Modern Griots Reviews: “Finding the Funk…

Source: VH1

…and getting the respect!”

Author, music historian and filmmaker, Nelson George, said at a rough cut screening of his latest film, Finding the Funk, that funk music was a music for outsiders. Reaching its peak in the 70s and early 80s, the short time between the eras of soul and post-bop/funky jazz and the rise of hip-hop, funk and its pioneers have left a prominent impression on current music, but do not receive as much historical analysis as other genres of popular music. While other genres, like blues, jazz, soul and even our most current hip-hop, have tons of books and documentaries about them, George himself said he could only find one definitive book about the history of funk, Rickey Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One. Basically in popular culture, funk almost still remains an enigma or a shadow of the future, despite having the likes of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, Zapp, Cameo, Slave, Mtume, Prince, LaBelle and plenty more in that legacy.

In comes, George, with his documentary to give a chance for audiences now to get to know better the history and faces of funk, if they have not already. Although this was a rough cut — the final version will premiere on VH1 in November with more performance footage and songs — George’s film had a lot of potential mainly because of the interviews with many of those involved in funk, most prominently George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the elusive, and kind of spaced-out interview-wise, Sly Stone. Opening with a joke from one of funk’s founding father’s, James Brown, about a guy who doesn’t know the directions in Harlem, but yet knows he’s not lost, the film balances the heavy baselines of funk with lighthearted laughter in the interviews.

Questlove, the famous drummer of The Roots, narrated the segments of the documentary, giving an overall view of what funk is — afrofuturistic with its spaceships, black people as aliens, and eastern cosmologies, yet earthy with its concept of funk as the natural body odor, originating from, as Michael Eric Dyson said, the kikongo word, lu-fuki. This manifested into an array of interesting facts about funk and the artists behind the music, such as Brown’s god-like commandment of “the one;” Sly Stone’s utopia, hippy-like vision of his band, Family Stone, with its black, white, male and female members, and the world on Dance to the Music, which turned into a dystopic view by the time of There’s a Riot Going On after witnessing a world of riots; the large number of bands that came from the midwest, specifically Dayton, Ohio of all places; to George Clinton’s description of the production process of Parliament Funkadelic’s music, where people wouldn’t take showers for days, so it did smell funky up in there; and how Larry Graham developed his slap-bass technique out of a necessity to fill in the spot on his mother’s organ’s broken bass notes and a missing drummer in their church band.

But where the film was lacking were in terms of inclusion of other voices, like women and lgbtq. There was a very small segment on LaBelle with Nona Hendryx, which also included a discussion on their futuristic Filipino fashion designer, Larry LeGaspi. George explained that the segment was not longer because the footage for Nona Hendryx was damaged, but that he might go back and reshoot it. The film also included drummer and singer, Sheila E. One of the audience members asked why Betty Davis wasn’t included in the film. George answered that it is hard to include Davis because there is no live footage of her and she declines to do video interviews (only audio). He did say one of his friends is working on a documentary about her, but it is difficult because of those previous reasons. Still I wanted to hear more voices from women and lgtbq in the funk community.

What is the future of funk? One of the last segments featured today’s artists who utilize funk in their own work, like D’Angelo (who was in the audience that night), Dam Funk, and Shock G of Digital Underground (Sons of the P album title was a reference to Parliament Funkadelic). But surprisingly, or maybe not so much, the issue with funk continuation into the future is technology. While many hip-hop artists have sampled funk in their own work, the lower costs of the technology, in addition to lack of music education in schools, have made bands, the central basis of funk, harder to do. Collaboration with a large number of musicians is not popular. Also, the more lush the music, the less it is sampled; for example, Earth, Wind and Fire are not sampled as much as others. George said there is a huge gap with black popular bands specifically doing funk music. Will we have a return in the future?

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