Funk is an American musical style that originated in the mid- to late-1960s when African American musicians blended soul music, soul jazz and R&B into a rhythmic, danceable new form of music. Funk de-emphasizes melody and harmony, and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground. Unlike R&B and soul songs, which had many chord changes, funk songs are often based on an extended vamp on a single chord.
Like much of African and Latin inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ, and drums playing interlocking rhythms. Funk bands also usually have a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets, and in some cases, a trombone, which plays rhythmic "hits".
Influential African American funk performers include James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters, The Funk Brothers, Bootsy Collins, and Prince. Notable 1970s funk bands included Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Average White Band, The Ohio Players, The Commodores, and Kool & the Gang though many of these most famous bands in the genre also played disco and soul extensively. Funk music was a major influence on the development of 1970s disco music and funk samples are used in most styles of house music and hip hop music, and it's also the main influence of Go-Go. Funk even left its mark on New Wave, and its pulse was evident in post punk as well.
Funk utilized the same extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths. However, unlike bebop jazz, with its dizzying and complex rapid-fire chord changes, funk virtually abandoned chord changes, creating static single chord vamps with little harmonic movement, but with a complex and driving rhythmic feel.
The chords used in funk songs typically imply a dorian or mixolydian mode as opposed to the major or natural minor tonalities of most popular music. Melodic content was derived by mixing these modes with the blues scale. In the 1970s, jazz music drew upon funk to create a new subgenre of jazz-funk, which can be heard in 1970s recordings by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
In funk bands, guitarists typically play in a percussive style, often using the wah-wah sound effect and muting the notes in their riffs to create a percussive sound. Guitarist Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic were influenced by Jimi Hendrix's improvised solos. Eddie Hazel, who worked with George Clinton, is one of the most notable guitar soloists in funk. Ernie Isley was tutored at an early age by Jimi Hendrix himself, when he was a part of The Isley Brothers backing band and lived in the attic temporarily at the Isleys' household. Jimmy Nolen and Phelps Collins are famous funk rhythm guitarists who both worked with James Brown.
The music was slow, sexy, loose, riff-oriented and danceable. Funky typically described these qualities. In jam sessions, musicians would encourage one another to "get down" by telling one another, "Now, put some stank ("stink"/funk) on it!" At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as Buddy Bolden's "Funky Butt." As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, when "funk" and "funky" were used increasingly in the context of soul music, the terms still were considered indelicate and inappropriate for use in polite company. According to one source, New Orleans-born drummer Earl Palmer was the first to use the word "funky" to explain to other musicians that their music should be made more syncopated and danceable.
The distinctive characteristics of African-American musical expression are rooted in West African musical traditions, and find their earliest expression in spirituals, work chants/songs, praise shouts, gospel and blues. In more contemporary music, gospel, blues and blues extensions and jazz often flow together seamlessly. Funky music is an amalgam of soul music, soul jazz and R&B.
James Brown and others have credited Little Richard's mid-1950s road band as being the first to put the funk in the rock n roll beat. Following his exit from secular music to become an evangelist, some of Little Richard's band members joined Brown and the Famous Flames, beginning a long string of hits in 1958.
Brown's innovations pushed the funk music style further to the forefront with releases such as "Cold Sweat" (1967), "Mother Popcorn" (1969) and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" (1970), discarding even the twelve bar blues featured in his earlier music. Instead, Brown's music was overlaid with "catchy, anthemic vocals" based on "extensive vamps" in which he also used his voice as "a percussive instrument with frequent rhythmic grunts and with rhythm-section patterns ... [resembling] West African polyrhythms." Throughout his career, Brown's frenzied vocals, frequently punctuated with screams and grunts, channeled the "ecstatic ambiance of the black church" in a secular context. Although "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Cold Sweat" were widely credited as the prototype songs that launched the funk genre, "Out of Sight" was the breakthrough hit that signaled the shift in Brown's sound to establish funk as a distinct genre.
In a 1990 interview, Brown offered his reason for switching the rhythm of his music: "I changed from the upbeat to the downbeat ... Simple as that, really." According to Maceo Parker, Brown's former saxophonist, playing on the downbeat was at first hard for him and took some getting used to. Reflecting back to his early days with Brown's band, Parker reported that he had difficulty playing "on the one" during solo performances, since he was used to hearing and playing with the accent on the second beat.
Other musical groups picked up on the riffs, rhythms, and vocal style developed by James Brown and his band, and the style began to grow. Dyke & the Blazers based in Phoenix, Arizona, released "Funky Broadway" in 1967, perhaps the first record of the soul/rock n' roll era to have "funky" in the title. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were releasing funk tracks beginning with their first album in 1967, culminating in their classic single "Express Yourself" in 1970.
