History of Funk Music

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Funk music is a unique genre that held an important place in popular culture during the 20th century. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of funk and see how it came to be so funky.

Funk Music

In the immortal words of George Clinton and the band Parliament, ''We need the funk. Gotta have that funk''. Oh yeah, it's time to get funky. Funk music is a popular genre of the 1970s and 1980s technically defined by a combination of African American soul music and a strong syncopated beat. But the definition offered by musical legend Prince hits closer to home: ''If you can describe it, it ain't funky''. Funk is defined less by a strict set of stylistic rules and more by an attitude, with of course a beat that encourages dancing. But if you want to really understand it, you need to know its history. Gotta have that funk.

African American Music in the 20th Century

Funk music is not an isolated genre, but one comes from a rich musical lineage. In the late 19th century, African American musicians began gaining national attention for some very unique sounds that blended African rhythmic traditions with American gospel. By the early 20th century, this general sound was being called jazz music, although it lacked a standard definition. Jazz was about improvisation, freedom of expression, lively tempos and innovative rhythms.

The freedom of jazz, and its growing popularity, brought wider attention to African American musical styles and encouraged these musicians to continue experimenting. Many different forms of jazz music emerged, but most were heavily identified with young, black, urban culture. These traits defined the attitude of jazz, as well as its role in the new dancing and entertainment cultures of the Roaring Twenties.

The Rise of Soul

From jazz, other sounds emerged as well, also closely associated with young, black urbanites. In the 1960s, the dominant new sound was a mixture of blues and gospel music with a wider appeal and again, a notable rhythm. This genre was called Soul. While Harlem was the focal point of jazz, Detroit became the epicenter of that ''Motown Sound''. Motown musicians like the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and even Stevie Wonder embraced a different style and sound than jazz, but the genres were connected in many ways, and both connected to African American urban identity in a still-segregated United States.

A Funky Sound

Of the 1960s soul artists, one stood out for an especially distinct sound. James Brown had a strong voice, but also focused his music much more heavily on a bold, syncopated rhythm. While rhythm had long been a staple of African American genres, Brown's use was different. It was sharp, disproportionately heavily, and accentuated by the lyrics and Brown's performance style. This rhythm, which demanded being danced to, along with Brown's unapologetic attitude and racial pride would go on to be cornerstones of funk music.

James Brown
James Brown

This sound was carried on by George Clinton. Clinton originally led a doo-wop/soul band called the Parliaments, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s would go on to found two of the formative funk bands: Funkadelic and Parliament. These bands embraced a strong rhythmic attitude like James Brown, but carried it even further with a stronger groove, a sense of rhythmic pulse that had been a part of African American musical traditions since the first days of jazz. Clinton's music combined elements of rock and roll, jazz, blues, soul, and gospel into what would become the definitive sound of funk.

The Parliaments

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