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Artists and Songs of the Funk Music Genre

Teresa Newman, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Teresa Newman

    Teresa Newman has taught K-12 music and musical theater for over 12 years. They have a Masters in Music Performance, Masters in Education, and Bachelors in Music from Stephen F. Austin State University. They also are the founder, director, instructor, and content creator for Newman Music Academy based in Houston, Texas.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about funk music and see the history and characteristics of the funk genre. Review famous funk music artists and 1970s and 80s funk bands and songs. Updated: 02/25/2022

What Is Funk Music?

What's funk music? Funk is a percussive rhythm-based musical genre popular in the 1970s and early 1980s. Created by African Americans, funk music is a trendy and influential style of music and playing. The term "funk" is jazz slang derived from the smell of nightclubs and dancehalls during packed performances. Funk stripped down the lyrical nature of jazz and fused it into a style. Unlike jazz music, where the focus is on melodic and harmonic complexity, funk is focused on musicians' interplay; all centered around "the one", or the first beat in a four-bar measure. Everything in funk has to return to the one, and all the music emphasizes that particular measure. The one is a concept pioneered by James Brown, the man who basically invented funk. When the one is emphasized, and the musicians are interlocked, it is called a "groove". The achievement of the groove is the primary objective for funk musicians.

Characteristics of Funk Music

  • Syncopation: The syncopation of funk music is one of the key factors to its danceability. The rhythm and guitar play simultaneously and emphasize the downbeat of the song to achieve the groove.
  • Strong downbeats: This is the concept of the one. By having the whole band emphasize the downbeat, the music becomes funkier and more syncopated for lack of a better term. These downbeats were followed by 6th note riffs that fill out the empty spaces in measure.
  • Variations on seventh chords: Funk music relies on intricately articulated chords, particularly 7th and other chords like major and minor 9th chords and complex extensions like 13th chords. Once a groove is established, a performer will sustain these chords for multiple measures.
  • Grooves driven by a bass guitar: The bass goes down the low end and propels the rhythm forward along with the drum. Bassists have significantly contributed to the genre's popularity and are some of the genre's most recognizable and influential figures. Some of the most famous funk bassists include Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic, Larry Graham of Sly, and the Family Stone.


The father of funk, James Brown.

 James Brown was the father of funk music


Funk Music: Definition

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.

Jazz Appears

Funk music is not an isolated genre but one that 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.

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History of the Funk Genre

Musical traditions of sub-Saharan Africa have greatly contributed to the defining characteristics of African-American music. Song forms such as spirituals, work songs, gospel, blues, and "body rhythms" (hand clapping, stomping, etc.) are the earliest recorded examples of these sub-Saharan African traditions in America. Funk music combines these African traditions and some of the most distinctive American genres to come from said traditions, such as soul, R&B, and jazz. These sounds evolved and combined in the New Orleans area and created a new genre- funk.

Funk is a style of music that was frequently seen as part of civil rights protests of the 1960s in America, and the musicians of the genre were often heavily involved in activism directly. Hardships and struggles of the working class and marginalized people were expressed through song in the funk genre, much like the forms that came before it, like blues and spirituals. Much like jazz, funk music shared commonalities of social importance as well as musical importance:

  • Both share an air of freedom and experimentation and the rejection of labels
  • Both genres formed from African musical traditions
  • Rhythm is a focus, with emphasis on a strong groove

While the term funk existed before the funk music genre was created, it was just a term used by jazz musicians to describe heavily syncopated music. In the broader African-American community, the term funky is almost undefinable. Anything, not just music, can be funky. Funky is a Black state of mind and can describe multiple states of being and contexts. But in terms of funk music, the funk starts with James Brown. James Brown's band established the "funk beat" and modern inner-city funk in the late 1960s. Unlike traditional rhythm and blues that emphasize the second and fourth beats of the measure, funk emphasized the first beat of the measure.

New Orleans figures heavily in the development of funk music. The home of the United States' first opera house, New Orleans' Spanish and French influences meant that music was broadly accepted and racial mixing was more common. Musicians would use the twice-daily ferry between Havana and New Orleans, bringing back Cuban sounds and rhythms. Second-line parades honoring the recently deceased filled the streets of the Crescent City every night with revelers and dancers. Drummers Charles Connor and Clayton Fillyau were two of the many musicians schooled in the ways of second-line funeral parade music and New Orleans' polyglot of global rhythms. While working for "the Godfather of Soul" James Brown in the early 1960s, Conner and Fillyau were responsible for rhythmic aspects of funk that would shape Brown's body of work in the years to come. They introduced the swinging polyrhythms and emphasized the first beat of a four-bar measure. As taught to Brown by Fillyau, this beat was known as "The One." Brown was so entranced by "The One," and the deeply intricate rhythmic foundations that could be built upon it, that he used it as the impetus to fashion an iconoclastic new musical style known as "funk." Brown threw out the traditional priority of pop harmonies and song form in place of the funk groove, which would prove to be the most important and defining characteristic of the genre. After the release of James Brown's funk singles of the 1960s, many new funk groups formed and created their own spin on Brown's funky second-line beat.

Funk Music History

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.

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, or 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.

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Video Transcript

Funk Music: Definition

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.

Jazz Appears

Funk music is not an isolated genre but one that 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.

Funk Music History

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.

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, or 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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What defines funk music?

Funk music is defined by syncopation and rhythm and an emphasis on the "one," or the first beat of a measure. Funk music is highly rhythmic, and the rhythm instruments often play the same thing.

Is R&B the same as funk?

R&B and funk can be considered to be in the same musical family, but they are not the same. Funk is deconstructed R&B, minimalized to the point where everything played is essential and emphasizes "the one."

What are funk music characteristics?

Some major characteristics of funk are syncopation, an emphasis on rhythm, and sparse ornamentation. The music emphasizes the first beat of every measure.

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