Writer, producer and cultural critic Nelson George has covered Black music since his stint at Billboard’s black music editor in the early 80’s. During that time, the Brooklyn-based writer was at the forefront of the burgeoning hip-hop music scene, documenting the culture that was soon to move the world. The author of several books on Black music and culture, in recent years George has moved into TV and film, producing the TV movie “Life Support” with Queen Latifah and the documentary “Brooklyn Boheme” about the black arts and music community in Brooklyn in the late 80’s and 90’s. Now, he’s working on a funk documentary “Finding the Funk,” which is scheduled for VH1 in the fall.
James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Earth Wind and Fire and the Ohio Players are just a few of the funk stalwarts that will be featured, along with the Dayton connection. That’s not a group, it’s the city in Ohio which spawned several of funk’s most seminal groups, including Slave and the Ohio Players.
“People talk about Funkytown, but Funkytown was really Dayton, Ohio. There were so many musicians and so many great bands that came out of this one town. Dayton in the 70’s, 80’s was only 300,000 people. But you could make an argument that that town produced more enduring, great bands and artists in the funk genre than any city. It was a really good economy. Everyone played instruments. There was a whole tradition of band competition at the high school level that really generated a lot of musicians. There were a lot of colleges in that area so there were a lot of places to play on the weekend and all that stuff just came together into a movement.”
What is funk? Well, it’s easier heard than described. But it’s based in a band sound which unfortunately has waned in recent years with the advent of technology though a few artists, most notably Cee-Lo who came out of hip-hop, are trying to keep alive.
“Funk is the evolution out of soul music. It’s the music where the band became the star. With War, Earth Wind and Fire and the Commodores, the band was the star. The horn players and the guitar players became much more prominent. It’s a lot of different elements but it’s an evolution out of what soul music was and Brown and Sly are the key people in it.”
As far as funk’s originator, George says that has to be James Brown. Most of the musicians that followed him, including Stevie Wonder, Micheal Jackson and Prince, acknowledged his dominating influence. Early hip-hop got much of its sound from Brown as well as other funksters as their music is widely sampled throughout the hip-hop genre. Brown’s band was the tightest in the game and Brown, legendary for riding his bands hard to achieve musical perfection is acknowledged for both his musicianship and showmanship.
“The James Brown Band of the late 60’s when you had Maceo [Parker] Fred [Wesley] Clyde Stubblefield The Funky Drummer, Bootsy [Collins] was in that band for about a year. That James Brown band was really the creators of funk.”