Documentary Review: BBC Radio 2’s The Story of Funk
As you know, I love that I can listen to the BBC online. Bizarrely, I have probably gotten more high-brow Black, African, and Caribbean programing off the BBC than off of Canadian or American radio or television.
I just finished listening to part one of BBC Radio 2’s One Station Under the Groove, The Story of Funk, hosted by Blaxploitation film diva, Pam Grier. The first part of the series, Funk Used to be a Bad Word, can be summarized as follows:
In this first part, Pam goes back to the source, when funk – in the words of George Clinton – ‘used to be a bad word’. Pam reveals how jazz and the R ‘n’ B music of the 50s informed the rhythms and energy of funk music. As well as the all important architects of the sound like James Brown and Sly Stone, the programme also shines a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes such as Charles Wright and the Last Poets.
At the beginning of the documentary, Pam states:
…Funk was not just the soundtrack to my films but also to a very important time in African American history, a time of struggle and self-discovery and ultimately finding pride in who we were. The music reflected all of that.
But the fact that this music came to be known as Funk is strange, seeing as Funk used to be a bad word. According to journalist Rickey Vincent, who wrote the book Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of the One (St. Martin’s Press):
Funk was in the vernacular as something dirty, something downtrodden, something kind of country and unrefined. If it’s funky it’s not quite refined, it’s not smooth, it’s not together.
One of the first times the word funky was used in the title of a song was with Funky Butt, controversially attributed to Buddy Boldon (1877-1931), of of the key figures in the development of jazz. The song goes: She got stinky butt, funky butt,/leave it alone `Cause I don’t like it nohow.
The documentary explores the possible origins of funk. According to Grier: “Many people credit Little Richard as the originator of Funk for switching the emphasis of the beat to the beginning of the bar.” But it is clear that James Brown was the key figure in the development of funk, even though he is also the “Godfather of Soul”. But Brown’s choice of musicians was also very important. He worked with some of the best musicians in the industry such as Alfred Ellis, Maceo Parker, and Jimmy Nolen. Brown and these musicians created the blueprint for funk. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, is considered the first funk hit because of “its funky backbeat, choppy guitar licks and syncopated brass riffs. Brown’s success did not blind him to the conflicts of his times, and he risked his career by going political but he found support in the Black community. According to Grier:
This is when James Brown realized that he was in a position of power that could affect change. He assumed the role of a soul-powered preacher standing up for the rights of African Americans like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also advocating, Brown encouraged African American communities to stand on their own two feet and run their own affairs. He led by example, purchasing his own businesses like radio stations, restaurants and hotels.
According to journalist Rickey Vincent:
Even at his shows, backstage, he would hold court with local leaders in the community and by leaders I don’t mean city council people and that type of thing, it would be folks who are respected in the community for doing activist work, organizing work, preachers, spiritual work, and so in every town James Brown went to he was hearing, he was aware of what was happening in these communities and these communities were filled with rage and anger and a sense that its time for change to come.
It was during this time that Brown wrote a song that would become an anthem for that time in African American history: Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud. According to Adiodun Oyewole, from The Last Poets:
That was a very important piece because it really served almost as a chant for our movement. I don’t think there was anybody in America, Black or White, who did not know “Say it Loud- I’m Black and I’m Proud” and as a matter of fact even today if I say it to the kids in the classroom they know it, they’ve heard it, it’s in their DNA.
According to Khalis Bayyan (formerly Ronald Bell) of Kool and the Gang: “The music’s part of that besides the message. That’s some serious funk, I mean listen to that, that’s some hot stuff, man.” According to journalist Rickey Vincent:
Say it Loud, it kind of was a watershed event, he was saying what people were feeling but weren’t sure if they had the courage to say that out to the world in triumph and Brown gave a whole generation of Black people the freedom and the courage to say that to do something like that to say yes, I’m black and I’m proud and the whole world needs to know it.
James Brown was a notoriously strict bandleader who would fine his band members if they made mistakes on stage, eventually, most of the musicians who help to make Brown’s sound in the 60s left by the 70s. However, he would find other great musicians to work with, such as bassist Bootsy Collins who recorded such funk hits with Brown as Get Up-Sex Machine, Soul Power and Super Bad. Brown’s tracks were key to the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s as it was often his tracks that were sampled from to form the backbeat of hip hop hits.
The documentary continued by focusing on the group The Last Poets.
One of the most influential to funk and later hip hop was a New York band of Soul Brothers called The Last Poets. The Last Poets were the single clearest articulation of revolution in Black music. Nobody delivered the message harder, or clearer or with more insight and love for Black people than The Last Poets were able to do.