The Meters defined funk in New Orleans, starting with their Top Ten R&B hits "Sophisticated Cissy" and "Cissy Strut" in 1969. Another group who would define funk in the decade to come were The Isley Brothers, whose funky 1969 #1 R&B hit, "It's Your Thing", signaled a breakthrough in African-American music, bridging the gaps of the rock of Jimi Hendrix and the upbeat soul of Sly & the Family Stone and Mother's Finest.
"P-funk" also came to mean something in its quintessence, of superior quality, or sui generis, as in the lyrics from "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" a hit single from Parliament's album "Mothership Connection":
The 1970s was probably the era of highest mainstream visibility for funk music. Other prominent funk bands of the period included Stevie Wonder, The Brothers Johnson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bootsy's Rubber Band, The Meters, Tower of Power, Ohio Players, The Commodores, War, Kool & the Gang, Confunkshun, Slave, Cameo, the Bar-Kays, Zapp, Johnny Guitar Watson, and many more. George Clinton also played a masterminding role in Bootsy's Rubber Band and several other bands he put together, including Parlet, the Horny Horns, and the Brides of Funkenstein, all part of the P-Funk conglomerate.
Already, in late 1960s, many jazz musicians — among them Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock (with his Headhunters band), Grover Washington, Jr., and Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann, and Eddie Harris — had begun to combine jazz and funk. Sometimes this approach is called "jazz-funk". Additionally, in the late 1960s work of Miles Davis (with girlfriend/wife Betty Davis) and Tony Williams helped to create Jazz fusion and influenced funk.
Funk music was exported to Africa in the late 1960s, and melded with African singing and rhythms to form Afrobeat. Fela Kuti was a Nigerian musician who is credited with creating the music and terming it "Afrobeat".
In the early 1970’s, when funk was becoming more mainstreamed, artists like Parliament Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Ohio Players, Confunkshun, among others, were successful and getting radio play but according to Billboard Magazine, only Sly & the Family Stone had singles which made it to #1. In 1970 ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ hit # 1 as did ‘Family Affair’ in 1971 affording Sly and Funk crossover success and greater recognition unlike some of their equally talented but moderately popular peers before the onslaught of Disco around the middle of that decade which remained hugely popular thru the early 80's.
Disco music owed a great deal to funk. Many early disco songs and performers came directly from funk-oriented backgrounds. Some disco music hits, for example "Le Freak" by Chic, included riffs or rhythms very similar to funk music.
Rick James was the first funk musician of the 1980s to assume the funk mantle dominated by P-Funk in the 1970s. His 1981 album Street Songs with the singles "Give It To Me Baby" and "Super Freak" resulted in James becoming a bit of a rock star, and paved the way for the future direction of explicitness in funk.
Prince used a stripped-down instrumentation similar to Rick James, and went on to have as much of an impact on the sound of funk as any one artist since James Brown. Prince combined eroticism, technology, an increasing musical complexity, and an outrageous image and stage show to ultimately create a musical world as ambitious and imaginative as P-Funk or The Beatles. The Time, originally conceived as an opening act for Prince and based on his "Minneapolis sound", hybrid mixture of funk, rock, pop, R&B & new wave. They went on to define their own style of stripped-down funk based on tight musicianship and sexual themes.
Bands that began during the 1970s P-Funk era incorporated some of the uninhibited sexuality of Prince and state-of-the-art technological developments to continue to craft funk hits. Cameo, Zapp, The Gap Band, The Bar-Kays, and The Dazz Band all found their biggest hits in the 80s, but by the latter half of the 80s, funk had lost its commercial impact.
Afrika Bambaataa, influenced by Kraftwerk, created "Electro Funk", a minimalist machine-driven style of funk with his single "Planet Rock" in 1982. Also known simply as Electro, this style of funk was driven by synthesizers and the electronic rhythm of the TR-808 drum machine. The single "Renegades of Funk" followed in 1983.
Funk became an international style of music, and is played by bands from such countries as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Algeria, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Nigeria.
In the 1990s, artists like Me'shell Ndegeocello and the (predominantly UK-based) Acid jazz movement including artists and bands such The Brand New Heavies, Incognito, Galliano, Omar and Jamiroquai carried on with strong elements of funk. However, they never came close to reaching the commercial success of funk in its heyday, with the exception of Jamiroquai whose album Travelling without Moving sold about 11.5 million units worldwide. Meanwhile in Australia and New Zealand, bands playing the pub circuit, such as Supergroove, Skunkhour and The Truth, preserved a more instrumental form of funk.
Since the middle of the 80s hip hop artists regularly sample old funk tunes. James Brown is said to be the most sampled artist in the history of hip hop. while P-Funk is the second most sampled artist; samples of old Parliament and Funkadelic songs formed the basis of West Coast G Funk.
