From James Brown to Uptown: A History of Funk from JB to Mark Ronson

I played music at a 40th birthday party just before Christmas.  I do corporate functions too.  It’s easy for me to play for 40, 50 and 60-year-olds because I’ve been collecting music since the late sixties.  At this 40th birthday party, I quickly found out what the crowd were into and gave them all the Luther Vandross, Earth Wind & Fire and Fatback Band tracks I knew they would like, but there was one new song they wanted to hear over and over again, that tune was ‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson featuring the voice of Bruno Mars.

 

Why does everyone love this tune?  Well, it sounds brand new but it feels old school.  The rhythms of funk are pretty hard to resist.  If they don’t cause your toes to tap, you’re either deaf or white (or both!)

Now, first of all, Mark Ronson is not your normal producer.  He’s the child of music industry people so, from a very early age, he was surrounded by musicians and singers.  He’s had the best possible music education.  He’s been exposed to everything from rock to soul to pop to hip hop; he understands how the different styles work, which is why ‘Uptown Funk’ will be on your radio from now until the end of time, and why his version of The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ (featuring Amy Winehouse) is another all-time radio and party favourite, and why the most credible acts in every genre are happy to work with him.

 mark ronson

And, although ‘Uptown Funk’ is great to dance to, it is a LONG way from the rhythms of James Brown, widely regarded as the man who patented ‘funk’.  Back in the early sixties, James Brown and his amazing band (featuring Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker) were creating a genre that was complex yet simple, a genre that was so influential, it spawned several other genres, the most important being hip hop.

In fact, if you listen closely to the recordings of hip hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, EPMD or Stetsasonic, James Brown actually made it easy for them to sound good!  All these hip hop acts needed to do was loop 16-bars of James, rap about anything over the top, look cool on stage and they had a career!

james brown

Those early James Brown records are so powerful and potent, they seeped into white consciousness like some kind of computer virus and, before they knew it, mainstream, conservative society had swagger!  And even though James was singing, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud”, the establishment could do nothing but sing along.  It was just TOO good!

The next person to pick up the funk mantle was George Clinton and his groups Parliament and Funkadelic and, even though George came from an R&B and doo-wop background, he mixed pysychedelic rock into his funk.  Instead of short, punchy, three-minute radio records, George’s epic funk symphonies were like a Grateful Dead jam.  George and his charismatic bass player Bootsy Collins were part of an amazing generation of live acts that brought funk to a younger generation.

george clinton

At that time, MTV and the music video didn’t exist, so acts still had to play a lot of live gigs to reach their audience.  Groups such as Earth Wind & Fire, The Fatback Band, Cameo, The Ohio Players, Slave and The Commodores were not only in possession of ‘the funk’, they also wrote the sweet soul songs which inspired the next R&B generation.

The next figure to preach the gospel of the funk was Prince, who not only had JB’s grooves, he also had his moves, but to call Prince a ‘funk’ artist is just telling a small part of his story.  As it turned out, we soon discovered that Prince could do everything; he could write, play and produce every genre, and his live shows are an affectionate homage to the spirit of James Brown and the uplifting nature of funk.

prince

In fact, as soul music was becoming drenched by ballads a.k.a. ‘slow jams’, the only people actually being funky were the hip hop acts, still stealing liberally from the funk back catalogue. 

In amongst all of that soppy soul, the creator of swingbeat (or new jack swing) Teddy Riley created a funky genre that owed much to the tight syncopation of The JBs.  Acts such as Blackstreet, New Edition, Wreckx-n-Effect, Guy, Boyz II Men, Intro and Jodeci gave soul music a much-needed shot in the arm and paved the way for today’s R&B.

Something like Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ owes much to the history of funk but, because Mark is such a clever guy, there is gospel call-and-response in there, as well as easy-to-digest house beats that make it fun for dancers and non-dancers alike.

Who are the new champions of funk?  Well, certainly not the house music fans who have created this term ‘funky house’.  What the funk is that all about?  House is four-to-the-floor bass drum, while funk always has a back beat.  ‘Funky house’ is a horrific misnomer!  In truth, they probably mean repetitive beats with percussion over the top (and a vocalist, if you’re lucky!)

snarky puppy

The current torchbearers for ‘the funk’ are probably the new breed of jazz-fusion musicians; guys and girls coming from every musical background.  Go and see acts like Snarky Puppy, Esperanza Spalding and Jarrod Lawson to hear great musicians perpetuating funky ideas.

Only great musicians could have created funk.  Ordinary musicians will struggle with the rigours of this genre.  It relies heavily on being ‘on the good foot’ or ‘in the pocket’; if a beat or note are out of place, it just ain’t right and, just like James Brown fining a band member that missed a cue, this is an unforgiving groove.

In truth, there is a massive hole in the music industry, just waiting for a new, young act to create some authentic 21st century, JB-style funk.  One wonders if that act will ever arrive?  Now that so much music is made by computers, there are a fewer and fewer recording studios and stages that contain great musicians, stumbling across unconventional new grooves. 

 If you still don’t know what funk sounds like, here is a short playlist to help you get funked-up:

 Listen to Lindsay Wesker’s radio show ‘The A-Z Of Mi-Soul Music’ every Saturday at midday on www.mi-soul.com