According to The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole:
Gotta understand Martin had just been killed on April 4th of that same year so I was fired up ‘cause I had completely changed when they killed Martin Luther King even though I would never had marched with Martin because Martin was letting the dogs bite him and letting people call him names and pushing him and mistreating and abusing him and I’m a fighter I mean you push me I’m gonna push you back, you know, you get a dog to bite me I’m gonna get a bigger dog but I really respected what he was trying to do because somebody had to do something in the south, it was just total out of control.
At this time, the Last Poets included Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Umar Bin Hassan, and percussionist Nilaja Obabi. The purpose of their music was to wake Black people up. Their style included the use of proto-raps/Spoken Word over conga drums. Key songs from this time included Niggers are Scared of Revolution.
Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, ruled pop at the time and Berry Gordy despised the word funk so much that he would veto any record with the word on it. But the studio’s musicians, who backed most of Motown’s tracks from 1959 to 1972, were nicknamed the Funk Brothers and are considered the unsung heroes of funk, most notably drummer Benny Benjamin and bassist James Jamerson. Motown producer, Norman Whitfield, kept the label competitive while funk became the dance music of choice. He’s considered responsible for turning The Temptations funky with tracks like Cloud 9. Motown’s Southern counterpart, Stax Records, based in Memphis, Tennessee, took to funk more easily and produced funk hits like Rufus Thomas’s Do The Funky Chicken.
On the West Coast, Charles Wright, another of Funk’s unsung heroes, was writing great funk tracks like Express Yourself. Wright grew up in Mississippi with no education. His exposure to music began in church. But although blues legend Muddy Waters lived across from his grandmother he didn’t get to hear much R’n’B until he left home because his father considered it to be the devil’s music. In the documentary, Wright spoke about his experiences of police brutality and how this was leading to civil unrest at the time:
You know that at that time I had moved out of town because the police were giving me a hard time, the police were really really brutal. They are the reason it happened because of their brutality and the way they were treating people. I mean they would stop me-I hate to say this on the radio-and feel my testicles, you know I just got tired of that and I moved out of that part of town.
Wright worked with DJ Magnificent Montague, who was key in turning on thousands of West Coast radio listeners to Funk. His famous catch phrase, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” became the rallying cry of the 1965 Watts Riots.
According to British soul singer Beverly Knight:
One of the great funk classic songs is Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” which very famously was sampled by N.W.A. and became a world-wide smash hit record and again took on that mantle of civil rights struggle , the whole I’m black and I’m proud thing which he was at the forefront of.
The documentary then went on to explore the contributions to Funk of Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) and is considered the “Godfather of Funk”. His creation of Sly and the Family Stone was innovative as bringing together male and female vocalists, as well as Black and White musicians, was unprecedented at the time, and also spoke to the group’s values of racial harmony at a time of racial conflict. They were initially not very commercially successful, with only a few hits, like Dance to the Music. But with the album Stand! (1969), the band achieved mainstream success, with tracks promoting racial harmony like Everyday People, written by Sly. They even performed at Woodstock.
In the documentary, Italian American Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico reflected on an incident with National Guard Troops:
Just looking for a gas station in an inner-city somewhere, you know we get pulled over by National Guard Troops protecting a city that is in riot, racial riot, pulling over a van full of male and female, black and white, dressed funny and “what are you doing here?” “what are you” and it was like get out of the car, hands up against the wall, spread your legs and we got machine guns . The thing that made it a little more scarier was Sylvester was frisky at this point and he kind of challenged the situation and it got hairy and you don’t want to do that when you got 20 guys with whatever kind of machine guns they were lining you up against a brick wall in the inner-city during a riot at 2 o clock in the morning.
Unfortunately, Sly Stone’s growing drug addiction led to erratic behaviour, like not showing up to shows when thousands of people had bought tickets. Eventually, the band slip up. Sly Stone’s addiction continued, eventually leading to imprisonment. In the documentary, Grier states that he now lives as a virtual recluse, in relative poverty as he had signed away his recording rights.
BBC’s The Story of Funk Part Two can be heard online for the next 7 days.
Rickey Vincent’s Website
Interview (2009) with Rickey Vincent available online
Interview (1980) with James Brown and Al Sharpton available online
The Last Poets
Profile of The Last Poets on the PBS Website
Profile of The Last Poets by Russell Porter available online
Profile of The Last Poets by Jalal Nurriddin available online
Interview (2009) with The Last Poets available online
Jalal Mansur Nurriddin’s Website
Umar Bin Hassan’s Website
Charles Wright and DJ Magnificent Montague
Charles Wright’s Website
DJ Magnificent Montague’s Website