Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Top 10 Funkiest Songs of All Time

I've been asking all of my friends recently what their top ten funkiest songs are. I've had a multitude of responses, and its interesting to see what different people define to be "funky." A lot of people touch upon Funk legends like George Clinton, James Brown and Dr. John. Some go by the bigger bands with horn sections like Chicago, Tower of Power and Chase.

I define The Funk as anything that makes you move. When you hear music that makes your head move and your body pop and your face turn into a grin, that's The Funk. I find The Funk is primarily carried by the bass drum, bass guitar, falsetto vocals and occasionally the organ.

But The Funk is not an elusive creature; it can be found in genres spanning from Pop to Jazz to Hip Hop. Keep in mind, I can only do ten songs in a top ten, so regretfully, lots of other funky songs will not be mentioned here. And as much as some of the funkiest have ten all on their own that are equally funky, I'll be shedding light on ten different artists here. There are plenty of links to boot, so make sure you check some of these out!

So here is my top ten. If you disagree with any of these, I encourage you to make your own list and send it to me!

10. Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking by Rickie Lee Jones
This is a track featuring one of my favorite drummers, Steve Gadd. Notice how the funky slap bass immediately pulls you right in. The percussion comes in, along with the guitar, slowing building onto the funk. By the time RLJ starts singing, you should be moving your whole upper body forward and backward to the beat. At least that's what I do. Don't judge.

The happiness challenge: Be in a bad mood first. Try and listen to this song all the way through and still be in a bad mood when you're done. You can also do this with Jackie Wilson's Higher and Higher.

9. Groove Tonight by Earth, Wind and Fire
EW&F had The Funk. There's no doubt about that. One of the keys to making great Funk music is having someone sing falsetto. Something about falsetto is funky, but I'm not sure why. And listen to those horn lines. Man! Those trumpets hit those high notes, and they SUSTAIN. We've all heard this at the club or even the high school dance before. And if you didn't get down with your bad self when it came on, shame on you. You know you wanted to.

8. Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) by George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic
There's a whole lot of rhythm goin' round. The falsettos really make this song, as does the signature Parliament synthesizer sound. Describing that sound is kind of like describing pornography; I can't really explain it, but I know it when I see it.

I'd say this is P-Funk's most well-known song after Atomic Dog, but its still worth mentioning. This is from the Mothership album, which is full of classic Funkadelic tracks. In particular, check out P-Funk (Get Funked Up) and Mothership Connection/Star Child (If You Hear Any Noise)

George Clinton in concert: If you're into having a lot of fun seeing a show, definitely set some money aside to see these guys. Picture about 30 people onstage, a wide variety of outrageous costumes, and a room full of people on their feet and dancing. When I saw them, they ended their set with this song. George Clinton walked into the audience, slapping hands, with the audience chanting, "We want the funk! Gotta have that funk!"

7. I Like Your Style by Tower of Power
This is a great song by a legendary Funk/R&B group. Some might know them by their equally awesome songs What is Hip and Willin' to Learn. Their sound is incredible, and their horn section was famous for dominating the LA session scene back in the day.

This particular song is short and sweet, with a perfect horn arrangement and a tight pocket in the drums to push everything along. The three horn hits before the chorus really make this piece.

6. Jungle Boogie by Kool and the Gang
Some have told me this particular song is their #1. It was indeed in the golden age of Funk, back when Funk was a mainstream trend. And if you'll notice from the video, this recording is a live performance from an episode of Soul Train.

The rising horns after each verse are what make this song unique. And the guy with the goofy voice makes everyone happy in their pants. Notice how everyone moves and grooves onstage, with everyone else moving and grooving on the dance floor. Afros and bellbottoms abound. Disco balls. Jheri curls. Flamboyant costumes. This is funk at it's best.

5. Holy Calamity (Bear Witness pt.2) by Handsome Boy Modeling School/DJ Shadow
Funk isn't all about platform shoes and horn sections. I give homage to the contemporary funksmen and take pride in including the second Bear Witness installment to this list.

If you haven't acquainted yourself with Handsome Boy Modeling School, you should do so. Its a collaboration project between legendary Hip Hop producers Dan Nakamura (Dan the Automator) and Prince Paul. Dan is famous for masterminding such concept albums like Dr. Octagon (the first Bear Witness was on his album), Deltron, and has also been known for first shining the spotlight on Blur and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Prince Paul is a widely-acclaimed producer, and his best work is definitely the concept album Prince Among Thieves.

This track, however, features DJ Shadow scratching up samples. Listen in particular to the drumbeats, and how he mixes those samples so fluidly. The funky bridge is also a great feature, as is the beatbox section. And Shadow's scratching skills are unparalleled in this track. This is definitely top ten worthy, as far as I'm concerned.

