This is the final section of a series of essay son funk ensembles in the 21st century.
Funk was in transition from a music created with live horns, Latin percussion, and a tight rhythm section to a music created with synthesizers and drum machines that required fewer musicians and were the producer, not band, was dominant. Still bands, many of who peaked artistically in the mid-‘70s, sold lots of vinyl and cassettes, whether they were based on the West Coast (Ray Parker & Raydio, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, the Brothers Johnson, Con Funk Shun), New York/New Jersey (Fatback Band, Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, Change), down South (the Barkays, Cameo, S.O.S. Band) or part of George Clinton’s music machine (Parliament, Funkadelic, Zapp.)
The change in funk’s fortunes is defined for me by two musical memories involving the great keyboardist, the late Bernie Worrell. In 1978 the mighty musical mob known as Parliament-Funkadelic did a week-long residency at the Apollo Theater, playing to an adoring crowd, many of them dressed up in space age outfits inspired by Afro-futuristic concept albums like ‘The Mothership Connection’ and ‘The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.’ The funk and vocal oriented Parliament and the acid rock Funkadelic, known by its legion of rocketeers as P-Funk, had been a dominant force in black music since the early ‘70s, selling millions of albums and headlining arenas by providing a gritty alternative to glitzy disco culture.
The Apollo residency was a kind of valedictory, as the P-Funk collective would soon scatter forever shortly afterwards. The array of talent on the Apollo stage included James Brown alumni (bassist Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley), soul music expats (ex-Spinner’s lead singer Phillipe Wynne) and tons of homegrown band members strutting around in diapers and freaky gear.
A highlight of every Apollo show was a long solo by the musical wizard Worrell. A classical music prodigy seduced by the funk, Worrell was a prime musical muse for P-Funk, combining traditional musical technique with an adventurous sound on synthesizers. Working with bandleader and visionary George Clinton, Worrell masterminded iconic recordings such as “Flashlight” and “One Nation Under A Groove.” His Apollo solos took the audience on a sci fi journey that elevated our consciousness in the sonic absolution of cosmic blackness.
Now let’s jump forward to the 21st century where bands weened on funk play at the Brooklyn Bowl. Soul Live, Lettuce, Galactic Funk, Soul Rebels, and Dumpstafunk are just a few that performed there regularly. Most of these bands are either all or predominantly white. Black brass bands with roots in New Orleans music are the only black ensembles on the circuit. But even the all-black ensembles, like the Soul Rebels, play to 90% white audiences at Brooklyn Bowl and at a national network of clubs and festivals that support the jam band scene, the largest of which is held in Bonnaroo, Tennessee every summer. In terms of band American culture funk has become a very white music.
As hip hop rose, black bands in the commercial realm lost label deals and cultural currency. Jazz has remained band music. You can find gifted black musicians in college marching bands and in any church you attend on a Sunday morning. The Afro-Punk scene has cultivated ensembles who tap into rock, blues, jazz, and punk in the tradition of the Bad Brains and Living Colour. But, for a long time the Roots were the only black band with his presence in the commercial space and that was largely because of their gig on NBC’s The Tonight Show gig. In recent years Anderson Paak has promoted his backing band the Free Nationals and a few other noteworthy groups have emerged, like Brooklyn’s Phony Pple and Los Angeles’ Dinner Party and the Midnight Hour. Dam Funk has been doing his own brand of synth funk as a producer/DJ for years. All excellent groups, but none dedicated to the funk or its sonic traditions.
When vets like Steve Arrington do put out new music (he has just released an album on Stones Throw Records titled ‘Down To the Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions’) there’s no black radio or little online support. A few years ago, I went to Arrington, former lead vocalist of the brutally funky bands Slave and Hall of Fame, at a Manhattan nightclub with his band the Invade. The joint was only 1/5 full and despite that, Arrington gave a spirited performance with his unique voice piercing the air.
Which brings me around to the 21st century conversation around appropriation. In the ‘70s Sly & the Family Stone fused gospel and funk with poppy melodies right out (and perfect for) Top 40 radio. George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic “thang” adapted the acid guitar and drone of hard rock to funk. Later Prince, Cameo and Jermaine Jackson were amongst the many black ‘80s acts to have hits by adapting the keyboard sounds, melodic ideas and vocal arrangements of new wave. I guess that was all “appropriation” if you wanna make it a negative. I prefer to think that artists hear sounds they deem cool or current or progressive, and then put their spin on them whether they are white, black or Puerto Rican. The gifted “steal” creatively and the corny do it so tone deaf its insulting.
