Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One
Posted Mar 28 2006
There’s no question that funk is one of the most overlooked music forces of our time. Even fads such as disco have received more hype and press. But as author Rickey Vincent eloquently argues, funk’s influence has reached nearly every corner of the world. Although he traces funks’ roots back to Africa, he singles out James Brown as a key creator of the funk sound. Beyond Brown and his crew creating a totally new sound, they also integrated revolutionary, socially conscience lyrics (think “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”). In spite of his popularity, Brown paid a price for his activism and struggled to balance the line between mainstream acceptance and staying true to his roots. It must be noted however, that Brown's more political works, at least initially, were a result of pressure from listeners. In terms of hip hop, Brown and his band have been sampled countless times and his dance moves have been emulated around the world. However, many people forget about the blueprint that he laid for today’s music entrepreneurs as he controlled his production and even owned his own radio stations. He was so influential that in one instance a white New Yorker took hostages to protest the treatment of African Americans and demanded to speak to Brown as he was the “best person to speak for Blacks.” In spite of his immense influence, it’s a shame that many people remember him for his legal problems.
But Brown is hardly the only person who laid down the funk and Vincent discusses founders and contemporaries ranging from The Isley Brothers to Prince to Jimi Hendrix to Digital Underground to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Fela Kuti. Of course, George Clinton gets a fair share of attention. Among the highlights are Clinton’s placement of Black sensibilities at the center of the universe, including the African origins of civilization, via the music, album artwork, and stage performances.
More than profiling individual artists, Vincent does an excellent job of tying together all the elements that have created the funk, including the social policies of Reaganomics. Although he highlights funk’s role in challenging society’s rigid stance on everything from sexuality to race relations, Vincent also talks about some of funk’s less positive elements, including a lack of good business sense, in spite of Brown’s lead. Furthermore, he takes a critical look at how funk has suffered from technological changes in the 80s, including video games, cellular phones, and walkmans detracting from funk’s communal spirit. Additionally, he stresses how industry opportunism, industry racism, and a lack of leadership left the African-American community in a quagmire, to the point that many of the 80s funkiest records came from British artists such as Terence Trent D’Arby, Sade Soul II Soul, and the Brand New Heavies. Nonetheless, the funk continues to thrive via hip hop and through the continued work of classic artists and new ones. Vincent argues that his book is merely an effort to garner interest in funk, not be the end all explanation. He’s certainly done that.