January 12, 2007

Future of the Funk

By Kevin Weston
New America Media

Hey, Hey, Heeeeeyyyyyy – James Brown

Since Soul Brother Number One, The Godfather of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business became an ancestor this past Christmas I’ve been obsessed with the funk – the stripped down, bass line driven, feel good sound that James Brown gave to the world.

As the creator of funk, James, was the undisputed king of the genre. But now that he is gone it’s the future of the funk that is on my mind.

Funk music, and all of it’s offspring – Disco, Hip Hop, and a James Brown rejuvenated Soul – carried Black people through the turbulent 60s and hopeful 70s into the crack-scarred 80s and beyond. During that time his music, our music, became the sound of world wide popular culture while embodying my peoples struggles, triumphs and foibles during our forced exile in North America.

We need funk like a hog needs slop. Our lives are sustained by the beats and rhythms that Brown brought from the essence of his heart. How else could we deal with the on-going racism and police brutality, red lining and stereotyping that America piles on top of our heads if we weren’t able to tap into the funk and get on the good foot (good god)?

There are a few recognized legends of funk still with us today – first among these equals is George Clinton – leader of Parliament/Funkadelic and the second most sampled artist, behind Brown, in the annuals of Hip Hop. Prince, the diminutive and prolific prodigy who can rock and funk with the best in the business added a guest house to the mansion that George and James built with his version of funk.

A young Michael Jackson got himself and his brothers signed to Motown with an almost perfect impersonation of the Godfather when he was six. MJ’s funk roots have stayed with him throughout his career.

Others that have to be mentioned on this short list include Sly Stone, the Bay Area born enigma that broke through the funk box to gain rock and roll fame. Bootsy Collins former bassist for James and George, created his own sound with the group Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell and Maceo Parker are others of note. All of these cats are more or less contemporaries of Brown. The future of the funk will rest in this Hip Hop generation. Those of us that grew up influenced by all of the legends as well as the futuristic technology driven 808 kick drum sound that rap brought to the table.

I’ve broken down the younger funk lords to two performers I think best uphold the tradition of James and all of the elder funk masters — D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.

D’Angelo sold me on his funk chops with his performance on the late great Chris Rock Show in 1999. Performing “Chicken Grease” he sang and rapped like he was channeling James Brown and Rakim Allah all while putting his own stamp on the funk. No one I’ve seen has come as close to matching Brown’s masculine sexual energy live.

Like Brown, D’Angelo has had high profile brushes with the law and abused drugs. It’s been seven long years since his last album and the whole soul/funk loving world is eagerly anticipating his return. He does show up on Snoop Dogg’s latest CD and is expected to drop another opus this year. Maybe Brown’s death will motivate this future funk god to fulfill his infinite potential.

Erykah Badu is our own modern day George Clinton and Chaka Khan mixed with Billie Holiday and Roxanne Shante. She just glows on stage with a confidence and power that only the greats can muster. Badu has been the most consistently funky young performer since she first came on the scene in 1997.

I saw her on her first tour at the Fillmore in San Francisco and I remember that big booming voice coming out of a small, back-end heavy, body. The funk just oozed out of her pores and left me in a cold sweat. Until further notice she is the funkiest of our generation.

I left Hip Hop cats off my list because, while some of them get funky — producers like Dr. Dre, Rick Rock, Battle Cat, Hi Tek, Kayne West, The Neptunes and Shock G, Hip Hop — like it’s father James Brown — has it’s own brand new bag. Badu and D’Angelo combines the two — old and new, funk and Hip Hop, instruments and technology to make the funk new. Thank you Jesus because Black people and people all over the world need the funk to get through these uncertain times and funk will continue to bless us.

Kevin Weston is a writer and the Director of New Media and Youth Communications at New America Media.

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