In that vein I’m gonna take a moment to shout out the career of Peter Gene Hernandez, the quarter Latino, two thirds Filipino singer-songwriter professionally known as Bruno Mars. Raised as a child performer in Hawaii, young Mars was a gifted performer, who could imitate Elvis, James Brown and like Sinatra if the gig required it. He came on my radar as a co-writer of Ceelo Green’s “Fuck You,” a neo-Motown ditty with a cheeky hook, and was the vocalist/writer on a couple of straight up pop hits. Then, at the 2012 the Grammys, he and his agile all-black horn section, did a tremendous performance of Runaway Baby” that flawlessly evoked the chitlin’ circuit glory of R&B showmanship.
I really needed to see what Mars did in a full show. Finally caught him at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013 and he put on an old-fashioned R&B venue with the entire band doing choreography, long instrumental vamps (even on the pop hits) and much call and response between Bruno, the band and the audience. This singer-songwriter-producer was the best onstage male performer/dancer I’d witnessed since young Usher. Aside from the showmanship and craft Mars’ show displayed, I was also stuck by how little of this performance style remained in popular black music. Maxwell tapped into it. D’Angelo did, whenever he decided to come out of and tour. If you caught a New Edition show, the boys from Boston still have it in their bones.
It wasn’t until Anderson Paak’s break out in 2014 with the brilliantly groovy single “Come Down” that I saw another performer attempt that level of showmanship, especially since he used his backing band, the Free Nationals, in a way similar to his R&B elders. Paak is half Korean but, perhaps because he also half black, the singer/MC has avoided the appropriation attacks leveled at Mars. But the truth I’ve found very few African American millennial male performers who work as successfully in this grand energetic, tightly scripted, dynamic black show business tradition — much less did it while recording 21st century smash hits. It was impressive that both because Mars and Paak were so damn engaging, invoking the past while making radio friendly music for now.
“What Bruno Mars does, is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it,” writer Seren Sensei wrote in 2018. “He does not create it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers.” She was incensed that his Mars’ album ‘24K Magic’ Won Album of the Year and that Prince never had.
Many black celebrities came to his defense, most notably Charlie Wilson, formerly of the Gap Band, who successfully sued Mars for songwriting royalties on the massive 2015 hit “Uptown Special.” That suit certainly fed the critique of Mars’ as articulated by Sensei and others. But, for me, that case doesn’t invalidate Mars’ body of work, on and off stage, or undercut his value. (In 1985, the year Purple Rain was eligible for album of year, it lost out of Lionel Richie’s ‘Can’t Slow Down,’ which says a lot about the Grammy voters.)
Charging “appropriation” is part of the blame game that uses the success of a younger artist to point out the injustices, financially and historical, done to performers and genres in the past. As part of a strategy to call out the craven or lazy it’s a useful tool. When people called out Iggy Azalea in 2015 for appropriation when “Fancy” was a huge hit, while black MCs struggled for exposure in the marketplace I was down. She was a blond babe gimmick, a true one hit wonder, and has happily receded from view.
But Bruno Mars was not stealing “our” music. He wasn’t a parody of R&B or new jack swing. In fact, he was one of the only people with a mass audience keeping these styles alive. Putting out a record celebrating funk in 2105 or new jack swing in 2017 were as far from a commercial slam dunk as one could get. Black folks, both as creators and customers crave innovation, invention, and the constant shock of the new. It is why black music has moved like a tractor through the cow pasture otherwise known as American culture. The thirst for new sounds has driven everything from bebop to trap.
But what was left behind as a result? Entire aesthetic revolutions that are the envy of other cultures globally are abandoned on the side of the road, like vintage cars now viewed as hoopties. Mars went into the junkyard of African American expression, stripped off the spare parts, and made a sleek new muscle car and drove it smack dab up the digital highway. The man may not have the DNA of Babyface & LA, the Gap Band, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley etc. but he had retrofitted ‘90s R&B and funk for the Spotify generation. When he accepted his Grammy for ‘24K Magic’ Mars name checked Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam Harris & Terry Lewis, giants of late 20th century R&B, who are currently irrelevant to commercial black music. For a lot of people watching at home Mars might as well have been praising about Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry.
As opposed to those burning Bruno Mars in digital effigy, the man was keeping a funky part of black musical history current and not just relegated to performers on a Tom Joiner oldies cruise. Besides, can you truly appropriate that which has been discarded?
© 2020 Nelson George