Funk music is characterized by its use of polyrhythms, syncopated bass lines, short vocal phrases, and a considerable amount of repetition of these rhythmic patterns and phrases. It represents an evolution of soul music with greater emphasis on interactive rhythmic layers.
Polyrhythm has been discussed in our class before, but to reiterate, it means that musically there are multiple layers of rhythmic patterns happening at once. In ragtime, this meant two rhythms: one in the left hand (usually simple) and one in the right hand (usually the more complex of the two). When they interacted, the two rhythms created a complex rhythmic texture containing two rhythmic patterns. In funk music, this idea is further explored through the use of 4 or 5 or more distinct rhythmic patterns in different instruments such as drums, various other percussion instruments, bass, electric guitar, keyboards, horns, and vocals.
I demonstrate layering 4 different rhythmic patterns in a funk style. I play the first three in isolation, then I use an electronic device to record each pattern and play them together whie putting a 4th pattern on top. Notice the simplicity and space in each part, but when played together it creates a complex web of patterns.
The first musician to play funk music was James Brown. While his soul music was influenced by African American gospel, his funk was derived from African polyrhythmic music. Brown’s backing group maintained constant rhythmic accompaniment with clear accents on the downbeat and polyrhythms in the drums, bass, guitar, keys, and horns. Uniquely, the horns were less often used for melodic lines. Rather, they punctuated rhythmic figures. Chord changes were relatively minimal, and single chord vamps were most common, bringing more attention to the rhythms.The song “Out of Sight” (1964) introduced this style, but funk gained popularity with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965) which also happens to use 12-bar blues form.
The song “Payback” is a fantastic example of the funk genre, structured as a single chord vamp with layers of funky polyrhythm in all the instruments. The drumbeat is relatively straightforward and the bass plays for about half the bar and rests for the other half, creating space that enhances the groove. The guitar plays a very simple pattern that repeats almost exactly throughout, and the horns play only when JB calls out “Hit Me!”. Likewise, the female backing vocalists only respond to certain vocal calls from Brown. The keyboards have the most liberty, improvising throughout to give JB’s voice a break or to showcase dancing. The song is structured ABA, with both A and B as separate single chord vamps with their own individual characteristics such as different rhythms, different lyrics, and a different key. The transition to the B section occurs around 3:29 in the example in Ch. 18 Listening Examples, featuring the backup singers, and the B section officially begins at 3:59, featuring JB on lead vocals again. JB signals a hint to transition back to the A section around 4:50, and by 5:00 the music is back to A where it closes out. Much of the music of James Brown is structured in this way or in a similar way, but with the element of improvisation thrown in, no two performances were exactly alike.
Sly and the Family Stone
Sly and the Family Stone was one of the first groups to use James Brown’s new style. Formed by two brothers Sylvester and Freddie Stewart, and led by Sylvester (Sly). The Family referred to the fact that Sly Stone’s siblings were in the group and that it was a racially mixed group, representing an important statement of unity in support of the civil rights movement. The group also had female musicians that played instruments at a time when female instrumentalists were not common in popular music.
Songs like “Dance to the Music” (1968) took the polyrhythmic vamping style of James Brown while songs such as “Everyday People” were more rock styled with heavy backbeats, call and response vocals, and the even beat subdivisions common in Motown recordings. The song with perhaps the biggest influence on the development of funk music was “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” (1969, featured in Ch. 18 Listening Examples) which featured fuzz tone guitars, polyrhythms, and minimal chord changes. The video below includes an opening improvisation that adds new rhythmic layers one at a time, illustrating the dense polyrhythmic web characteristic of funk.
Funk could also be commercially friendly and indebted to pop music in certain ways. The song “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus uses a standard pop song form in combination with the rhythms of funk. Examine the lyrical excerpt below to get an idea of the form:
I got something that will sho’ ’nuff set your stuff on fire
You refuse to put anything before your pride
What I got will knock all your pride aside
Tell me that you love me, yeah
Tell me something good
Tell me that you like it, yeah
(Got no time, no, got no time)
I’ll make you wish there was 48 hours to each day
Your problem is you ain’t been loved like you should
What I got to give will sho’ ’nuff do you good
(Tell me, tell me, tell me)
Tell me that you love me, yeah
Tell me something good
(Tell me, tell me, tell me)
Tell me that you like it, yeah
Slap bass is a unique technique of playing the bass guitar that funk bass players began using after Larry Graham (pictured above) of Sly and the Family Stone began pioneering and popularizing the technique in the early days of the group. Mechanically, it involves three basic elements, though many players have added other techniques to it since. The first element involves slapping a low string with the thumb, sometimes referred to as the “thump”. Second, a finger (usually the index) pulls back with some force a higher string so that it bounces back against the fingerboard. This is referred to as the “pluck” or “popping”. Usually these two sounds alternate in some fashion. The third element involves what are called “ghost notes” or “dead notes” which refers to the fact that no pitches actually sound. Rather, the player rests their finger on the string to achieve a brief rhythmic noise that fills in the musical phrase with little rhythmic punctuations. It’s difficult to put into words, so I demonstrate all these things in the Ch. 18 Listening Examples.
