Many music lovers know the term funk music like they know the different colors of the rainbow. Funk, or the term funky, is so embedded in American culture that you may have never given it a second thought.
But what are the origins of funk music? And is it anything more than a descriptive term for fun dance music?
Funk has a rich history in America, dating back to the 1950s. We’re exploring its roots and how far the genre has come.
What Is Funk?
Funk is dance music that evolved from Soul, R&B, and traditional African-American rhythms. The Jazz and be-bop era of the 1940s and 50s laid the foundation for experimentation. In addition, music pioneers in the American South pushed the boundaries of soul music during the 50s with syncopated piano and southern drawl.
Drum rhythms driven by the bass are key markers of funk. This new sound of syncopation grew with the invention of the electric bass guitar. Next, add the accent on the first beat of the music instead of the third or fourth beat, and the sound instantaneously becomes one of the most accessible genres to dance to. Well, maybe, at least for some of us.
Another excellent identifier of a funk song is the slap sound of the bass. Instead of the smooth background sounds in jazz, you might hear a plunk! Or bap! Just think of tracks like Jungle Boogie by Kool & The Gang or Word Up by Cameo, and you’ll get the idea.
Who Was the King of Funk?
The one and only James Brown holds the crown as the king of funk. Not only did Brown claim the grand title of the godfather of soul, but his molding of the genre also earned him the king’s crown.
Like many singer-songwriters of the 1950s, James Brown learned about music as a young gospel singer. As time passed, Brown created his soul style, using distinctive rhythm, bold vocals, and dance moves. By the mid-60s, Brown had fifteen studio records and a slew of singles under his belt.
The top charting singles Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and I Got You (I Feel Good) defined Brown’s new music genre. Funk stripped everything down and made the music easier to feel. It became known as music to groove to all night long.
James Brown’s use of call and response, downtempo beats, and emphasis on the ‘one’ (or first) beat made funk explode into the 70s. Brown’s influence far outlived his death in 2006. Just listen to his 1971 hit Make It Funky, and let yourself groove. You’ll get it.
How Has Funk Changed Through the Years?
Funk music started as a sub-genre of the jazz and be-bop era of the 1950s. At first, it was a subtle difference in rhythm and beat. But by the 70s, funk music came into its own. Let’s see how its voice grew louder over the decades.
The Early Years
The emerging years of funk lined up with the growing civil rights movement of the 1960s. Pioneers like James Brown expanded the R&B genre into funk by emphasizing the downbeat. This new sound gave black American artists a unique voice atop this infectious groped. Songs like Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud gave oppressed Americans a chance to be heard.
Artists like Sly and The Family Stone became mainstream with singles like the 1968 hit Everyday People. Funk music had arrived.
The Late 1970s-1980s
By the late 70s and early 80s, the genre was as mainstream as arena rock and country. Bands like Kool and The Gang and The Commodores flooded the airwaves. The explosion of free love and excess of drugs in 70s music culture made the basic funk beat even more primal.
That said, artists like George Clinton and his P-Funk Orchestra cruised high on the genre’s popularity. Clinton’s politically charged lyrics and orchestral arrangements gave Hollywood a big idea. Films like Shaft and Super Fly used funk songs as movie soundtracks to appeal to black American audiences.
Although these films carried their own controversies within their very making, they clearly showed how far funk music had come.
The Disco and New Wave genres of the 80s brought us synthesizers and drum machines. Some say this was the beginning of the end for both rock and funk. Artists like Michael Jackson released singles with heavy funk influences like Billie Jean. Still, some say funk’s heyday was ending by the late 80s.
On the other hand, bands like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Primus merged 70s funk and rock sounds into a new subgenre – funk rock!
Funk rock bands of the 90s, like the Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Faith No More, stuck to emphasizing a funky bass line. What they added was the hard edge and in-your-face energy of the 90s. Meanwhile, hip-hop quietly rose from the ashes of the 80s. And by the 2000s, the influence of funk permeated this number on mainstream sound.
Where Was the Birthplace of Funk?
Historians credit New Orleans as the birthplace of both soul and R&B. Also, it’s no stretch to find out funk came slinking out from the same ground. New Orleans’ history is steeped in music and magic. African traditions merged with American Jazz to form elaborate funeral processions in which musicians return from the services with a bit of pep and celebration. These processions are unique and birthed their own sound.
Take this New Orleans tradition, add emphasis to the drum and bass, specifically an electric bass, and you’re almost there. Now all you need is a leader. By the 1950s, local blues singer Henry “Roy” Bird unknowingly ushered funk out of New Orleans and into the world. His rumba-boogie piano beats forever changed the cadence of R&B music.
Bird, better known as “Professor Longhair,” brought the music down to earth and made things a little muddier. And a little funkier.
What Are the Greatest Funk Songs of All Time?
Funk songs took hold of American audiences in the late 1960s. But time would carry the later hits of the 70s and 80s into stardom, with tremendous replay via radio, TV, and film. Here are our top three greatest funk hits of all time.
This #1 1972 single by Stevie Wonder might be his best-known hit. Superstition starts with that signature downbeat drum sound, with a heavy emphasis on the one-beat. Next comes the very funky and unique stringed keyboard sound of the clavinet.
Wonder sings about the dangers of superstition and how believing in what you don’t know may harm you. His lyrics bump in and out of syncopation with the bass, keys, trumpet, and saxophone. Superstition is an ambitious funk masterpiece.
Flash Light by the band Parliament takes us further into the 70s, smacking right up into disco. The marching rhythm and heavily plucked bass line have that slow, groovy feel that makes day suddenly feel like night. And the simple repetition of ‘FLASH LIGHT’ makes it an easy song to sing and dance to.
You’ve probably heard this 1978 hit at a memorable wedding party or two.
Super Freak by Rick James topped the charts in 1981 and became James’ signature hit.
Taking funk further in the decades, Super Freak is a bombastic track featuring new wave synths with a funky bass lick. The song is about an adventurous woman who is willing to try anything.
Rick James wrote Super Freak intending to create a somewhat silly dance tune. It’s one of the best-known funky dance tracks of all time.
Funk Rolls On
Funk music has been a part of the American music history book since at least the late 1960s, rolling us down to the ground with more emphasis on bass and drums than the backbeat. Soul singers like James Brown and George Clinton used its catchy pulse to give voice to millions of oppressed black Americans across the country during the civil rights era.
Although funk music today isn’t as popular as during its heyday in the 1970s, plenty of musicians keep that free, funky, earthy vibe alive. Look to bands like The Soul Prophets or Cimafunk for a more modern approach to the genre.
Who are your favorite funk bands? Let us know in the comments!