Every drummer should learn some classic funk beats, but taking a deeper look into the origins and historical significance of funk music allows for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the style. It’s time to get FUNKY.
The Earliest Whiff of Funk
Funk music gained popularity throughout the later part of the 1960s during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Created and innovated by black musicians in the US, funk musicians created a new form of dance music by combining elements of soul, jazz, and R&B.
A gospel and R&B singer by the name of James Brown forever changed music in 1965 with the release of the songs “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You.” The grooves emphasized beat 1 of each phrase, but with lots of syncopated rhythms in the middle. James Brown’s band relied more on establishing a solid groove with repetitive rhythms and patterns instead of creating melodies and chord progressions. For six years, his band performed with two drummers: Clyde Stubblefield (left below) and John “Jabo” Starks (right below). Together, they laid the foundation of funk drumming. Each drummer performed on songs that best fit his individual style. Brown often added percussive grunts and shouts during performances to play further into the feel. These syncopated grooves made people want to get up and dance and especially resonated with marginalized communities.
Another key group in the development of funk is Sly and the Family Stone (pictured right), originally backed by drummer Greg Errico. This band broke social barriers by including black and white musicians, as well as men and women. The bassist, Larry Graham, invented the percussive slap technique as a way to mimic a drum set. By thumping lower strings with the side of his thumb and plucking higher strings with his index finger, Graham emulated a kick and snare pattern. Slap style bass has since become a staple of funk music. Sly got the band to look as funky as their sound, sporting wild and colorful outfits. Funk quickly became something appreciated by everybody, regardless of race or gender. The music and fashion became a way of life.
Different styles of funk music emerged from different parts of the US. The Meters, backed by drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, developed a style of funk unique to New Orleans. Largely influenced by second-line parade music, their tunes exhibit restraint and minimalism, but each choice is tastefully made. The Meters never achieved the same level of success as James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone, but countless musicians site the band as one of the most influential groups of the early funk era.
Wait! It gets funkier . . .
Beginning in the 1970s, George Clinton and the collective that became known as Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, took the fun and quirky vibe portrayed by Sly and the Family Stone and pushed it to an otherworldly extreme. Clinton’s music and stage persona were unapologetically weird. Heavily influenced by science fiction and surrealism, P-Funk shows typically included absurd outfits and even a couple of spaceships flying onto the stage. Bootsy Collins’ bass famously looked like a shooting star. But the humorous elements were backed up by incredible musicianship and the funkiest of grooves. The Parliament-Funkadelic collective still influences modern funk, hiphop, psychedelic, and avant musicians. Since the 1970s, the collective has grown to include over 100 musicians.
For more technical musicianship, David Garibaldi has been laying down incredibly intricate grooves with Tower of Power since 1970. Combining elements of soul, rock, pop, R&B, and big band jazz, Tower of Power eventually grew into a collective encompassing over 60 musicians over their 50-year career, similarly to Parliament-Funkadelic.
The Funk Will Go On
Unfortunately, the first funk craze came to an abrupt end in the early 1980s with the introduction of disco. Some of the original funk greats, such as Earth, Wind, & Fire and Kool & the Gang, managed to adapt to the change in demand, but most other funk artists fell out of style. Listeners found disco’s “four to the floor” grooves easier to dance to compared to funk’s syncopated rhythms.
However, that all changed a few years later with the creation of hiphop. Hiphop relied on sampling older funk grooves as the basis for modernized hiphop beats. Since then, the core elements of funk drumming have been revitalized and integrated into many forms of modern music.
More recently, funk has been making a resurgence in the form of up-tempo, energetic grooves with lots of synthesized and electronic elements. Louis Cole of Knower (pictured left) takes heavy influence from old school funk music and modern electronic music to create tight, yet technical, grooves, songs, and arrangements. On the opposite end of the funk spectrum, Vulfpeck captures more of the minimalist old school jazz-funk vibe (think Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters). Another more modern group, Lettuce, backed by drummer Adam Deitch, also beautifully captures the roots of funk with the addition of more current hiphop elements. And Lettuce gets bonus points for forming in Boston!
Where’s the Funk in Boston?
If you’re looking to see some live funk music around Boston, Plough and Stars in Cambridge, MA hosts the B3 Kings on Tuesday nights. From 10:30 PM - 1 AM, they perform classic funk, soul, and blues tunes. The Chicken Slacks, a local band, plays classic funk, Motown, and R&B tunes every Thursday night at the Cantab Lounge near Central Square. Many well-known touring acts routinely come through Boston and Cambridge, too. Just keep track of your favorite artists to catch their shows!
While the peak popularity of funk came and went decades ago, the core concepts still drive much of today’s music. Every drummer should study and understand funk concepts and learn some classic funk grooves in order to improve feel and expand vocabulary. Chances are, your favorite drummer’s favorite drummer is an old school funk musician. Exploring the roots of such an important musical style may significantly impact the way you play and approach the drums. In the words of George Clinton, “We need the funk. We gotta have that funk.”