Curtis Mayfield – (1942-1999) Got his start with soul group the Impressions, with which he sang lead for eleven years. The group recorded gospel songs and songs in support of civil rights. In 1972 Mayfield created his biggest success when writing and producing the soundtrack for the film Superfly. By this time he was playing funk music. The film soundtrack explored anti-drug themes as did the movie. The song “Freddie’s Dead” is named after the character “Fat Freddie”, a drug dealer from the movie. The song has many characteristics of funk, including even beat subdivisions in the drums, syncopated bass guitar, as well as including flute and orchestra. Like certain other styles such as hard rock and heavy metal, many funk songs contain riffs (simple, short, memorable musical phrases) as the primary building blocks of the music. Most of “Freddie’s Dead” is driven by a bass riff that stands in contrast, rhythmically and stylistically, to the orchestral accompaniment. This contrast creates a unique song that sounds at the same time funky/danceable and refined.
George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic
George Clinton – (Born 1941) Is a singer/songwriter/producer who formed the group Parliament as a vocal group styled after the Temptations. Though he was hired as a writer at Motown, he never recorded for them, likely due to his bizarre stage persona. Parliament had science fiction characters and stage sets created by Clinton and many of their songs explored themes of space.
He created a new group in 1968 called Funkadelic which shared membership between it and Parliament but recorded on a different label. Funkadelic’s music was built more around a horror movie image. Both groups used the funk polyrhythms and distorted guitars of Sly and the Family Stone and the vocal stylings of doo-wop. Both had bizarre outfits and stage sets, consisted of a large number of players who were consistently changing. One unique musical feature in the music of the group was that it occasionally used synthesizers for bass lines as in the song “Flash Light” (Ch. 18 Listening Examples).
Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell was one of the most distinctive musicians in the group through his use of a variety of keyboard instruments and his shifting role where he might handle the melody, the accompaniment (chords) or the bass line. He used pianos, organs, and synthesizers. He has performed in other styles than funk music, playing with groups like the Talking Heads and Les Claypool from the group Primus. Worrell resided in Bellingham, the hometown of Western Washington University, during his last few months before his death from cancer. In that short time he managed to collaborate musically with many young local musicians such as the local funk-soul group Snug Harbor in the video below. He also performed at local Bellingham venues such as the Wild Buffalo.
Disco emerged when soul styles became popular in dance clubs. Instead of live bands, disc jockeys would play back recordings for people to dance to. Often these disco records came with a bpm indication (beats per minute) which allowed Djs to seemlessly segue between songs of the same or related tempos and the dancers could keep dancing. Other recordings would begin with rhythmically free introductions to allow for tempo changes from previous songs. Many songs were longer than normal singles, again for the purpose allowing dancers a continuous flow of music. The DJ in disco was as important as a band in rock music. The techniques that DJs developed in disco were essential to the development of hip hop.
The music is characterized by similar features found in funk music, with some notable differences. Disco is engineered to inspire movement and dancing, so rhythm is emphasized as it is in funk. Bass and drums are prominent in the overall mix of instruments which often feature pounding bass drums and catchy bass lines. The most notable difference in the two genres is the complexity of the rhythm. In funk, rhythms are layered to create a texture of syncopated, interlocking rhythmic patterns called polyrhythm. These patterns all have their own specific rhythms and are rarely straightforward. In disco, the rhythmic patterns are much more simple, and polyrhythm is kept to a minimum. Often the bass drum will either play on beats 1 and 3 of a four beat pattern, or simply play on all 4 beats. The bass is similarly straightforward. Formally, songs were most often standard forms such as verse-chorus form.
Disco became a dance craze in the US around the mid to late 1970s. It became so popular that a hit movie was released about the phenomenon called Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta. Disco was portrayed as an escape from everyday life through dancing. The soundtrack included disco songs by the Bee Gees, Kool and the Gang, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Chic was a popular disco group in the late 1970s that used the simple, infectious dance beats so popular in disco with simple, positive lyrics and catchy vocal hooks. The song “Good Times” (1978) features orchestral strings, a very straightforward drumbeat, group vocals, and a rhythmically interesting bass part that is more active than the average disco bass line. The accompaniment stays largely static between the verse (A) section and the chorus (B) sections. The song’s simple and catchy groove served as the basis for one of the first hip hop recordings, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979.
“Saturday Night Fever” clip showcasing Travolta’s dance moves and featuring “You Should Be Dancing” (1977) by the Bee Gees. Notice in the music that the bass and drums are playing in a more straightforward and simplified way than in the funk examples above. This stripped down rhythmic approach is common in many disco songs, though not all.
Chic: “Good Times”