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Understanding Funk: Do You Really Love What You Feel?

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The Watcher

                        Most people one knows throughout life continue forward via inspiration. That term is often miss-classified in the contemporary human mind as shorthand for religious or spiritual inspiration. Today I am going to be talking about musical inspiration. There is an ideology to it. And its not of the sort that asks that one condemns another through hatred or anything of that kind. A lot of people also look upon “being different” as trying to avoid “isms” in life. But…well,frankly that just doesn’t hold up when your trying to apply it. Adding “ism” to a phrase assumes self confidence. Creates a defined sense of purpose. So in this spirit,my own sense of inspiration comes from futurism. The futurism of being a Star Trek and science fiction admirer. And the futurism that comes from certain types of music. As readers of this blog are well aware,the key to understanding what in music appeals to me is soul. Soul that is within a strong groove and,as Miles Davis’s mother once advised him,playing something you can hum-a strong melody. Its really not a bad way to look at most things in life itself,actually.

I’ve been hesitant in the last few weeks to write anything new here because I feel that blogs of this sort are not being represented well by the online audience at the moment. It seems that for some reason the music media has been overly focused on non other than Miley Cyrus. As far as I am concerned,she is another in a succession  of teenage recording artists who are over promoted and are presenting themselves as being somehow unique when doing nothing the least bit daring or original. So I say in mild jest that for the first time writing in this blog I feel as if two entire sentences have been wasted on a group of music stars who,to put it mildly,have still not found their own genuinely creative voice yet. So this article will not contain celebrity gossip about the latest teen idol. Never done that,and not about to start. What I’m going to talk about comes down to the modern day equivalent of the blues-a musical base found in most contemporary pop of all genres if you peel back the layers.  And that would be funk. Funk comes from the blues. And its found it’s own voice. But not only do many people not notice,but are frankly rife with misconceptions of what funk music is. So even if I am not remotely close to all knowing on the topic,I’ll do my best can with with what I’ve got to help set the record straight.

Due to a recent conversation I had and viewing commentary all over the internet the first misconception I’ve seen about funk music is the term “simplistic” and/or “uncomplicated”. The language that many people use in reference to funk has a passive/aggressive quality-almost as if to say the music presents itself as simple because it is made by simpletons. Funk is actually a great way to explain that misconception as it applies to many aspects of life. Funk is music that’s built up. The bass and the drum are the core of the music. And everything is built up from the sense of rhythm provided from both instruments. As with the blues,the approach to the music changes all the time.  This has already been discussed in my first post on this blog-its the core of what I write about. Yet most people are well aware it has become a much more superficial society,most notably in terms of people’s points of view. Somehow people have been trained,or trained themselves to perceive mainly what’s on the surface of something. Music is a good example in general. With the exception of 60’s era innovators such as The Beatles,Jimi Hendrix and Brian Wilson-who actually expanded the rhythmic/harmonic language of their respective musical art,it is 3 chord rock ‘n roll that is more literally a simplistic music.

Of course that leads into what’s probably let to funk’s strong musical invisibility: culturally based musical value judgement’s. Often times when someone refers to funk as simplistic,the conversation on the topic is being dismissed-not to be mentioned again. While writers such as Ricky Vincent and Nelson George have done an excellent job in literature defining funk/soul within a broader cultural context,their prose are deeply affected by this form of dismissal. And considering the struggle for recognition of anything at all Afrocentric,that is understandable.  However its extremely easy to find someone who’ll rhapsodize with great adoration and worship about their love of punk and different alternative/indie folk based musics-admiring them,in fact for their simplicity and directness. If one looks at this double standard in a cultural context,an instant racial schism is created. It refers to the simplicity of Afrocentric music,or even Mexican and East Indian classical/folk music,as being worth less creatively than simplistic musical forms that derive from the European tradition of music.  That’s why it’s so common for funk music to be appreciated almost as a retro novelty dance music,yet the same person will find even a stereotypical sounding country-western type folk song to be iconic and timeless creatively.

Little in this article actually moves too far beyond the discussions that my friend and often personal inspiration Henrique have been  having online for years. That’s important though because those discussions bought out one little known fact: funk can be found everywhere if you understand it. Incidental music in adult films is often heavy funk,which of course leads to another misconception of funk as “porn music”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing however,since funk’s emphasis on rhythm is complimentary to human sexual impulses.  Also in the teen pop I discussed earlier in the blog. Even though it was went to be geared solo as a marketing demographic,the basic musical groove of Britney Spears debut hit “Baby One More Time” is an attempt at funk. The slow dance beat,popping bass line on the accents and yes-Britney’s attempt at phrasing vocally like Sly Stone even at times are apparent for the radio listener who digs deep. It should be pointed out however that this is not by any means a funk song. Only the most obvious elements of the music are fleshed out so,at best is winds up being second/third rate “kiddie funk” to a degree. But again,its still very much in the groove-despite being instrumentally artificial and presenting by a more highly mediocre vocal talent than funk would normally have.

Putting a musical wrap onto all of this,I’d have to say that music lovers out there should understand one important thing. Having a mere history lesson on the major innovations of rock ‘n roll or the latest goings on of whatever teen idol is popular at the moment really doesn’t provide a well rounded understanding of what makes popular music function as it does. In the 1960’s it was well understood that the 12 bar electric blues was the basis for every major rock innovation of that era-from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin.  And that resulted in a renaissance for those artists who pioneered that blues sound such as BB King,John Lee Hooker,Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The only major celebrity associated culturally with the rock music scene who has chosen to present unsung funk/soul artists in this manner is probably David Byrne. In the last few years the contemporary R&B community has again began to embrace the funk era,once dimmed to near invisibility,as a strong influence rather than various hip-hop styles. And hip-hop being inspired by funk,its a representation of the removal of a filter-and a clear field of view for the music.  If this musical ethic continues to sway in this direction,I can see a time in the very near future where funk is as acknowledged as a musical base as the blues,its direct ancestor,was in the past.

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