What I’m Listening to This Week


A Short History of Funk

Sun Ra: The Magic City (Evidence)

Sun Ra didn’t invent funk or even play it until his twilight years. His music was sui generis, a kind of space age swing, Duke Ellington on acid. But without Sun Ra there would be no George Clinton.

James Brown: The Payback (Polydor)

JB calls himself the Godfather of Soul, but he is truly the father of funk–the creator of the most dangerous sounding music of its time.

Sly and the Family Stone: Stand! (Sony)

Maybe Sly didn’t change the world. But he revolutionized the sound of pop music as profoundly as Elvis, Dylan, or Hendrix. The most visionary artist and greatest musician I’ve ever heard live. Yes, Sly fell into darkness, but it was from a height few have ever even aspired to, let alone actually reached.

Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (Sony)

If you want to hear how Latin music played a decisive role in shaping the sound of funk listen to Hancock’s two versions of his self-penned “Watermelon Man”, one from his debut album, which is polished hard bop, and the other an electrified version throbbing with polyrhythms on Headhunters. The missing link here is the great Mongo Santamaria, who released a danceable version of the song in the intervening years. Just as Hendrix taught Dylan how to play “All Along the Watchtower,” Mongo schooled Hancock on how “Watermelon Man” should sound. It’s a measure of Hancock’s genius that he knew exactly how to exploit such advice.

Paliament: Chocolate City (Mercury)

Back when that meant Washington DC. Old school funk from George and Bootsy.

Bootsy Collins and the Rubber Band: Ah, the Name is Bootsy Baby (Warner)

As dated as a lot of 70s funk now sounds, some of these songs just never grow old. Check out: “What’s a Telephone Bill” and “Pinocchio Theory.”

Miles Davis: On the Corner (Sony)

Miles demonstrates his debt to funk and lays the groundwork for hip hop, all on one neglected masterpiece from the early 1970s. Far superior and more adventurous than Bitches Brew.

Earth, Wind and Fire: The Need of Love (Warner)

Maurice White could write and sing any kind of music, from sweet soul to free jazz. But in the late 1970s, he became the greatest hit writing machine in the history of funk and supervised one of the most awesome stage shows in the history of popular music. This early outing is my favorite EWF album: raw, risky and spontaneous.

Mandrill: Fencewalk (Polydor)

Here is the sound of the streets of Bedford Stuyvesant in the 1970s: gritty funk seasoned with hot salsa beats and sultry Caribbean rhythms.

Ohio Players: Skin Tight (Mercury)

Growing up in the Midwest, I adopted the Dayton-based Ohio Players as my funk band. And they weren’t just about those album covers. But those salacious covers weren’t bait-and-switch, either. Their edgy brand of horn-driven funk really was all about sex–sex with just a hint of S&M.

War: Why Can’t We Be Friends? (Avenue)

After Eric Burden came and went, War became the Chicano funk band that defined the East LA sound for much of the 70s. I’ve always thought that this album would make the perfect soundtrack for a film of our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press .

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: Express Yourself (Warner)

The most unjustly neglected band of the 1970s (or any decade, for that matter).

Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Motown)

Q. Aren’t you even the slightest bit embarrassed to publicly proclaim your devotion to Stevie Wonder?

A. Fuck you, moron.

Rufus: Rufusized (MCA)

Chaka Khan’s voice remains the epitome of sex appeal for me, as unfailingly alluring as the opening shot of BB in Godard’s Contempt.

Little Feat: Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (Warner)

The best album by the best (mostly) white southern funk band.

Neville Bros: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M)

The greatest New Orleans funk band rarely sounds as good on record as they do live. This album is the glorious exception to that unfortunate rule.

Bohannon: Dance Your Ass Off (Rhino)

One of Motown’s signature drummers, Hamilton Bohannon, transformed funk into a polyrhythmic species of disco that was actually fun to listen to outside of clubs and without being juiced on cocaine.

Prince: 1999 (Warner)

Prince reclaimed funk from the manufactured dreck of the disco floors with a double album on which he plays nearly every instrument. 1999 is an unabashed carnival of carnality that resurrected the promise of rock music. Prince really was the most audacious and talented artist of the 1980s, the second coming of Sly Stone–and not a moment too soon.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s music writings (as well as CPers Ron Jacobs, David Vest and Daniel Wolff) can be found in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3