Can’t Fake the Funk

Photo by Lou Daprile

Long maligned, misunderstood, appropriated and unappreciated, funk is finally getting its due—in Seattle and across the globe.

There’s no room to dance at the Seamonster. On a balmy Friday night in September, the longstanding live-music bar in Wallingford is packed front to back and wall to wall and people are upset. Also smiling, drinking, wiggling in whatever cranny presents itself in the churning throng.

“We totally thought we were gonna get down tonight!”, says a short-haired 40-something woman next to me. A tall, well-groomed guy spills beer on her Pumas; she shoos him along but there’s nowhere to go. She and her girlfriend came from West Seattle to dance to Funky2Death, a band they fell for last year at a music festival. Now, like everyone else crammed in here—baseball-capped college kids, crop-topped young women, graying ponytails, costumed Burners, dreadlocked African Americans and plaid-shirted norms—they’re making the best of it.

F2D, as they’re known, has been the Seamonster’s Friday night house band for five years. But for the last three months the place has been closed for construction as it takes over the former bakery space next door. The half-finished room probably isn’t ready to host this party (“Expansion coming soon! October 1!?” reads a Sharpie-drawn notice on the drywall behind the stage) but neither bar owner nor band could resist.

“We haven’t done this all summer and I almost forgot how to get down!” says Woogie D, bandleader, drummer and singer, from behind the kit.

A large and easy presence in dark shades, Woogie is flanked by a three-piece horn section, guitar, bass and keys. He launches into “Sex Machine,” singing James Brown’s vocal parts, playing Clyde Stubblefield’s drum parts and chewing gum in double-time. The song is one of a few covers they play tonight alongside favorites by Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and the Headhunters, interspersed with originals that fit right in with the rest. The music is lock-tight, propulsive but loose, swinging insistently against the beat. Despite the cramped confines—or maybe because of them—the crowd kneads itself into a sweaty frenzy. Seriously: It’s funky in here.

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Let’s declare 2015 the Year of Funk.

In January, British DJ and producer Mark Ronson released Uptown Special, his fourth album, which includes his collaboration with Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” a worldwide hit that celebrates funk from title to execution. The entirety of Uptown Special is, in fact, a pastiche of funk styles from the ’70s and ’80s and an homage to stylistic originators like James Brown, the Gap Band, Zapp & Roger and Morris Day & the Time. It came out a few weeks after D’Angelo released his funk-infused, politically charged third album, Black Messiah, after some 20 years of incubation.

In March, Kendrick Lamar, currently the most respected hip-hop artist on the planet, released his second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which features a live band of young Angeleno musicians who bank heavily on Parliament-Funkadelic grooves; in his lyrics, Lamar makes copious references to George Clinton and James Brown. The album, which debuted at Billboard’s #1 slot, was lauded by critics, including Rolling Stone’s Greg Tate and The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu, who described it as “built on visionary jazz and cosmic funk.”

In August the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was released in theatres, rekindling interest in the groundbreaking gangster-rap crew’s audacious music. Back in the late ’80s, producer Dr. Dre built NWA’s sound almost entirely from samples of Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins and other pioneering funkateers. The name he bestowed on the style: G-funk.

Funk has been popular music’s lingua franca ever since R&B moved into the mainstream almost 40 years ago. Add to that argot hip-hop, which has dominated pop music since the turn of the millennium and was, from the very beginning, derived from funk drum beats. From Michael Jackson to Macklemore, Rick James to Rihanna, almost all modern pop relies on a funk-fashioned emphasis on the downbeat to provide booty-moving momentum. Even Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Megan Trainor’s “All About that Bass”—squeaky clean megahits from last year—flex bubbling breakbeats, swaggering horns and and heavy low-end—all hallmarks of funk.

Funk can be as edgy and energized as punk rock or as cerebral and intense as jazz. It can ensure that even the blandest top-40 fare works on the dancefloor and for sing-alongs in the car. But its public face has been dressed up in shallow 1970s signifiers—kooky outfits, platform shoes, Afro wigs—for so long that you might never know its inventors envisioned funk as a means of black empowerment and liberation.

“Free your mind and your ass will follow,” George Clinton said in 1970. Today’s cultural landscape, fraught with tension over race, representation and appropriation, is seemingly on the edge of breakthrough or revolution. Funk recognizes suffering and struggle as precursors to triumph and unity. It brings together joy and pain in a catharsis that’s both compassionate and celebratory.

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Not surprisingly, Seattle’s history 
of funk music is long and vast and mostly overlooked.

“This scene is the grandchild of Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix,” says Davin Stedman, singer and bandleader for the funk-rock band the Staxx Brothers, name-checking the godfathers of funk, soul and jazz in Seattle. Funk, soul, jazz, whatever you wanna call it—Stedman points out that it’s all music made for dancing.

Following the holy trinity named above, the music flourished in the dance clubs, living rooms and concert halls of the Central District in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. In the ’90s and early ’00s, funk outfits like Thadillac, Phat Sidy Smokehouse, Supersonic Soul Pimps and Maktub—the latter helmed by Reggie Watts, who now leads the house band for The Late Late Show with James Corden—were lumped into the jam-band scene of the era simply because they all followed the same dictum: Make the people dance by any means necessary.

“Funk as a genre has been looked at as this sort of hokey party music,” says Ben Bloom, guitarist for Seattle band Polyrhythmics. “A lot of the reason for that in American culture is because it’s been relegated to dance music. It’s a party, you have a good time, and it’s less about the music being played than the band performing.”

