The Instinctive Philosophy of Funk
Or maybe an anti-philosophy
In the Luc Besson film The Fifth Element, there is a beautiful woman who plays a stewardess on the flight to Fhloston Paradise. I was surprised to see her because she reminded me of the girl next door. Her unconventional look was immediately recognizable to me, she was that cute black girl with freckles.
This weekend, I started listening to Earth, Wind and Fire as I usually do on my Satruday bike ride. The shuffle put me back to a tune by the Ohio Players called Skin Tight and I recognized that old funk. Before there was electronic funk of the sort mastered by Cameo and George Clinton, there was the funk of funky horns and this exemplified it perfectly.
So my head is in the 70s and I remember what it was like to win a dance contest doing a combination of god knows what in double knit bellbottoms. The prize was a 7Up popcorn popper that was probably not UL approved, like the HotDoggers that exploded your Oscar Meyers between two unshielded electrodes. Maybe you too remember the 1500 watt electric heaters that glowed orange into the night. But what I’m sure you remember is K.C. and the Sunshine Band telling us to shake our booties. That wasn’t funk, not exactly. It wasn’t what James Brown called the funkity funk that funks up the air. Sunshine bands play in outdoor stadiums. Funk happens literally and metaphorically down in the basement where it gets stanky, and musty and funky.
There’s something creepy about those pictures of Joe Biden sniffing the hair of women, and that is the animal instinctual invitation of the philosophy of funk. You not only need to be shaking booty but sniffing booty. You need the smell of sex in the air. No matter how sweaty your armpits, you need to throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care. You need to alternate from the strings of Chic to the gutbucket of Kool’s Jungle Boogie. You never need to define exactly what a boogie is, but whatever your behavior, you can blame it on the boogie. People who get on down will understand.
I became tired of the grunting and groaning, screaming and moaning of 70s music. But it was too late for me. Donna Summer, Marlena Shaw god help me Millie Jackson already planted themselves in my adolescent imagination. I knew I was supposed to make noises like Issac Hayes whenever that ultimate thing happened to me. That’s what all of our adults were telling us. I found it difficult to imagine that we were just a market for the record business. The world converged on sexual healing and it all started on the dance floor. That was then.
Go ahead at look at Instagram. I dare you. TikTok and Facebook Reels are worse. Without sounding like an old fogey it doesn’t take much to recognize what the sparkle filters are today. They are anti-funk. They are feathered hair and Farah Fawcett to funk’s basement boogie. Nobody remembers much about Farah but the poster, but people are still singing I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. Disco is at the top of the stairway away from heaven, somewhere in the middle is House but Funk is at the bottom. You have to get all the way down.
Funk is ‘democratic’ in the way that opinions, assholes and sex are. It’s always there as a probable but the surrounding process is murky. If you’re doing it right, it’s messy, smelly and exhausting. You give in to the feeling and make your excuses beforehand and/or afterward. The doing in the during is ineffable. We all kind of know it. We shouldn’t have to wonder about it. But sometimes only funky noises can describe it.
As part of my Stoic zen, there is the ritual of washing dishes. It is a practical part of life that needs maintenance and though the pile of plates in fetid standing water may be the fault of someone else, it is always within my power to rectify it. Doing so is almost always satisfying in that way that cleanliness approaches the divine, but it’s especially so when listening to music that approaches the devil. Sometimes the more simple-minded and adolescent the devil, the better. Fantastic Voyage by Lakeside is a stellar example.
Funk was a more explicit form that [d]evolved from the double-entendres of the blues and the more gutsy exploration of the Me Generation, a set of ridiculously sex-positive boomers forgotten and abandoned by their juniors. Nobody said ‘sex workers’, the term was hookers, presumably happy ones that walked the daylight streets of Hollywood as late as 1982. Sometimes I wonder if Millie, Marlena and Donna wanted to sing those breathy songs that Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight wouldn’t dare. I find myself in love with them with foolish nostalgia that is rewarded deeply in my maturity.
R&B is funk adjacent, of course, but I now find the best funk the orchestral sort. Sometime this year I will start recalibrating my thinking about all of this music. Funk stays at the bottom of the stairway away from heaven with its gutbucket delights and anti-balletic gravity. So I’ll think about that negotiation going on here in the West with the rhythms and chords of the basic blues and what wails have been sustained through the sustains of electric guitars and the orchestrations of funk and dub composers like Bill Laswell who I just learned was the difference that made Herbie Hancock’s second hiphop album Metal Beat so much more listenable than the first - a complete evolution from horrid (in retrospect) Feets Don’t Fail Me Now.
It’s hard to rationalize Funk. There’s too much to say in words I’ve yet to find words to say. So I like that I’ve left it to the realm of animal grunts and groans and furtive embarrassment. I like that it’s central to the peasant music of America in that democratic way, and in that regard it needs no explaining, it merely needs to exist in its fundamental primitive way like the fertility rituals that it evokes. In that regard, it suffices to have a big fat catalog.
In 2007, another planet ago, I was blogging with a steady following and was able to collaborate with them on a definitive funk playlist. I have yet to see its equal anywhere on the web before or since. Although the methodology is encoded in the spreadsheet, it was relatively easy to break ties with a common sense approach, and the results were satisfying to all parties. So I present the entire list of 292 songs to you gratis. Below the line for subscribers is a link to the spreadsheet itself and what is secretly my favorite funk song.
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