Funk has never really gone out of style in the Bay Area, a funkdafied place to be ever since Larry Graham first introduced the "slap" bassline on Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." In addition to various local permutations -- from the Broun Fellinis' freaky jazz to Bat Makumba's sambadelic rhythms -- the Bay has its own annual event dedicated to preserving and updating funk music: the SF Funk Festival (SFFF), which recently celebrated its third year.
DJ Motion Potion, one of the SFFF's founders, notes that the festival attracts funk fanatics who can appreciate obscure but heavy grooves. "This is the only crowd I can play Graham Central Station for," he explained from the DJ booth at the Great American Music Hall.
"Every night of the festival is focused on a different branch of the funk tree," he added; this year's event focused on fusion, world-funk, jazz-funk, New Orleans swamp-funk, and DJ-derived funk, while past festivals have paid tribute to P-Funk and the Meters.
Since funk is all about taking it to the stage, we checked out the 2003 festival and a few other recent live shows to assess their "funk factor" and see who was really up for the downstroke -- and who was fakin' the funk.
George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland
P-Funk at the Paramount started off encouragingly enough, with an inspired guitar/violin duet on the funk-rock classic "Maggot Brain." Longtime P-Funkateers Michael "Kidd Funkadelic" Hampton and Bernie Worrell shone on chestnuts like "Cosmic Slop" and "Flashlight," but the three-hour marathon show had a sloppy, unpolished tone, further marred by a muddy sound mix. Clinton is funk personified, yet he's clearly on the downside of a long career -- the Mothership is running on fumes. P-Funk are still a funk behemoth, but they've become black music's answer to the Grateful Dead, a jam band whose burnout vibe doesn't sound nearly as interesting when you're sober.
Funk Factor: 6.0
Mandrill at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
The wall of drums at the front of the stage, coupled with the backdrop tapestry of Mandrill's psychedelic blue, red, and black simian logo, lent a suitably tribal tone to the proceedings before the group even began. Mandrill made an inspired entrance with some high-density world-funk, quickly enrapturing the crowd despite not really having any well-known songs (except perhaps "Fencewalk"). Their stylistic versatility and instrumental prowess were apparent -- they smoothly segued from African to Latin to doo-wop rhythms -- but there was a slight letdown in the middle of their set, as if the group looked out into the audience, saw the youthful, mostly pasty-white faces, and downshifted gears. They picked it up toward the end, though, with a frenzy of medulla oblongata-bursting hard funk riffs. Mandrill still have the capability to be monsters of funk, but evidently they won't unleash the beast unless they feel the audience can handle it.
Funk Factor: 7.0
Headhunters and DJ Greyboy at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
When these Oakland-based fusionistas cranked into the hypnotic grooves of "Watermelon Man," it was obvious how little they needed Herbie Hancock, who recruited them for his 1973 album Headhunters (still the best-selling fusion album ever). Paul Jackson, Bill Summers, and Mike Clark sure didn't sound like has-beens, gray hairs and potbellies notwithstanding. They came off crisply and cleanly, combining the musical discipline of jazz with the sheer power of funk, rallying around Jackson's low-end mastery on classic material like "Chameleon" and newer stuff from their most recent disc, Evolution Revolution. The only disappointment was opener DJ Greyboy, who got an ovation from the crowd after his acid jazz/rare groove set, yet couldn't get his admirers to shake their rumps.
Funk Factor: 8.5
SFFF DJ Night at Mission Rock, San Francisco
Early on, DJ Zeph established the hip-hop funk continuum with a tight set -- his improvised beat-juggle of Fatback's "Backstroke" was funkier than a mosquito's tweeter. But DJ Night belonged to the old man in the club, Grandmaster Flash. He may be pushing fifty (that's 150 in funk years), but Flash was, in a word, vital. His set, which ranged from the 20th Century Steel Band to Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz, was a history lesson you could breakdance to. Flash's adventures on the wheels of steel featured lots of percussive cutting, some mind-blowing backspins, and the simple (but highly effective) technique of cutting off the record, cueing the crowd into call-and-response. The peak moment came when GMF played Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," turning a dancefloor full of jaded club kids into enthusiastic karaoke singers.
It went a little something like this:
Flash: "Sing like Mike! Sing like Mike!"
Party People: "Eeeee-eh-eeeee!"
Flash seemed pleased with the crowd's willingness to act like complete fools. "You motherfuckers are fantastic!!" he yelled.
Funk Factor: 9.0
Snoop Dogg at Slim's, San Francisco
This down-low club appearance was sponsored by a major beer company; appropriately, tha Doggfather kept his attire corporate, sporting a Snoop Dogg Clothing Co. warm-up. The superstar rapper proved to be a riveting live presence, and the atmosphere registered high in humidity, among other things; it wasn't hard to catch a contact high from all the sticky-icky-icky "bubonic chronic" passed around during songs like "Gz and Hustlas," "Gin and Juice," and "Tha Shiznit."
As one of the foremost practitioners of G-Funk, Snoop owes a huge debt to P-Funk. His live band is named the Snoopadelics, and his blasé pimp persona has more than a little Bootsy Collins in it. Still, without the funk to guide him, Snoop is just another gangbanger with a fat sack of indo. With it, he's a cosmic starchild who "captivates he who listens" and invents his own language, i.e. Snoop Dizzle wizzle off the hizzle, fa shizzle.
Funk Factor: 8.0
The Coup and Crown City Rockers at Sweet's Ballroom, Oakland
This show, featuring two local rap groups with full-on live bands, showed why hip-hop has been called the future of the funk. The Coup's backing band opened with a jammin' instrumental version of Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop," then Boots and T-Kash served up tasty originals like "The Shipment" and "Everybody," while DJ Pam the Funkstress displayed the infamous "titty scratch." Crown City Rockers were equally impressive; MC Raashan oozed charisma, and their own secret weapon -- Kat Ouano's Fender Rhodes -- opened up a wormhole back to the glory days of the Family Stone. The comfortably spacious environment of the historic venue enhanced the funky vibe considerably, locking in the Oaktown flavor like BBQ sauce from Everett & Jones.
Funk Factor: 7.5
As you can see, the Bay Area's overall funk quotient scores high marks, no matter whether it's DJ funk, funky hip-hop, classic funk, or funk nouveau. We'll funk to that.
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