythm. Popular almost at once, their style of Hard Rock built over a solid foundation of Funk was an extremely new sound. Similarly, when The Red Hot Chili Peppers formed, the partnership between Hillel Slovak’s Funky grooves and Flea’s popping bass at Punk speeds was dynamic. Hard Rock had another band that was championing their Funk influences.

Another movement that fully embraced their Funk predecessors (almost to a fault) was the G-Funk era of West Coast Rap in the 90s. Almost every song that was a hit in those days was lifted from Parliament, Stevie Wonder and others. Some examples: Dr. Dre – “Let me Ride” (Parliament – “Mothership Connection”), Warren G – “Regulators” (Michael Macdonald – “I Keep Forgettin”), Tupac – “Staring at the World” (Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight”). Led largely by Dr. Dre and the Death Row Records family, G-Funk partnered violent hedonistic lyrics with smooth laid back beats. Interestingly, Rap used Funk in order to make hard lyrics seem more laid back. Rock and Metal used the style in order to add a smoother dimension to their music.

Once Faith No More came onto the scene in the late 80s, the form was ripe for the picking and this they did with great adeptness. They were able to combine an appreciation for earlier Funk with an understanding of 70s Soul music, and incorporate all of that into their vision for Heavy Metal. The problems came after the band’s demise in the late 90s. Mike Patton, the lead singer, had tried to distance himself from the legions of Funk-Metal followers that came onto the scene. From Korn to Limp Bizkit and P.O.D., almost every Heavy Metal act in the post-Grunge era flirted with Funk as an influence. Part of the reason is Funk’s ability to be hard and uncompromising while remaining easily digested by the masses. It is this link that best ties it to Heavy Metal. When a Metal act is looking to add melody without sacrificing the sheer weight of their sonic force, they need look no further than Funk. Fieldy, the Bass player for Korn, seems to understand this best and his super detuned Funk basslines drive Korn’s aggressive approach without sacrificing intensity.

It is upsetting that all these bands influenced by Faith No More are denied respect from their heroes. Like Dr. Frankenstein refusing to take responsibility for his monster, Mike Patton has moved on to different projects in other realms of the musical sphere. It is not his dislike of the genre, rather his fear of being typecast has driven him to branch out into such diverse genres.

With the death of Disco, Funk had lost almost all of its credibility. It took visionaries from the opposite ends of the spectrum to return it to glory. The tradition we remember so gloriously today owes almost all of its revival to, of all things, Heavy Metal. At the same time Funk can blame its’ death on Punk. I think that there is a column in there somewhere.

What I am listening to: Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Texas Flood

Bringing the Blues back from the brink of destruction, SRV’s debut shines with the influences of his heroes while paving new ground. The set is a high energy burst of Texas Blues in the image of Lightning Hopkins. From the tone of his guitar to the killer licks of “Rude Mood” and “Testify,” the album is a classic.

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