I could actually feel James Brown’s smile radiating from the grave as millennials rattle the club scene by getting “up offa that thing“. Contrary to many people’s doubtful expectations, Funk has found its way back into our mainstream music. Even our very own infamous radio stations, which many of this genre’s lovers have disdained for years, contain elements of Funk in its barrage of pop hits. For those skeptical of the re-emergence, allow me to break it down. Here are some of the recognized faces in the pop world known for bringing the Funk.
Probably the most notable example of the resurrection is, as shown above via GIF, Mark Ronson x Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. Although this track unexpectedly caught the internet by storm, it’s not surprising that producer Mark Ronson would release such a song, considering his track record. Songs like Valerie (featuring Amy Winehouse) and Oh My God (featuring Lily Allen) gave Ronson his reputation of being a producer who sonically caters to old-souls. So when he teamed up with pop icon and old-soul artist Bruno Mars, it was no surprise that a Funk anthem was going to be the outcome. Aside from the fly suits and old school scenery in the music video, the the funky guitar chops and horn section in the chorus give the song its funky vibe (sprinkled with some Hip Hop inspired lyrics).
In fact, the grammy nominated album Uptown Special was filled with Funk components. His second single Daffodils (featuring Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker) could be best described, as youtube commenter Sam Feldstein puts it, “a funkier version of Another Brick in The Wall Part 2”. On his third single Feel Right, featured rapper Mystikal, channels his inner James Brown as the JB’s seem to back him up on the track. The guitars and horn section are up to their usual like in Uptown Funk, but what makes this song standout is the nostalgic bassline. That’s something really rare in music nowadays, a funky bassline. In the world of funk, performance is key. Watch below as the “little gangsta” absolutely dominates the competition in his talent show.
Almost out of nowhere, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has become a Funk innovator in his Grammy nominated album To Pimp A Butterfly. Three songs in this critically acclaimed album channeled the Funk.
The first taste we get from TPAB is the Grammy-award winning song i. The The songs funky groove derives directly from the sample of The Isley Brothers’ That Lady? Kendrick’s dancing in the music video also showcase some funk influence, something we also see in the SNL live performance.
Like the SNL performance, the album version of i uses the style of live band to differ slightly, from the single version. That same type of style was used on Wesley’s Theory. The instrumental, specifically the bass and synths, display sounds perfected by 70’s Funk bands like Parliament and Funkadelic, the songs ironically features Funk legend George Clinton. This style usually substitutes the staccato guitar strumming for high elongated synth notes playing the main melody (or random fills). Clinton and Lamar have also collaborated on a recent Funkadelic song.
The hit song King Kunta also pays homage in its Funk ingredients. This time the 90’s G-Funk, that has once dominated the West Coast, makes up the skeleton of this song. The hypnotizing bassline resonating throughout the entire song, makes you think it was produced by either DJ Quik or Dr. Dre. Kendrick also gets down with his bad self in the music video, take a look here:
Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars:
Why group these two together? Well, music is one thing in the Funk culture, but dancing, however, is another. Songs like Uptown Funk and Treasure are perfect examples of the Funk/Disco presence in music today. These songs have given Bruno’s fans the definite impression that his influences derive from Funk musicians of the past. However, it’s performances, like his iconic performance at the Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show, that really seal the deal.
Mars’ rapid footwork and splits had everyone at the edge of their seats, thinking James Brown’s charisma has truly never left us. Not to mention the famous dance moves in the Uptown Funk music video, via GIF again, was almost impossible to escape and almost impossible to embarrassingly admit you’d tried to attempt it. It was that much of a craze.
Janelle Monae’s Funk elements in her song Tightrope, consists of a driving bassline and hidden horn section in the background. Her song Q.U.E.E.N., however is driven by the main funky guitar riff and fill-in notes from synths. Like Mars, the music videos for these two songs display funky dance-moves that captivated the attention of its viewers. Q.U.E.E.N. features, what seems to be, impulsive dancing. Ironically that’s what the song is about. Monae does what she wants and naturally feels, without feeling restricted by anybody. In Tightrope, most of the dancing is based on footwork, as she slide glides (or glides) alongside her gliding bandmates/dancers. We also get a taste of James Brown’s horn section and dancing from about 3:18-3:52 of the video. She even says…”Ladies and gentlemen the funkiest horns section in Metropolis”. That bragging, assurance, and praise-type of introduction of one’s band is a technique commonly done by many Funk/Soul icons of the past.
