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A Question of Funk

PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 12:41 pm
by howard male
I was drawn to think about what funk is, when Garth Cartright described one of his ping pong choices (I think it was the Boban Markovic Orketar) as funky. Is it funky? I thought - and if so, what makes it funky? It clearly didn't fit into that narrow band of 70's African-American music which originally monopolised the term by making it a brand-label and creating a consensus of opinion on the funkiness of James Brown or Bootsy Collins. The rules on this brand of funk are fairly clearly defined - emphasis on the first beat of the bar (the down beat), brass stabs, percussive rhythm guitar, sweat, and a funk-tional, minimalist lyric which usually refers directly to the music, to sex, or to both. So what makes a song funky if it isn't that kind of funk?

'Funky' is a label which is now as ubiquitous and amorphous as the label 'surreal' has become. The Surrealists were a group of artists of the early twentieth century who sought to juxtapose disparate and unlikely elements in order to create a heightened, mysterious, new reality. But even they sought to narrow and refine the definition by turning their collective noses up at the notion of Salvador Dali being a surrealist, even if he's now the most famous surrealist in the world. Today all and sundry will exclaim "Wow, how surreal!" At the drop of a hat, or rather, at anything even slightly unusual or vaguely surprising.

Garth's Balkan band certainly had an agreeable, deceptively shambolic looseness and quirkiness about them, so does funky just mean 'good', in the same way that 'Bad' meant 'good' for a decade or so?

In order to arrive at a more refined definition, perhaps we need to try and say what funk definitely isn't. I propose the following funk no-no's:

1. It can't be made by a group entirely made up of session musicians.

2. It can't have a quantised four-to-the-floor drum-machine rhythm at its centre.

3. It can't have no rhythm at all

4. You're not going to end up with it by spending two years in a state-of-the-art recording studio.

5. It isn't Level 42 or Jamaroquai, or (insert your own trying-too-hard, unfunky band here.)

So that narrows it down. We can now say that funk requires a certain tightness along with a certain looseness. That there has to be a tension between perfection and human error. That there has to be a certain amount of rhythmic complexity and sophistication in the groove - that backbone has to bend and twitch. And, of course, there has to be a groove in the first place, rather the just a measuring out of time by a workmanlike beat.

Funk has to be the larger-than-life composite character - the superhero - that is alchemically created by a bunch of musicians all contributing their modest, individual characters: if the sum isn't greater than the parts, you ain't got funk.

And finally Funk must have edge. Edge comes from the disjunctures between those individuals. It may even come from 'getting it slightly wrong'. For example a Gambian band seeking to imitate African-American funk can end up sounding a lot funkier than the real thing .

Funk should spring from invention, not be a meticulously contrived retread of an established form. Funk has to be 'of the moment' - a challenge to convention rather than a plagiarist's cynical pandering to convention, in order to sell countless units to forty-somethings who should no better, and teenagers who don't yet no better.

I'd love to read anyone else's thoughts on finding a Plato-like definition of what funk is, or if you don't have such analytical leanings, just name your favourite funky tracks in my wider - if it rocks, it's funk - definition, and we can define it by example.

Now I'm off out into the sunshine with my funky wife for a funky afternoon in funky London town...

PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 4:15 pm
by Tom McPhillips
I propose a simpler definition - the word funky is actually an onomatapaeic description of the music...

if you can't sing "fun-kee! fun-kee! FUN----KEEEEE!" along to the piece of music you're listening to, well it just ain't funky!

I have tested this with several candidates for funkiness and I can definitely report that while Chopin doesn't, Beethoven's Ode to Joy does approach the outer edges of funkidom :-))

PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 5:16 pm
by RobHall
A couple of things: The Meters, Sly & the Family Stone, The Headhunters' "God Made Me Funky" (which is my favourite funk title, if not my favourite funk song)... trying to define funk has got to be like trying to define "jazz", hasn't it?

Also, I believe that, originally the word refers to body odours - if someone had been living, eating, sleeping and making love in the same room for some length of time, and another person walked in, then the phrase "it's too damn funky in here" would be a not-unreasonable reaction. Can't remember where I read this, but it was in some book somewhere...

PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2005 6:03 pm
by Con Murphy
Combining the onomatopoeia and odour of the previous two posts, I'd say funk was earthy music with a syncopated beat. You have to almost be able to smell it, and you certainly have to be able to dance to it. I don't think I would apply any other filter to use of the adjective.

'Funky' has of course become a very popular word with kids these days, applied to (usually) small, attractive (some might say garish) fashion items, gifts and other leisure accessories. I fear that just by discussing the term as a musical one, we are once again firmly placing ourselves in a certain age-group.

PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 7:07 am
by ritchie
funky definitely is n't filed under FUNKY in your local record store and if it was you would n't find it cos if you were funky you would nt be looking there!

Funky is n't black and white, unless you wear shades ...'hey, play some funky music white boy' see even they were called 'black cherry'... I think!

Funky is ...what funky does!


PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 11:23 am
by Dominic
You have to almost be able to smell it

Which gives "Overpowered By Funk" a whole new meaning, especially duing this heatwave.

My favourite title? Probably James Blood Ulmer's "Jazz Is The Teacher Funk Is The Preacher", but if anyone mentions Jazz-Funk, I'm leaving.

PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 3:46 pm
by ritchie
just bought Rythm 'n' Bled ....which actually say's on the cover "collectif afro-funk-oriental" ...I'm saying nothing though about Charlie's review which mentions Paul Hardcastle(if you read it Dominic please close the door behind you)

'afro-funk-oriental' now there's a thought.


PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 4:48 pm
by Dominic
In the new Songlines Garth Cartwright (see original posting) is asked about his listening habits. He says "on Saturday nights I often develop a taste for tough blues ... or funky rock bands: Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC ..."
Either funky is Garth's word of the week, or its usage is somewhat different in New Zealand.

PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 6:29 pm
by NormanD
Here's the inevitable Dylan link, let's face it, it had to happen -

"I Shall Be Free No. 10" (1964)

Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog.
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead.
He's a weird monkey, very funky.

When was funk or funky first used in a song, title or lyrics? The Motown house band were known as The Funk Brothers, but was that expression in general use then?


funky stuff

PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2005 10:02 pm
by garth cartwright
Great to know one of my utterances sparked off a debate. Shall I throw a few pence in? Here goes: for me, funk is any kind of organic dance music, the stuff that simply demands you get up and shake your tailfeather. It’s never mechanical, often unconventional, music of colour and smell, can be difficult to describe cos it’s aimed at getting people dancing (not being examined and explained) and can be found in sounds iternational. The Balkan brass tradition that Boban Markovic belongs to certainly offers up a strong example of what I guess we could call Gypsy funk. The tune I chose for Charlie’s show is, I’d agree with Howard, not much of a funk groove – I played it more because I love the eerie Balkan sense of movement and violence I hear in it (the album it’s from, Boban & Marco, has some juicy grooves but is, for the most part, beautifully abstract, letting Boban & Marco show how deep the Gypsy jazz trumpet flavour can be). Boban’s previous album, Live In Belgrade, is more of a demonstration of how funky Balkan brass can be – wild roaring sheets of sound booted along by the big goc drum. I’m listening to it as I write and when these Gypsies get a head of steam up they’re amongst the funkiest people on the planet, no doubt. Indeed, Frank London’s sleeve notes compare Boban and co’ to Bootsy Collins (the funkiest musician I have ever seen) and Steve Cropper (the funkiest guitarist maybe I’ve ever seen). So when I talk of Balkan funk I think I’m trying to describe the stuff that gets the Gypsies and Slavs moving – even if it’s dancing dainty horas to mad brass blasts!

As for my Songlines funky rock selections – Dominic, either you’ve never listened to rock or forgotten that back in the day rock bands used to play a lot of blues and soul so those that were any good could play a mean, sweaty groove. Now, Aerosmith in their 70s heyday were as funky as any white boys since Elvis – check Lost Child where they boss a Meters riff and then some or Walk This Way which needs no introduction at all. Same for AC/DC: ultra-tight rhythm guitarist, no frills drummer, bassist who knows when a little bounce is useful and grooving riffs that could level mountains. When Rick Rubin first started hanging with New York’s hip-hop pioneers in the early 80s he was amazed to find the DJs chopping up Aerosmith and AC/DC records alongside James Brown and Bootsy but to the DJs it was simply funky shit that moved the crowd. Makes sense doesn’t it: both Aerosmith and Bootsy’s Rubber Band were mad coke fuelled 70s road warriors that promised to keep the party going all night. One was white, the other black, beyond that they were blue collar kids who loved soul and rock and – uh huh – Hendrix. And Jimi was definitely the funkiest guitar player of all time: what groove! What colour! What energy! So, uh, I guess that’s my definition of this thing we call ‘funk’.


PostPosted: Wed Jun 22, 2005 11:14 am
by Dominic
Jimi Hendrix, sure, of Aerosmith I admit ignorance, but AC/DC? I like them enough to have queued all day to go to that recent Hammersmith Apollo show, but I personally wouldn't call them funky.

The word's obviously been so overused (just like, as Howard says, "surreal") and means different things to different people. We might have the same problems with Rock, Jazz, Punk, R&B, World Music...

Before I go, I'd just like to give Bill Oddie another mention - Funky Gibbon, anyone?