Like all genres, funk was a byproduct of circumstance. Not in the accidental sense of the word, but in the sense that art shapes and conforms to the context of the moment. For James Brown, funk was a divorce from the soul sound—and the band—that made him. For George Clinton, it was a fresh start after losing a legal battle and finding LSD. And for Sly Stone it was a reflection of the times and his soul: joyful and optimistic through the ‘60s, cynical and melancholic as the decade turned.
Starting in the mid-1960s, these progenitors of funk took soul, jazz, and R&B and stripped them to their essential components. By varying tempo, meter, and instrumentation, they morphed stale song structures into cyclic grooves powered by bass, rhythm guitar, drums, horns and later, synth. Sometimes comical, biting, and other-worldly at the same time, funk is music at its most guttural and exciting potential.
While it’s popularity waned in the mid-to-late ’70s, funk never truly died. Rick James and Prince shocked it back to life in the ’80s with synths and swag. And by the ’90s, it could be heard everywhere from the sample-heavy hip-hop of Dr. Dre to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bass lines. To this day, the groove that funk started continues to drive hits for the likes of Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars, as well as an entire Childish Gambino album.
The albums below each showcase a different flavor of funk. Some will make you dance, some will make you think, but they will all put a smile on your face at least once. These are the albums you need to listen to once you've experienced Betty Davis. Consider this your continuing education in funk.
A definitive protest album and a departure from the psychedelic soul that fueled the band’s rise, There’s A Riot Goin’ On is as much about the struggles Black Americans still faced after the Civil Rights Movement as it is about Sly’s own demons. Tension between bandmates, demanding record executives and rampant drug use, coupled with frequent overdubbing in the album’s mix, gave way to a hazy sound that embodied the social climate of the early ‘70s. “Luv N’ Haight” evangelizes Sly’s drug-induced isolation with the repeated line “Feel so good inside myself; Don't want to move.” A downtempo rerecording of the band’s previous hit “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” is distilled and funkified on the track “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa,” further evincing his cynicism toward the band and the world around him. The importance of There’s A Riot Goin’ On as a funk album, artist profile, and cultural commentary cannot be understated and positions it as one of the most powerful albums of the 20th century.
By the time 3+3 arrived in 1973, the Isleys had charted over 20 top 100 songs. Their previous release was a greatest hits collection that would mark a successful career for most bands. But instead of fading away, the Isley’s opted for a rebirth. For the first time, they officially included three younger members of the family—Chris Jasper, and Ernie and Marvin Isley—the catalysts of their transition from motown to a funkier sound. The bass work of Marvin and the lead guitar of Ernie (an obvious student of former bandmate Jimi Hendrix) are standouts, turning classics like the Isley’s own “Who’s That Lady” (re-titled “That Lady, Pt. 1 & 2”), Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze,” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” into funk-rock treasures. The originals shouldn’t be slept on either (see the laid back top five R&B single, "What It Comes Down To"). 3+3 is both a masterclass in song covers and an essential in the funk canon.
Herbie Hancock may not be the first name to come to mind when considering funk essentials, but he was a jazz-funk fusion pioneer in the 1970s. His first foray into the genre came in the form of Head Hunters, a purely instrumental 4-song jam piece featuring the backing band the Headhunters along with Herbie’s hands on electric piano, clavinet, and, of course, synthesizers. A conscious shift from his previous experimental albums, Head Hunters pushes funk boundaries on each track regardless of its song structure. “Chameleon” opens with a simple but supafly synth bassline that carries through much of the song while “Sly,” a tribute to Sly Stone, starts jazzy and downtempo but eventually gives way to skillful solos by Bennie Maupin on saxophone and Herbie on the piano. A game changer for funk fusion albums, Head Hunters should not be missed.
By the end of 1970, James Brown had burned through two of the greatest backing bands to ever do it. Though his second band, The J.B.’s, retained their name, they lost potency when brothers Bootsy and Catfish Collins (among others) defected to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective. But this loss did not stop Brown and the next version of the J.B.’s from cutting their best studio album, and one of Brown’s last successes before his work took a nosedive in the late 70’s. Released in 1973, The Payback was originally conceived as blaxploitation film soundtrack, but was rejected by the film’s producers and director (allegedly) on the grounds that it wasn’t funky enough. The veracity of that story aside, this album is funky as hell. In classic James Brown fashion, he lets the band do most of the work, featuring solos from the inimitable Fred Wesley on trombone, Maceo Parker on alto sax, and St. Clair Pinckney on tenor sax. The band sounds so good, I’m pretty sure Brown catches the Holy Ghost during the nearly 13 minute jam session “Time is Running Out Fast,” When Brown does gift us with his voice, he slips into the band perfectly, spitting about revenge on the title track and crooning about loss on the ballad “Forever Suffering.” If you want to hear what synergy sounds like, this is it.
