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Funk used to be a bad word
—Funkadelic, Let's Take It to the Stage
As the song quote above illustrates, the word "funk" first appeared somewhere in the 1920s or so, meaning "the smell of sexual intercourse". In music, the word was used to describe songs with insistent, syncopated rhythms that was highly danceable.
While Little Richard is credited as the first man to introduce funk rhythms into rock 'n roll in The Fifties, funk music was for all intents and purposes codified by James Brown, who in The Sixties developed a signature style relying on grooves that emphasised the downbeat (the first beat of every measure) and extensive vamps and improvisations with hits such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", "Cold Sweat" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine". Funk quickly evolved throughout the decade and became popular through artists such as Jimi Hendrix (the inventor of funk-rock), Sly and the Family Stone, The Isley Brothers and The Meters, but the genre reached its peak popularity in The Seventies, thanks to George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective (whose own subgenre fused psychedelic rock and funk, nicknamed "P-funk"), Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, the Isleys, Earth, Wind & Fire, and others. Jazz-funk also appeared thanks to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and various Soul musicians dabbled heavily in funk, such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Temptations, The O'Jays, Stevie Wonder and Wilson Pickett.
Funk started to flounder in the late Seventies as disco overtook it in popularity. Disco was massively influenced and quite similar to funk, but while funk had a "rhythm über alles" approach (real funksters wouldn't think twice about jamming over a single chord if it was funky enough), disco placed a much bigger emphasis on melodies. Disco also had much more conventional, hedonistic lyrics, and took a more flamboyant, campy approach to production. Aside from the typical funk lineup of guitar-bass-drums-keyboards-horn section, string sections were included, and the overal sound was much more poppy, with way simplified beats and grooves. Funk fans started a backlash against the genre similar to the one rock fans experienced, claiming it was soulless and overindulgent, an opinion memorably summarised by Funkadelic on their Uncle Jam Wants You album, which claimed to "rescue dance music from the blahs".
As disco died an ugly death at the start of The Eighties, funk evolved in a new direction as a reaction to the excess of disco and the increasing difficulty of keeping together large bands like in The Seventies. The new sound was stripped-down, less syncopated and more reliant on electronics, with synthesisers and drum machines overtaking the previous hallmarks of funk such as "funky drummers", slap bass and Hammond organ/Rhodes piano. The first musician to take advantage of this style (nicknamed "punk-funk", not to be confused with actual post-punk bands influenced by funk such as Gang Of Four and Talking Heads) was Rick James, who scored hits in 1981 with "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak", but Prince, with his backing band The Revolution and his associates (The Time, Vanity and Apollonia 6, Sheila E., Wendy and Lisa, Jill Jones, Mazarati, The Family, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and so on) were the most successful throughout The Eighties, thanks to his effective combination of eroticism, skillful use of technology, catchy riffs and fusion of various genres, including funk, pop, rock/hard rock/heavy metal and New Wave, with the resulting style being nicknamed "the Minneapolis Sound" (due to the fact that most practitioners were from Minnesota). Others followed Prince's lead to varying degrees of success, such as Cameo, Zapp, the Gap Band and the Dazz Band, while other subgenres appeared in the period, such as Afrika Bambaataa and electro-funk/electro. Funk proved to be a large influence on hip-hop in the decade as well, with samples from funk songs being repeatedly used in hip-hop and even house music.
While pure funk pretty much disappeared after The Eighties thanks to hip-hop, resurgent R&B and its offshoot New Jack Swing, The Nineties saw a boom in Funk Rock and Funk Metal bands, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Living Colour, Janes Addiction, Primus, Faith No More and Infectious Grooves. Another subgenre of hip-hop called G-funk (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound), which was based on copying and updating the old "P-Funk" sound, also became popular in the early nineties, but pretty much wore out its welcome and died by 1996.
In Brazil, there's the subgenre funk carioca, which is actually closer to electro and hip-hop than actual funk. It's divided in songs about sex, and the "probidão", glamourizing the criminal lifestyle. It also provided us with this meme, showing just how far the apple has fallen from the tree.
It should be noted that while far from common, there are still (new) bands that play pure funk music. A good example would be T-Bird and the Breaks.
Important funk bands and artists:
- James Brown
- George Clinton (with Parliament-Funkadelic and solo)
- Earth, Wind & Fire (so-called "sophisticated funk", as opposed to the "hardcore funk" of Brown and Clinton)
- The Isley Brothers
- Rick James
- Fela Kuti (Afrobeat creator)
- Maceo Parker (saxophonist who started out in James Brown's band in The Sixties, then played with Clinton in The Seventies and Prince since The Oughts and currently serves as a major exponent of jazz-funk)
- The Meters
- The Ohio Players
- Prince and The Revolution, plus the whole Minneapolis sound
- Sly and the Family Stone (whose bassist Larry Graham invented slap bass)
- Stevie Wonder (Superstition is largely responsible for the popularity of the Clavinet in funk music)
- Zapp (robot funksters famous for Roger Troutman's mastery of the talk box)