History In A Nutshell
According to different sources, Earl Palmer, a New Orleans drummer during the 1960s, was the first person to use the term ‘funky’ to tell the other guys in his band to make the music more syncopated and dance-like. It was at that point that funk became a genre that would soon speak for a generation of African-American musicians. As a hybrid of jazz, R&B, and Afro-Cuban music, funk became a new way for the people of the working class communities to express themselves through dance.
What is ‘Funk’?
Funk has never been easy to describe, as it’s more of a feeling than anything. It’s something that is difficult to put into words, though most often easier to feel in your booty and bones. George Clinton probably said it the best, “The more one thinks about it, the harder it is to get the feel of the funk. It’s just done.” Though George is right in many ways, and though we could probably just end the article there, let’s break down this era-spanning genre to find out a little bit more about where funk came from and where it has gone.
Funk in the 1960s had heavy emphasis on the first beats of every measure, separating the sound from that of standard African American music, which has emphasis on the backbeat. One of the best examples of this rhythm can be heard in James Brown’s 1964 hit, “Papas Got A Brand New Bag”.
The other instruments on many funk songs from this era were arranged in a contrapuntal fashion. The guitar and the bass intermingled or doubled against the rhythm of the drums. Instrumentalists used repetitive riffs to make the parts more rhythmic rather than melodic like you would find in classical music. Another great James Brown song that captures the essence of this feeling so well is “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”.
As for the vocals in early funk, it was far more energetic than anything. Though Little Richard laid a lot of the foundation for this sound before the true funk era, James Brown crowned the frenzied, screaming vocal sound, reminiscent of a rapturous preacher in an old black church. The grunts and shouts throughout seem almost improvisatory, going back to what we talked about earlier with attacking funk with feeling rather than through methodology. A wonderful example of this is his 1967 release, “Cold Sweat”.
The 1970s is truly where funk became a mainstream genre. We began seeing bands such as Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang coming out of the woodworks, as well as artists like Stevie Wonder. Arrangements on funk records became far more lush and intricate and song structure and melody began to follow that of pop music. We even began seeing artists like Miles Davis, a then leader in the jazz community, exploring funk in his music. I believe the best introduction to 70s funk is “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” by Sly and the Family Stone. From the arrangement to the grooves to the hooks and back, it screams 70s funk.
Funk also had a massive change in the 70s due to one of the now largest funk groups in history, Parliament-Funkadelic. Their sound was heavily influenced by genres such as psychedelic rock and jazz. Most people referred to the sound as P-Funk, as it was truly a sound of its own. Some of the key characteristics included spacey synthesizer melodies, bluesy piano, lively group vocals, and rock guitars. While there isn’t a specific song that I would recommend diving into, as there are so many great ones, I would highly recommend giving a listen through to the Mothership Connection album by Parliament to get in the groove.
Finally, in the late 70s, funk started getting intimate with disco. Artists like Earth, Wind, & Fire and Chic began taking elements of funk and pairing them with high-energy dance beats. This funk-disco hybrid truly became a sound of its own. In my opinion, the best and most classic funk-disco song to get you accompanied with the genre is Chaka Khan’s (the Queen of Funk) 1978 hit single, “I’m Every Woman”.
The last era of funk that I want to talk about is funk in the 1980s. As a counter-cultural resistance to the then-mainstream disco sound, funk artists of the 1980s began to take funk to a whole new level. With drum machines replacing drummers, synth horns replacing real brass, and other synths like the Yamaha DX7 replacing the ever popular Hammond B3’s and Clavinet that were the backbones of pre-80s era funk, the sound had greatly evolved. One of the best examples of 1980s funk comes from the big man himself, Rick James. One of the best examples of the new explicit and technologically based funk in the 1980s was his 1981 single, “Super Freak”.
Understanding the Sound
Now that we have a solid idea of how funk has changed throughout the areas, let’s talk more about the specific sonic qualities that each instrument has in a standard funk song.
Drums in the 70s golden era of funk had a sound to them like no other. The drum sounds were very dry, the antithesis of 80s drum which were over-compressed and drenched in reverb, though also fat and crispy. If you look at modern artists like Daft Punk and Miike Snow, there is an obvious revival of this type of drum sound.
If you’re recording drums and want to get that authentic 70’s sound, it is necessary to use the same methods that they did. Stuff your kick with a pillow or a big sheet of felt before recording to give it more of a muffled sound, line some newspaper along the snare to give a snappier and tighter sound and take the bottoms off of your toms to open them up a bit more. A great reference for getting that drum sound in modern times is “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.
There are four necessary elements to getting a great funk bass sound: Style, Pocket, Tracking and Mixing. As for style, it is necessary to make it playful, though try and maintain a syncopated relationship to the kick drum. It is not necessary for them to play together on every hit, though there is certainly a groove between the two.
When we talk about pocket, metronome-obsessed players seem to get lost. This is because the “pocket” is not about timing perfection, but rather about the groove, space, and time between the kick and snare. With this comes the ability for the bass player to hit a pocket on and in-between these grooves to get a sound that completely funk-ify you down to your core.
The sound in a solid funk bass is typically very heavy in the bottom end below 200Hz to hit you in your chest, with a solid top between 6kHz and 9kHz to cut through the rest of the band. Most bass players when recording will get a DI signal to get the low end and then subtly mix the mic’ed signal atop it. One of the best funk bass lines in history that you must know to get in the world of true funk is from Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”.
While rock and roll puts guitars out front in the mix, funk guitars are far subtler. This does not mean that playing funk guitar does not require an incredible amount of skill to master. Like funk bass, it is all about the pocket. Single-coil guitar setups are very popular in the world of funk. Think Fender Stratocasters if you are looking for the best guitar to use.
As for effects, funk guitars are typically left dry and clean with a little wah or other envelope filter effects for taste. Staccatio notes, syncopation, muted notes, and a knack for laying it back will be your ways to the top. Need a good introduction to what funk guitar should sound like? Check out the best funk jam of all time, “Cissy Strut” by the Meters.
Essential Funk Albums
Mothership Connection – Parliament
Though I already mentioned this album earlier in the article, I must stress the importance of listening to it if you want to know what true funk is. Parliament laid down what is still possibly the grooviest album of all time. The P-Funk sound was the sound of the 70’s and took what had been traditional funk to an entirely new level.
The Payback – James Brown
James Brown is to this day considered the godfather of funk. With an array of infectious bass lines, a groove-worthy rhythmic parade, and lyrics about strength and justice that were far from anything that Brown had ever explored in song before, this was certainly the last great album of an era.
Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock
Though Mr. Hancock is typically not at the top of any list in terms of best funk albums, his pioneering of a jazz-funk genre in the 1970s gives him a solid spot on my essential list. With supafly synth bass lines, jazzy piano melodies, and a jam structure that embodies the idea of funk, Herbie Hancock’s shift into the world of funk fusion changed the way musicians thought about funk from there on out.