Funkadelic’s classic 1970 track “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” has come to serve as a dualistic clarion call for funk itself, but encomiums to the form tend to focus on the booty side: the essentialist rhythmic force funk drew from jazz and soul and bequeathed to hip hop as a wealth of sampledelic riffs. The music documentary Finding the Funk returns to the first part of the equation, exploring the mind of funk as it developed from New Orleans second line and “funky jazz” progenitors like pianist Horace Silver through James Brown’s formative funkin’ on the one and the disparate but danceable explorations of Sly Stone, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Prince.
No guide is better equipped to navigate this journey than writer and filmmaker Nelson George, a preeminent chronicler of black music and popular culture. A former Billboard editor and Village Voice columnist, George’s books include the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?, Hip Hop America, Post-Soul Nation, the memoir City Kid, and 1988′s The Death of Rhythm & Blues, which provocatively examined the assimilation and dilution of black music under the guise of integration and “crossover.” Since the mid-’80s, when he helped bankroll fellow Brooklynite Spike Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It, George has been active as a movie and TV producer, director, and writer, with dozens of credits including the Chris Rock rap mockumentary CB4, the award-winning drama Life Support, and the VH1 series Soul Cities.
Directed by George, co-conceived by famed producer/remixer Arthur Baker, and made under the aegis of VH1 Rock Docs, Finding the Funk pieces together the genre’s story and soundthrough interviews with giants like Brown (uncharacteristically funny in a 2003 VH1 archive chat), the enigmatic Stone, an effusive Clinton, and JB/P-Funk right-hand man Bootsy Collins, along with illuminating demonstrations of building-block licks by soul man D’Angelo, bass ace Marcus Miller, and drummers Mike D of the Beastie Boys and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots (who doubles as the doc’s narrator). Following its March debut as a work in progress at SXSW, the movie screens this week at Hot Docs in Toronto, where we caught up with George by phone to discuss the film and the once and future state of the funk. In the tradition of James Brown’s great double-sided singles – and because in my view you can’t talk up funk too much – we’re presenting the interview in two parts; the conclusion goes up tomorrow.
MFW: The movie is clearly something of a labor of love. How long have you planned on this film, and how long were you working on it?
Nelson George: It all began a couple of years ago, in Miami, of all places. I was down in Miami for New Year’s, just hanging out at the hotel, and I ran into Arthur Baker. We just started kicking it. I’d always been interested in the topic, but Arthur really had a passion for it as well. We both were saying there really hadn’t been anything that really looked at the history. I looked online, and there was stuff that had been done, ’80s, ’90s, a couple of really good British ones. Two things had happened [since then]. One, hip hop’s adoption and use of funk had never really been dealt with in any doc, not in any real detail. And then there’s been another evolution – you have the jam bands that use a lot of funk stuff, and New Orleans brass bands. So from the last time there had been any docs, there had been a lot of evolutions in how funk music had been used. It’s really under-documented, particularly when you consider how much stuff has been done about soul music and hip hop. Funk’s right in the middle between those two big things, yet it’s been relatively ignored in terms of critical discussion.
That ties in with something Questlove says in the narration: he calls funk “essential and under-appreciated.” What do you think makes it so under-appreciated and hence so undocumented?
Relative to soul, relative to hip hop, funk didn’t cross over as much. The ’60s, the time of civil rights, you had Aretha, Motown, Stax. So many songs crossed over to the mainstream, are part of pop culture. Hip hop obviously also had success that way. Funk did not. Earth, Wind & Fire had a bunch of pop hits, [and] Ohio Players, but as an overall cultural movement, it didn’t seem to have quite the same [impact].
There’s a couple of arguments [as to why]. One is that funk had all these bands that were just a bunch of guys, so it was hard for people to get a grip on it. Two, it was during the period when pop radio was very, very dictatorial. It was really hard to go from the black chart, the R’n’B chart, to the pop chart. It was an era of a lot of payola, it was an era of a lot of corporate control. If you weren’t Michael Jackson or Prince, and you weren’t doing ballads like Lionel Richie or Luther [Vandross], you didn’t cross over to the pop charts very easily. During my days as a full-time music journalist, the [New York] Times, Rolling Stone, a lot of those outlets didn’t really cover [funk]. It just felt like between radio, print media, and record industry politics, funk got lost in the middle of all that.
You wrote a lot in The Death of Rhythm & Blues about the way [black] radio boosted earlier forms of black music and then got assimilated, as soul and other forms became more pop. It didn’t seem like there was much of a radio outlet for funk. The comparison is made in the movie: funk is like black psychedelia, black rock ‘n’ roll. There became outlets, through FM, for white psychedelia and white album rock, but there really wasn’t anything comparable in black radio. And other than Sly, white radio wasn’t playing this stuff.
New York was particularly un-funk-friendly in its programming. Sometimes Parliament, but [not] your Cameos, your Bar-Kays, Con Funk Shun, a lot of the hard-core, working-class bands. Earth, Wind & Fire was able to get a lot of play in New York on black radio, but P-Funk, not as much as you would think. There was a whole swath of the real funky, down-home stuff that just didn’t get played in New York City. And disco was here, and disco took up a lot of that space in the New York market. New York was such a media center, and without New York being a huge funk center in terms of media exposure, it played a role in why funk never got the kind of exposure that hip hop did later.