Original beats that feature funk-styled bass or rhythm guitar riffs are also not uncommon. Dr. Dre (considered the progenitor of the G-Funk genre) has freely acknowledged to being heavily influenced by George Clinton's psychedelic funk: "Back in the 70s that's all people were doing: getting high, wearing Afros, bell-bottoms and listening to Parliament-Funkadelic. That's why I called my album The Chronic and based my music and the concepts like I did: because his shit was a big influence on my music. Very big". Digital Underground was a large contributor to the rebirth of funk in the 1990s by educating their listeners with knowledge about the history of funk and its artists. George Clinton branded Digital Underground as "Sons of the P", as their second full length release is also titled. DU's first release, Sex Packets, was full of funk samples, with the most widely known "The Humpty Dance" sampling Parliament's "Let's Play House". A very strong funk album of DU's was their 1996 release Future Rhythm. Much of contemporary club dance music, drum and bass in particular has heavily sampled funk drum breaks.
Funk is a major element of certain artists identified with the Jam band scene of the late 1990s and 2000s. Phish began playing funkier jams in their sets around 1996, and 1998's The Story of the Ghost was heavily influenced by funk. Medeski Martin & Wood, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Galactic, Soulive, and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe all drawing heavily from the funk tradition.
Since the mid 1990s the nu-funk scene, centered around the Deep Funk collectors scene, is producing new material influenced by the sounds of rare funk 45's. Labels include Desco, Soul Fire, Daptone, Timmion, Neapolitan, Kay-Dee, and Tramp. Bands include Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, The Soul Destroyers, The Grits, Chris Joss, Speedometer, The Poets of Rhythm, The Neapolitans, Quantic Soul Orchestra, The New Mastersounds, Breakestra, The Bamboos and Lefties Soul Connection. These labels often release on 45 rpm records. Although specializing in music for rare funk DJ's, there has been some crossover into the mainstream music industry, such as Sharon Jones' 2005 appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
In the early 2000s, some punk funk bands such as Out Hud perform in the indie music scene. Prince, with his recent albums has given a rebirth to the funk sound with songs like "The Everlasting Now", "Musicology" and "Black Sweat".
Funk has also been incorporated into modern Urban Pop & R&B music by many female singers such as Beyoncé Knowles with her 2003 hit Crazy In Love, Jennifer Lopez in 2005 with Get Right which samples Maceo Parker's Soul Power '74 horn sound, and also Amerie with her song 1 Thing.
Other pioneers of funk-rock evolved in the 1970s in the music of the British rock-band Trapeze, The Rolling Stones (Miss You & Hot Stuff ), Led Zeppelin (The Crunge) & singer David Bowie with his hit song "Fame". The Mark III & IV lineups of Deep Purple (with Glenn Hughes of Trapeze, David Coverdale of Whitesnake and Tommy Bolin of The James Gang) featured mature elements of funk in such songs as "Sail Away (Tomorrow)" and "Coronarias Redig", enough of which was believed to prompt the exit of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. American artists Frank Zappa ("My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" song and "Overnite Sensation" LP, Steve Miller Band ("Flight Like An Eagle"), Gary Wright ("My Love is Alive", good example of early Synth-funk as well), along with bands like Graham Central Station, Rufus, Mother's Finest, Funkadelic & the Isley Brothers ("The Heat Is On" & 3 + 3 albums ) all experimented with the blending of Funk & Rock rhythms.
The Big Boys, Xavion(An Afro-American group whose Asylum/Mirage LP in '84 pre-dated Living Colour) & Rick James along with New Wave mainstays Blondie & the Talking Heads created their own sound mix of Punk Funk in the early 1980s. One famous funk rock song of the period was Another One Bites the Dust by British Rock icons Queen.
The genre's representatives from the late 1980s to present day include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Fishbone, Primus, Living Colour, Spin Doctors, as well as Prince & spinoffs The Time & one hit wonders Mazarati, who all have created, expanded and defined the Funk Rock style.
In the early 1990s, several bands combined funky rhythms with Heavy Metal guitar sounds, resulting in "Funk metal", where the emphasis is in using much Heavier distorted guitar sounds in the mix. Funk Rock employs more of a lighter (crunch) distorted Guitar sound, and the musical emphasis tends to be more Beat driven with prominent Bass lines, more rhythmic in the R&B sense.
Electro funk is a hybrid of electronic music and funk. It essentially follows the same form as funk, and retains funk's characteristics, but is made entirely (or partially) on electronic instruments. Vocoders are often used.
Punk-funk (or funk-punk) is a mix of punk or post-punk songs with funk elements, very similar to dance-punk. Some times, the punk influence is replaced by an alternative rock influence. The first appearance of this subgenre was in 1979, when Gang Of Four released their debut album, Entertainment!. In the 1980s, bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie, Loose Ends, E.S.G, Rick James, and The Clash made punk-funk become more famous. The style was revitalized by "The New New York Underground Scene", such as The Rapture, Radio 4, Liars, !!!, Out Hud and LCD Soundsystem starting to mix their usual punk-funk with house, dub and hip-hop.