Today, as jam bands shake their stigma, so do funk bands. Among the hipsterati, these are the last taboo genres, forbidden fruit simultaneously repulsive and tempting. Seattle is abloom with a new generation of funk and soul.

Polyrhythmics stand out for their instrumental polyglot funk. They’ve toured across the country and released a phenomenal LP in 2013. Staxx Brothers are 13-year veterans, standing alongside Marmalade, a big-band collective that recently ended a 12-year weekly run at the High Dive and ToST in Fremont.

Down the street, Nectar holds an open funk jam every Monday night that attracts a range of talent, from UW music students to local soul-music veterans to international guests. Tuesdays at the Seamonster belong to McTuff, a soul-jazz trio featuring organist Joe Doria, guitarist Andy Coe and drummer D’Vonne Lewis, three of the most obscenely talented musicians in the city. The Dip is a deep-soul spinoff from Beat Connection, who recently signed a deal with LA-based Anti Records. A hard-funking band called Down North holds court in Tacoma. Seattle-based labels WestSound and We Coast press 45s by these bands (or iterations of them) and distribute in small numbers to collectors across the globe.

The momentum is undeniable but self-contained. Until now it’s lacked a figurehead—an artist or a band with the overwhelming charisma to attract attention from beyond the scene, to connect to those who might not seek out the funk but want it once they hear it. Finally, in this Year of Funk, that band may have arrived.

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“We get people to move,” says Grace Love and, based on the crowd reaction at her band’s recent Bumbershoot appearance, she’s right. The band starts up while Love is still in the crowd, mingling and dancing with fans. She takes the stage, her prodigious pipes as natural as they are indisputable, and for 30 minutes Grace Love & the True Loves push and pull the soggy, all-ages audience with their updated Motown sound. They’ve been playing together for only a year but have already made a mark: festival gigs, KEXP airplay, a West Coast tour, a series of singles released on 45.

Love’s instantly magnetic, always-in-control stage presence stems from her four years in the drama program at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. “The drama kids taught me how to be myself all the time, gave me the confidence to go into a room and be present,” she says. After dropping out of Pacific Lutheran University she spent time in Florida and New York City, where she sang on the subway—and sometimes slept there for lack of anyplace else to go.

A chance encounter with a British DJ landed her in Manchester, England, where she recorded vocals for house music tracks before falling ill and getting burned out on music. When she returned to the Northwest she had no intentions beyond working as a chef and eventually opening a restaurant. Then a friend brought her to the Seamonster and introduced her to Jimmy James.

James is the guitarist in Funky2Death and the True Loves. Soft-spoken and deeply knowledgeable, he appears as an anachronism, a hermetic student of soul. He’s studied and refined in his offbeat temperament but also plays guitar solos with his mouth. He will tell you that the F2D play funk and the True Loves play soul and will argue over the distinction with examples by the greats. But he’ll also tell you that ultimately it all comes from the Black church and serves the same purpose.

“Soul is a feeling. It’s a liberation. And a salvation. You are playing it and singing it like it’s your last breath,” he says. “Music as a whole is supposed to unite and bring people together no matter what color they are. Even people that can’t speak the same language can all relate.”

Love, 29, and James, 34, didn’t immediately hit it off. But they were caught in each other’s orbits, colliding at the Seamonster and at shows around the city. They eventually found their way to Studio Litho in Fremont, where Anthony “Funkscribe” Warner, keyboardist in F2D, Marmalade and the True Loves, had booked session time.

“I felt like this is an opportunity to put together an amazing studio band,” Warner says. “Because we weren’t getting the recognition I thought we deserved I said let’s make records and sell them in Europe and Japan because we need to preserve the scene in some way.” For the last couple of years, Warner has recorded Seattle bands like the True Loves and F2D on his We Coast Records label, commissioning 45s from a vinyl-pressing plant in Ohio and selling them to collectors near and far. He also hosts KBCS’s decade-old Friday-night funk show Uncle Meghabhuti & Funkscribe Present.

This month, Grace Love & the True Loves release their eponymous debut album. It’s a 39-minute tear through the finest chops and deepest feelings you’ll hear all year, at turns heart-wrenched and melancholy or revved up and celebratory. Anyone familiar with the current funk and soul revival will slot True Loves songs like “Fire” and “Mean to Me” alongside tracks by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley and Lee Fields & the Expressions. But that’s only because all of these bands are part of a larger continuum that stretches back decades.

“The music could spark something that changes someone’s life,” James says. “It’s not trying to invent the next new thing.”

Across all of these bands and labels and live shows, the unifying force is a deep-seated belief in the funk and its powerful, positive mojo. Among all musical genres, funk musicians seem the most sincere and impassioned about the stuff they play, as if they’re possessed by a relentless spirit that they can only exorcise through music. To them it’s more than a style or affect or set of clothes or sounds. It’s a way of life.

“We play this music because we love this music,” says Warner. “The funk is rhythm and consciousness. It’s music that unites people around dancing. It’s a chance to convey a message through radical self-expression, whether it’s Parliament with their Black renaissance and personal uplift all the way to Kendrick Lamar’s album, which is basically about the same thing. That’s what We Coast is, bringing people together from different backgrounds to make music that’s trying to be timeless and genre boundless.”

Or as Stedman puts it, “Funk is a delivery system for truth.”

Peel away the layers and there’s the soul surging beneath the most beloved aspects of American culture. We owe a debt of gratitude to this music and we’re fortunate to have a cadre of its most dedicated purveyors in this city. Like George Clinton says, “Funk not only moves, it can remove, dig? The desired effect is what you get.”