by Eddie Riott
Where does funk live? It lives in the hearts and souls and armpits of us all. No place can lay claim to the funk, though many try. Certainly New Yorkers, who claim to be the center of the universe anyway, will cite such Brooklyn acts as BT Express, Manhattan acts like Jimmy Castor, Queens’ Tom Browne (Jamaica Funk), and even stretch to New Jersey to include the Isley’s and Kool & the Gang as evidence that New York is the funk capital.
Similarly, other locales can make a valid claim to the funk; Augusta, GA, home of Little Richard and James Brown; Cincinnati, where the Godfather recorded; Miami with its sunshine sound; L.A., home of the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band; Oakland, home of Sly and Tower of Power; Houston (Crusaders, Archie Bell); Chicago (Chaka Kahn), Minneapolis, home of The Artist who will be forever known as Prince; New Orleans (The Meters); Memphis (Booker T); even Buffalo (Rick James)–not to mention the Motherland, where they danced to juju and township jive when James Brown was cute.
But as a product of the Motor City–born in Ford Hospital, lived on Ford street, parents worked for Ford, drove a Ford on the Ford Freeway . . . —
I have a more moto-centric perspective. Detroiters know that the funk is where they live. It permeates the air, rises up from the ground. You can feel it. You can hear it in the rhythmic pulse of the assembly line, the blaring horns, the gunshots, and the screams. It’s about transcendent paydays. It’s about cruising with four-hundred horsepower. It’s about sex–raw, wet, slippery even.
Funk was recognized musically in Detroit way back in the thirties, when a big band called the New McKinney Cotton Pickers had them dancing at the Paradise Theater. In the fifties, artists like Howlin Wolf, Jackie Wilson, Nathanial Mayer and the Fabulous Twilights (Village of Love), and Nolan Strong and the Diabolos (Mind over Matter) showed the world what Funk was about.
When artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder came of age, they had been steeped, braised in the barbecue sauce of funk. And speaking of Motown, many criticize Hitsville for being too glossy, denatured for the crossover public. Perhaps many of the hits by the Supremes and other Motown mainliners lacked funk, but what about second-line Motown acts like Jr. Walker (Shotgun), The Contours (Do You Love Me), and Shorty Long (Function at the Junction)?
Aside from the Motown stable, other labels were bubbling in Detroit, such as Westbound (Dennis Coffey “Scorpio”) and Golden World. The Golden World studio produced so much funk–with artists like The Capitols (Cool Jerk), Edwin Starr (0-0-Soul), and George Clinton’s Parliaments (Testify) — that Berry Gordy had to buy the label to squash the competition.
But as the innocence of the sixties burned away, the harsh reality of the seventies arose. The drugs, nihilism, and merging black power and psychedelic movements created a climate that gave birth to what we now know as the classical era of funk.
Down on Second Avenue there is a house that was converted to a small-time recording studio named United Sound. Don Davis, son of the owners, was a small-time guitarist who hit it big writing and playing on the hit “Disco Lady” for Johnny Taylor. He parlayed those earnings into state-of-the-art improvements in the studio just in time to become the home of funk. (Davis now owns a bank, thanks to your funk dollars.) Right across the street from United Sound was a seedy motel. The funk mob would take over the motel, turn it into a continuous 24-hour party, and wait to get called on by the Doctor to run across the street and do their parts.
I used to hang out in United Sound, glimpsing the funk. Many times I would see The Doctor, Bootsy, guitarist Mike Hampton, vocalist Dawn Silva, and legions of other Parlets, Brides of Funkenstein, Parliaments, Funkadelics, Horny Horns, Rubber Band, and other assorted Funksters. One day I was taking some pictures when an unknown Ohio boy got into an argument with the engineer. “I’m sorry,” the white engineer said, “The time you paid for is all used up.” The artist told the engineer, “Get me Warner Brothers on the phone.” The engineer called a number in Hollywood and handed the phone to the artist. “Is this Warner brothers? This is Roger Troutman. Tell this man something.” He handed the phone back to the engineer and whatever they said, it must have been the right thing because he hung up the phone and said “roll the tapes.” Roger completed his session with his Zapp band and the song they were working on, “Heard it through the Grapevine,” went on to become number one.
A girlfriend of mine had a brief “nervous breakdown” and was admitted to the mental ward in downtown Detroit. I went to visit her and she introduced me to a friend she had made in the institution. She said her friend was in the Funkadelics, and I said, “Sure, and that’s Napoleon over there in the corner.” But sure enough, I later saw her friend jamming on stage with the Funk Mob, crazy for real.
One night I was sitting in a friend’s apartment one night across the alley from United Sound. A big tour bus pulled up in the alley, this WWF-looking guy steps out, followed by a tiny character I recognized as Prince. They plugged a cable from the studio into the bus where Prince apparently had recording equipment. He jammed all night, which impressed me considering he had just rocked 30,000 people at Joe Louis Arena–part of a week-long, sold-out series of shows. Other rock stars burn themselves out on drugs or groupies, while Prince went to the Mecca of funk to work on his craft.
There will always be music scenes happening here as this is the motor city, not just in terms of cars but in terms of the many political, religious, and cultural movements that begin here. Gospel music, with acts ike the Winans, is thriving. Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May started the whole techno thing here. Hip-hop is strong, and the reggae-soca scene is incredible. Major rockers from Seger to Nugent to Alice Cooper spring from Detroit.
But of all the sounds of Motown, Funk is even more down than the Motown Sound. As George Clinton said, “Funk is joint rolled in toilet paper.” I bought my first bag of weed from a member of the Funkadelics back in 1969.
Is that funky enough for you?