Blasted open by its instrumental title track, Machine Gun is unapologetically sweaty. Milan Williams’s slappy, staccato clavinet is peppered throughout the album but reaches its true, funky-futuristic potential on “Machine Gun,” “Rapid Fire,” and “Gonna Blow Your Mind”—all without compromising the grit of the surrounding instrumentation. The walking bass and undeniably creepy lyrics of “Young Girls Are My Weakness” are so stanky you may feel inclined to shower afterward. And we’d be remiss not to mention Lionel Richie’s exceptional performance on “Superman,” acting as an excellent precursor to his eventual solo career. Featuring exactly zero ballads, The Commodores’ debut album is pure funk throughout and should be an auto-include in any collection.
No other album on this list conveys the personality of its creator more so than Betty Davis’ They Say I’m Different. It’s loud, dominating, sexy, often frightening, and yet somehow manages an air of cool indifference. Give a track like “He Was a Big Freak” one listen and you’ll understand why ex-husband Miles Davis thought she was too hot to handle. Although it doesn’t feature the all-star line-up of her debut, this sophomore effort manages to make her first album look like a stepping stone. Self-produced by Davis, They Say I’m Different is a rare display of female empowerment in a music business that too often denies women credit and opportunity away from the mic.
Led by legendary funk auteur George Clinton and featuring former members of the J.B.’s, Parliament’s Mothership Connection gives the people exactly what they want: pure funk. Built around the concept of “a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac,” this is the only album on this list that provides its listeners with a DJ turned tour guide to accompany them on their journey into funky outer space. Clinton’s narration transcends the realm of cheesy emceeing by delivering his promise of pure, uncut funk on all 7 of the Mothership Connection tracks (4 of which contain “funk” in their song titles). An album so influential it was added to the Library of Congress, Mothership Connection is the epitome of P-Funk.
Released at the height of the Disco Era, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ninth album could rightfully be slotted in with its close cousin in genre. The punchy horn flourishes, tight backing vocals, and upbeat tempo throughout seem to align precisely with the disco domination of the time, however, close listening uncovers the band’s funky roots. The horn flourishes of album opener “In the Stone” rise high above the funk house that the rhythm guitar and bass have built. Standout track “Let Your Feelings Show” starts in contemporary dance form, but by the end has broken down into a blistering funk workout, carried through by rhythm guitar tag team Al McKay and Johnny Graham. Though clearly influenced by the disco scene, I Am showcases the kind of exuberant funk that only EWF could make.
It’s easy to think of him as a comedy prop, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone exuding as much swag, or wearing as much glitter, as Rick James in the early ‘80s. His punk funk manifesto, Street Songs, went triple-platinum thanks to the aggressive, fuzzed-out synth of “Give It to Me Baby,” “Super Freak” and “Ghetto Life.” The album dips into social commentary on the latter track, and goes all in with “Mr. Policeman”—a straightforward decry of police violence—but is at its best when James sticks to educating his listeners about carnal desires. One of the few examples of ‘80s funk on level with Prince, Street Songs is a five-finger slap to the face from start to finish.
In 2016, we were forced to confront The Purple One’s mortality, but thankfully, we still have albums like 1999 that argue otherwise. His first to go multi-platinum, 1999 launched Prince to new levels of popularity while foreshadowing the sound of his next juggernaut, Purple Rain. “Little Red Corvette” turned people onto this album, but as great as that song is, it was just pop bait in the electro-funk trap set by Prince. This wasn’t your father’s funk. Deftly mixing bass and rhythm guitar with the digital sounds of synth, and drum machine, Prince lays down the album's best grooves on “1999” and “D.M.S.R.” And while funk had often been sexy, things get borderline X-rated with the erotic bridge of “Lady Cab Driver” and the literal climax of the final track, “International Lover.” Taking the best elements of Dirty Mind and projecting it forward,1999 casts funk amidst a backdrop of computers, lovers, apocalypse, and Information Age paranoia, updating and elevating the genre.
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