One of the things the movie reinforces is how much funk was not a coastal phenomenon, Sly from the Bay Area notwithstanding. You had George Clinton, who is from Detroit, or was based there when he got involved in the funk scene. Bootsy is from Cincinnati, which is where James Brown found him. Prince is from Minneapolis. And you’ve got a whole section about this Dayton scene that’s kind of unheralded in the larger history of funk.
It’s very working-class music. It’s a very Midwestern thing at its core. The stuff that came out of the coasts, especially the West Coast, was a little more sophisticated in a lot of ways. You throw in Frankie Beverly with Maze, you throw in Earth, Wind & Fire, even War – those bands had a lot of Latin influence, even some jazz influence. The bands from the Midwest were much more – kind of bluesy, I guess you might say. There’s that blues core to funk that runs right up the Mississippi. I was very, very happy to do the Dayton section, and I’m going to try and add a little bit more to Dayton, because I feel like that is unbelievably impactful, unbelievably fertile. When you throw in Cincinnati, which is down the road, it’s just insane how many bands that had real national impact came out of that corridor there.
Scot Brown, the Dayton funk historian you have in the film, makes a point I found fascinating about the sociological context in which funk comes about. When all these bands are in their formative years in the ’60s or ’70s, places like Dayton still are places where there are factories, there’s industry, and a lot of African Americans have good jobs and are climbing the economic ladder. They have basements for bands to practice in and can pay for music lessons for their kids. All that changes with the changing economy in the ’80s and ’90s.
Absolutely. The economic component of funk is really interesting. There’s that aspect that he really nailed in the film for me, that black families could afford all the instrumentation and all the different things that come with having a big band kind of culture. Also something alluded to by one of the guys in the Ohio Players: there’s so many universities in that area. Ohio State, Bowling Green – a really big corridor of colleges throughout that area of Ohio that these guys [performed at] on the weekends. There was a circuit outside of the cities that allowed guys to work. Also a point that Marcus [Miller] makes, briefly – he talks about the fact that there were a lot of the cutbacks in schools and kids don’t get to learn instrumentation as much.
Is the growth of hip hop in some ways the flip side of that, in that you’ve got a generation coming up in much worse economic circumstances, and when they come of the age when they want to start making music and expressing themselves, there’s so much less available for them to do it in traditional ways? So, turntable and a microphone.
No doubt about it. There’s a great story in a previous VH1 Rock Doc [NY77] – someone talked about the [New York City] blackout of ’77 and how when places got robbed, a lot of what happened is people stole turntables. There was a lot of technology that was made available to kids suddenly. I think there’s definitely a direct correlation between the absence of musical education in the schools that started under Reagan, the cutbacks that began happening – the after-school programs, all the stuff that went away – and hip hop’s adaptation of all these non-traditional musical instruments. They go hand in hand.
Do you think hip hop killed funk, or did it save it?
That’s a point-of-view thing. It’s hard. Definitely the band culture was really decimated by hip hop. Suddenly you go to a club and the owner, instead of hiring nine guys, hires one guy to do the same job that the nine guys used to do. I think also the technology, as Arthur Baker alludes to in the film. Earth Wind & Fire went from, like, 10 people to three core guys or four core guys. Cameo went from 10 people to three core guys.
Synths and drum machines took over a lot of the roles.
Yes. So that had a huge impact. That even predates hip hop, as a real cultural force. So all the things are going against funk at that time. As the sound changed, what the audience perceives as contemporary music changes, then the bands had to adapt or die. And most of them died as a result of that. I think what was also interesting, and we allude to it at the end of the film, is this jam band scene. When I go see these bands that play at Brooklyn Bowl in New York, there’s a lot of funk being played. There’s bands like Lettuce and Soulive and Galactic. One of the revelations for me has been how much funk has permeated the jam band scene. D’Angelo made his comeback last year at Bonnaroo. It was a perfect venue for what he’s doing. In the final version of the film – I’m going to do some more work on it this summer – we have some amazing footage of D’Angelo with Questlove at Brooklyn Bowl. They did a show together about a month and a half ago, fantastic, just the two of them. D’Angelo’s finally coming back, he’s gonna have an album out this year, and I want to sort of bring it full circle with that kind of musician, because I think D’Angelo is a guy who has great potential to be a great unifier and exemplar of funk. What he’s doing now is much more funk-oriented than his previous albums, less soul music. Funk hasn’t died, it’s gone through this evolution through hip hop, and now [it’s on] the other side, where you have musicians who grew up on hip hop, who went past hip hop back to where the samples came from, and who are listening to Sly, listening to P-Funk, playing instruments again. So I’m optimistic.
Finding the Funk screens at Hot Docs at 4:30pm May 2 and 1:30pm May 4. Part two of our interview with Nelson George will be posted on May 3.