Funk Music: Artists, Albums & Songs

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore the history of funk music. Important figures in the development of funk will be detailed, and related genres that were influenced by funk will be considered.

Origins and Overview

What does the word funk mean to you? If we say something is funky, what do we mean? Like so many American English slang words, the word funk has its origins in African-American vernacular. Like the word itself, the musical genre of funk also has its origins in African-American culture. Since the 1960s, the words funk or funky have connoted danceability, energy, and a pronounced rhythmic sensibility; this definition is largely due to the funk music genre.

Funk is a genre of music that emerged during the 1960s in the United States and became fully formed as a style distinct from other related genres in the 1970s. The post-World War II period was a time of immense change and innovation in American music. African-American genres like bebop, rhythm & blues, and most notably rock & roll enjoyed widespread popularity. As rock & roll acquired a rabid fanbase among white teenagers, other forms of African-American popular music emerged. Soul music became a major product for record companies like Stax Records and Motown Records, particularly for young African Americans. Soul music proved to be an important antecedent of funk.

James Brown and the Birth of Funk

James Brown emerged from this fertile milieu in the late 1950s. Brown began his career singing gospel music mainly in Georgia. As rhythm & blues developed as a popular style, Brown switched from gospel to secular music. Brown became known as an incendiary live performer and gifted vocalist.

At the 1960s progressed, Brown's style and reputation expanded. Moving beyond the more sedate rhythm & blues and soul styles that were well established at the time, Brown began writing music that was focused on the rhythm section more than the melody. Brown's music was unabashed dance music meant for partying. During the 1960s Brown scored two of his most memorable hits, ''I Got You (I Feel Good)'' and ''Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.'' Brown began to incorporate more influences from New Orleans rhythm & blues into his own developing style, resulting in what came to be called funk.

James Brown developed his style of funk music throughout the 1970s. Brown's band was famous for its intensity and precision, producing many important funk musicians over the years.

Funk in the 1970s

An early incarnation of Parliament

One of James Brown's most successful band members was bassist Bootsy Collins. After leaving James Brown's band, Collins and his collaborator George Clinton would forge perhaps the most significant collective in the history of funk, Parliament-Funkadelic. Clinton and Collins brought a psychedelic sensibility to funk music, featuring elaborate costumes, bizarre lyrics, and a fascination with aliens and flying saucers. The 1975 album Mothership Connection epitomizes Clinton's interest in UFO imagery. Parliament and Funkadelic were two separate projects with somewhat different sounds, but both bands featured Clinton and Collins, and both offered variations on the funk genre. These projects enjoyed hits like ''Flash Light'' and ''One Nation Under a Groove'' in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1970s Parliament and Funkadelic revolutionized funk music, taking it to a new level of musical sophistication and aesthetic grandeur.

Other notable funk acts of the 1970s included Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang, and Chaka Khan. Some records from this period, like Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, were seen as too politically confrontational at the time, but are seen as classics today. Many funk acts during the 1970s articulated a notion of party culture that was at once recreational and political; that partying and letting loose could be political acts. Funk during the 1970s often suggested that by rejecting the up-tight, no fun ethos of conservative white American culture, a space of freedom and inclusion could be created through music and dance. This idea would be highly influential on later genres and subcultures from disco, to hip-hop, to rave culture.

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