4. Pick up the Pieces by Average White Band
This is one of the few songs that define Funk. The horn chorus is familiar in everyone's mind, as this was and is an FM radio favorite either back in the day or on the oldies stations today. I've seen it covered by a great many bands that didn't even have horn sections, nor consider themselves Funk. This is a universally-celebrated and recognized song.

Average White Band's playing on this recording is as tight as it ever was. The solos are outstanding. The guitars and drums carry this while the horn players have their fun. Even if you don't consider yourself a Funk fan, how could you hear this come on the radio and change the station? Even if you don't know the AWB, most still know this song, and most still like it. Kind of like The Weight, by The Band. Or Pudd'n Pops. Even if you've never heard of it or had one, you still like 'em just fine.

3. Superfly by Curtis Mayfield
Just as the '60s had love, the '80s had greed, the '90s had grunge, and the '00s had hate, the '70s had Blaxploitation. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to the genre with his movie Jackie Brown, which features some more great music by Bobby Womack and The Delfonics. While this decade was rife with classics like Shaft and The Mack, the epitome of Blaxploitation was the movie Superfly, with a score arranged by Curtis Mayfield.

Whenever I put on a suit, this song always pops into my head. And when anyone is looking fly or walking with their chest out, chances are, this song is playing in their head too. The simple three note bassline is timeless, and Mayfield's falsetto singing fits the genre and the times so well. This song is already a classic, and will likely be remembered by future generations many years down the road.

2. Super Bad by James Brown
Early James Brown was known by hits like Papa's Got a Brand New Bag and I Feel Good. James in the middle part of his career was known for hits like Sex Machine and Get Up Offa That Thang. Late in his career he kind of sold out with songs like Living in America. But at the peak of his career there were songs like Super Bad.

At the pinnacle of James' musical career, he was known as The Godfather of Soul. His band was funky, but he made every track with his raw energy and dancing. Super Bad is a simple groove with horn hits, straight beats and funky bass, but James is the star. Listen for the scream around the 3 minute mark. Nobody alive can do that and still be so funky. Rest in peace, James.

Well, guess you're anxious to see my number one? It may surprise you. And if you're like me or if you personally know me, it may not surprise you one bit.

1. Chameleon by Herbie Hancock
This is a Funk symphony. This is what all Funk aspires to be. I submit that it is an impossible to make a song more perfectly funky than Chameleon. If Funk was a literal object that one could heft in hand, then Chameleon would be Excalibur. But first, let me give you some background on the song's creator.

Most would consider Herbie Hancock to be a Jazz artist, not a Funksman. But those who followed Herbie's career know that he got bored with Jazz a long time ago. He started out as Miles Davis' protege, and was most famous for the song Maiden Voyage. The song is pretty, and Herbie shows his skill, but when you account for the evolution from Maiden Voyage to the Headhunters era to the also funky Hang Up Your Hang Ups, and finally to his Hip Hop experimentation with Rockit, you'd see Herbie is anything but a strict Jazz musician. Rather, Herbie will come to be known as a versatile musical genius, albeit a bit eclectic and unconventional.

Chameleon is a funk symphony. It is literally a funky masterpiece. And the best part about it is it's re-listenability. Each time you listen with a finely-tuned ear, you hear the subtleties that hold the piece together. In the first movement, pay attention to the bass drum. As that movement progresses, listen to how the bass drum keeps everything right in the pocket. Listen for the drummer's gracenotes on the snare in between the beats. The second movement first features the bass guitar, and then the organ. The third movement features a string pad and more of the funky bass guitar and organ. Finally, it comes back to a coda as the first movement repeats itself, albeit more steady and driven.

Every bass player who doesn't know anything about bass guitar can still likely play the opening bit for Chameleon. Even drummers can play it on a bass guitar. Six notes. One series is low, one is high. then it repeats, over and over again. By the time you're 7 minutes into the first movement and Herbie is slamming his fingers discordantly all over the keyboard, most people would think, "This is obnoxious," and they would be right. That's what I thought too, until I gave into patience and let the song continue on.

Once the repetitive first movement finally comes to a stop around 7:40, the chorus breaks down and the drummer fills in the space with some sick, wicked beats. The song then morphs into something else like an actual chameleon does. The bass guitar comes in, and the drums fade back to complement the bass. The organ comes into supplement the bass, and then the song comes together really tight, and you don't want it to stop grooving. The drummer lets himself get a little carried away, and then it goes into a third movement.

This movement begins with a string pad chord progression, then goes right back into the bass/organ funk. It's almost Jazz, but the drums keep it funky. And right when the third movement has completed it's run, the song morphs back into the simple bass groove. And it just rides on until the fade out. This is the perfect Funk song in terms of stellar musicianship, although it is entirely instrumental.

So there you have it. My top ten funkiest songs of all time. What do you think?

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