Bassist extraordinaire, Thundercat has not only thrived in making his own unique music but he also arranged funky basslines for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Erykah Badu, proving that Funk musicianship (like legendary guitarist Nile Rodgers)is still alive. Like Wesley’s Theory, which Thundercat provided with intriguing and attention-grabbing bass riffs, his song Oh Sheit, It’s X! sounds like the big band, synth based type of funk you’d hear in the 80’s. This song (based on the bass grooves, vocals, and synths) instantly remind me of young Rick James, taking listeners back to the era of Street Songs. I can just imagine Thundercat feeling himself, on stage facing the crowd of women yelling…
An eye-catching artistic feature that makes Thundercat stand out from a varied stream of artists is his choice of attire, especially when he is performing. In true Funk fashion, his on-stage fashion antics truly dazzle the unexpected eyes of the those who pay to see him, to say the least. Thundercat pays homage to the Funk pioneers of flashy clothing, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. There was a time in their career in which Parliament-Funkadelic even claimed they were aliens from another galaxy, via the Mothership Connection. Thundercat, being a huge fan of anime/manga, sometimes dresses as fictional Dragon Ball Z characters (pic on the right). He also dresses as a Native American chief (pic on the left) because of his Comanche roots and the correlation between being a frontman in a live performance and being a chief in a tribe. Thundercat’s eccentric choice of clothing might be odd, due to our standard perception of pop stars, but hey… at least he’s not wearing a diaper.
Using various effects installed in synthesisers was something commercialized in the 70’s by groups like Parliament-Funkadelic, and used by Rick James often in the 80’s. Having effects done on the bass, however, wasn’t done so often (distortion would probably be the closest thing to that). In the video below Thundercat has some type of pedal that gives his bass a “wet” sound, adding interesting Funk qualities in this song. We also see his technical skill on the bass, one of them being singing and playing intricate bass melodies. Also the instrumental break on 1:28 show off his solo abilities, something that he is often praised for.
Speaking of musicianship, I wouldn’t do this blog post any justice without mentioning this man. Since forever, pretty much, Pharrell has incorporated Funk elements in his music, often mixing it with Hip Hop and Soul characteristics. In fact, his early pop hits/collaborations consisted of this formula. Smash hits like the promiscuous I’m a Slave 4 U by Britney Spears and Nelly’s Hot in Herre embody the sexually suggestive(and sometimes blatant) factor in some Funk music, further enhanced by packaging it in a sexy music video. These songs contain Jazzy chords on an electric piano(or other piano of some sort), followed by very funky and sensual basslines, and (at times) funky guitar strumming.
Most recently, some of Pharrell’s Funk creations consist of Blow by Beyonce, Come Get It Bae (his own song), and of course the infamous Blurred lines by Robin Thicke (Featuring T.I.) While these songs feature their own variety of sexually suggestive lyrics wrapped in erotic symbolism, Blurred Lines tops them all with its unrated music video displaying topless women chased by the fellow contributing artists…and a goat.
A smash hit and undeniable jam of the summer of 2013, that took a different approach in the music video and lyrical approach, was the unforgettable Get Lucky by Daft Punk. The song starts very spiritual/philosophical and turns into a composition about letting loose and having a great time… also possibly about a one night stand. The visuals for Get Lucky and also the carefree, yet still funky, Lose Yourself to Dance shows the artists performing live in glitter and/or rhinestone blazers. Very old school indeed.
Funk/Disco/Soul legend Nile Rodgers provided guitar work and lyrics for these songs, and a large bulk of the album. Meanwhile other legendary musicians of the 70’s like Nathan East and Paul Jackson Jr. were also utilized in the Grammy Award-winning project. This shows the beauty of collaborations that spawn from both the old and the new school, bringing forth a genre adored by many and undiscovered by a few millennials.
Pharrell, and this reemergence of Funk right beside him, don’t seem to be fading at all. As the years pass, this genre raises the bar, although it’s hard to imagine someone possibly topping Uptown Funk. Contributions between legends of the past and modern icons, prove to us as fans that the Funk will never die. Daft Punk’s Lose Yourself to Dance music video displayed Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers, and Pharrell in their flashy clothing, performing in front of a dancing audience(looking to pay homage the numerous Soul/Funk/Disco videos of the 70’s). The fan-made video shown below, however, shows an old video of Soul Train mixed with the new sounds of Pharrell and Daft Punk. Both time periods being advocate promoters of, in the words of Don Cornelius, “Love, Peace, and Soul”