What the Funk?

Bootsy Collins Wrote “Redbone” in 1973 With “I’d Rather Be With You”

Almost a year ago, the multitalented Donald Glover, under his musical alias Childish Gambino, released his third studio album Awaken, My Love! It was a departure from his early 2010’s gimmicky internet rap style, instead honing in on expansive rhythms and venturing into new sonic spaces evoking 1970’s funk and R&B. It was also a far more enjoyable listen than any of his previous releases. Gambino did not try to hide his funk influences. Awaken’s cover is an overt homage to Funkadelic’s 1971 classic Maggot Brain. Musically, the parallels are just as pronounced.

Gambino’s December 2016 release is just one notable example of the heightened role funk has played in various genres. French electronic artist FKJ, in a world of the do-it-all producer, puts meandering funk bass and honey-sweet saxophone lines at the center of his oeuvre. Kendrick Lamar funkafied popular hip-hop on an unprecedented level with his 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly, a rap album that was as tightly packed with instrumental breaks and funk guitar riffs as it was with lyrical assaults on the white supremacist powers that be. One of the producing architects of that feat was Stephen Bruner, known on stage as Thundercat. This Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist has worked with artists ranging from Mac Miller and Jhene Aiko to virtuoso jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. In his solo career, certainly warranting its own recognition, Thundercat works primarily with a custom 6-string bass, his songs driven by their Parliament-esque psychedelic soul riffs. And on his November 2016 release 24K Magic, Bruno Mars tries earnestly to merge personalities with James Brown and Prince to deliver an album that sounds like it should come with a fur coat and a pair of patent leather shoes.

“[It’s] an album that sounds like it should come with a fur coat and a pair of patent leather shoes”

Funk’s influence beyond its 1970’s heyday is no new occurrence. In the cherished hip-hop tradition of riffing and sampling, funk and soul basslines inundate the hip-hop canon. Ohio Players’ “Ecstasy” underlies “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a duet with Biggie on Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt. A Bandstand video investigating all of the samples from Kanye West’s Late Registration finds the artist borrowing from soul and funk acts from Bumpin’ Bus Stop’s 1974 “Thunder and Lightning” to his further immortalization of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in “Touch the Sky”.

But this most recent development is patently different. Rather than sampling from the artists who inspire, artists like Anderson .Paak, The Internet, Phony Ppl, and KAYTRANADA are building on funk’s legacy. Utilizing the tools offered up by previously unfathomable advancements in production technology, these artists are, in the funk tradition, constructing grooves that fit like a glove rather than beats that are layered like a cake.

–Elijah Levine

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