REWIND: Get out of your lockdown funk with some funk

James Brown

James Brown performs in the Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany in February 1973. Courtesy: Heinrich Klaffs/Wikicommons.

I am in a funk.

Fortunately I’m not alone. It seems everyone is in a funk. Unfortunately, everyone thinks it’s just them, so we’ve all spent the last week or two snapping at each other and making each other’s funks worse. It’s a big mutual funk death spiral.

There are three reasons I’m bringing this up. First, because I wanted to whine about it. I have a soapbox and by God I will use it to whine about being generally exhausted and grumpy and in a foul mood.

Second, I wanted to assure you, dear reader, that it’s not just you. I mentioned it to a friend about a week ago and they said they thought it was just them, and I’ve since asked over a dozen other people and each, independently, verified his or her similar state. So we’re apparently all in this together, whatever it is.

Third, because I need to cheer myself up before I snap at the wrong person and get myself fired or beaten up or both, I need a column topic that puts me in a good mood. And if I describe my ill humor as a funk I can list five of my favorite funk songs. Those always help.

James Brown — “I Got You (I Feel Good)”

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, was also the inventor of funk. Well… OK, he did take inspiration from the New Orleans music scene, notably Professor Longhair, but he refined it into its first pure form. And it’s glorious.

Now that we’re renaming things currently named for awful people, let’s give James Brown some of them.

Anyway, if you’re wondering in a technical sense what bringing the funk means, according to Brown it means putting the emphasis on the one beat rather than two and four, and instead playing quarter notes at two and four. I don’t know what that means, either, but boy does it sound funky.

Parliament — “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”

George Clinton is the funkiest man alive, the funkiest man who has ever lived, and who will ever live. This should be beyond contestation.

Accordingly, his bands Parliament, Funkadelic, and Parliament-Funkadelic are the funkiest bands. And, while there is much debate on this matter, I believe this is their funkiest song. It captures every aspect of funk and it’s so, so good.

That’s it. No history lesson. I just wanna hear this song and this is where it fits chronologically in the history of the genre.

Sly and the Family Stone — “Everyday People”

There was a 0-percent chance I wouldn’t list the third of the holy trinity of early funk music, especially since he’s a Bay Area guy who was a local radio DJ before becoming a musician himself. He also started one of the first bands that was integrated not just racially but in terms of gender, which is pretty depressing if you think about it since it happened in the late ’60s when music had been around quite a while before that.

Unfortunately, the drugs and alcohol hit Sly Stone hard and he went into a bit of a spiral. Most recently a judge overturned a lawsuit he won over royalties when it came to light that he’d signed them away years ago, so he was homeless and living in a van. Even though he made mistakes, that is a travesty. The man is a legend and a musical genius. But, last I heard he was getting help and fellow musicians had put a roof over his head.

Afrika Bambaataa — “Planet Rock”

Let’s leave the late ’60s and ’70s and travel all the way to… the ’80s.

This may sound like hip-hop, and that’s because it kinda is. Afrika Bambaataa‘s electro-funk is, in retrospect, considered the first generation of hip-hop, and by the time “Planet Rock” came out in 1982 it had really started to coalesce into something familiar.

But, listen for the things I said in James Brown’s entry. The beat on one is still there! It’s very much funk, just with ’80s stuff like synths and proto-hip-hop rather than ’70s stuff like a horn section. Evolution: It’s not just for “Pokemon.”

Cameo — “Word Up!”

I probably should have gone forward into the ’90s or even ’00s to show that funk is still alive. I could have talked about Dr. Dre inventing G-Funk as the next evolution of George Clinton’s P-Funk. I could have told the story of how George Clinton called Digital Underground, my favorite rap group ever, the “Sons of the P,” which they were so honored by they made it the title of their second album. I could have gone on at length about Sharon Jones.

I did not do those things. Instead I listed 1986’s “Word Up!” by Cameo.

But I have a good reason; two, actually. First, this column is supposed to be cheering me up, and nothing cheers me up like this song. It’s the perfect mixture of joy and camp to put a smile on my face on the worst of days.

Second, take a good, hard look at the police detective with a megaphone at the very beginning of the video. That’s none other than National Treasure LeVar Burton! The LeVar Burton, who pretty much ruled my childhood by being both Geordi LaForge and the host of “Reading Rainbow!”

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

[Gokhman note: Sorry Willis, you had this great ending but I have to go and spoil it. Do you know I’m related to one of the stars of “Reading Rainbow? I married her].

[Willis addendum to Gokhman note: I hate her so much right now, you don’t even know. She lived my dream! And yes, I realize I’m taking a risk saying that since she’s RIFF’s copy chief and can change whatever she wants].

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at

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