Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Funk


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We'd like to dedicate this week's column to anyone whose perception of funk music has hereunto been limited to Wild Cherry's generic but annoyingly enduring hit "Play that Funky Music."

Imagine a different East Bay era. The A's were winning championships, Oakland was nicknamed "Bump City" and funk reigned supreme. The undisputed kings of soul in Alameda County were Tower of Power, a 10-man band that ruled the Hayward Fault with saxophone instead of sword. Tower of Power laid down funky jives about keeping "Your Monster on a Leash" and practicing a "Yin Yang Thang."

But the Bay Area was not soully the province of Tower Power. On the other side of the Oakland Ocean were Sly & the Family Stone. These men and women wrote boogies that shook both ass and ear. The 1969 album Stand! is one of the most sampled recordings in history, having been used by Dr. Dre, Wu Tang Clan and a mob of others.

Yet the most important name in funk is one with which you're most likely unfamiliar. That name is George Clinton, and as leader of two of the 1970s' funkiest bands, Parliament and Funkadelic (they shared many of the same members and often toured together as Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk for short), he's responsible for more loose booties and sweaty afros than anyone in history. We can attest to the liberating effect the man can have on one's hips, having seen the most psychedelic 67-year-old on the planet lead a five-hour-long show at the Fillmore a couple years ago. Unfortunately, he was not accompanied by the giant aluminum spaceship from which he and his bandmates-usually festooned with outrageously interstellar costumes-would emerge onstage during the "Mothership Connection" tour of the mid-'70s.

The sense of humor exhibited by Sir George and his colorfully-clad comrades is something refreshing in light of the sober attitude with which today's music is often treated. Their sly insertion of the word "funk" into almost any phrase or lyric made for some world-class punnery and the creation of one of the most versatile words in the English language. These include "getting funked up," "funk the dumb stuff" and of course the name of our favorite musical villain, Dr. Funkenstein, a coked-out Dr. Strangelove who dropped basslines instead of bombs. No one put the fun in funk as ardently as Parliament and their contemporaries did, which in some cases undermined the validity of their musical contributions. Besides being an uncannily catchy songwriter, Sly Stone was the first popular musician to use a drum machine-a piece of technology responsible for just about every drumbeat you've ever heard on a hip-hop record. Modern bassists owe their instrument's prominent sound, and in some cases (ahem, Flea) their flamboyant personalities and penchant for sporting underwear onstage to the funktastic pioneers of the '70s like Sly's Larry Graham and P-Funk's Bootsy Collins. Their rubbery basslines were the wheels that drove the original yellow bus and inspired its generation to go dumb with a little more style.

For once we'd like to walk into a party where funky soul jams are playing instead of the rap joints that owe so much to them. Until then, we'll leave you with a message from the godfathers of funk themselves, a Funkadelic album title that encapsulates attitude of the ardent funkaholics. A kind of manifunksto, if you will: "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

Pick your 'fro with Derek and Nick at [email protected]

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