What Is Funk?

Wondering what funk music is?

Well, if you were born later than maybe 1990, that’s not too surprising.

Because funk was born in the ’60s, and became a big thing in the ’70s and ’80s.

But not so much since then.

That said, the influences of funk are still far reaching across a number of music genres, and will continue to be so.

Okay, let’s see if we can shed a little light by properly answering the question ‘what is funk?’

Very basically, funk is a style of dance music.

What Is Funk?

Funk music is a dance music style.

It grew out of African-American R&B, jazz and soul music in the ’60s.  

TL;DR Summary: 

What is Funk music? Funk is a form of dance music developed from the African-American R&B, jazz and soul music scenes of the 1960s. It grew in popualrity throughout the ’70s and remained popular in the ’80s. Funk is known for its rhythmic bass and drums that create an infectious groove. 

Funk is defined by its rhythmic and highly danceable bass-lines and drum patterns.

It was the relationship between the bass-line and the drums that led to funk becoming known for its famous groove. 

Here’s a really great example of the funk bass-line groove:

This funk groove was something pretty new to any other music genre at the time, as most other musical styles tended to be built on the foundations of a strong melody, structured arrangement and chord progression.  

Typical Characteristics of Funk?

Every style and genre of music has a handful of characteristics that come together to lay-down its own unique identity.

Here are the most common characteristics of funk music:

#1. Emphasise on the Bass Guitar

The prominent role of the bass guitar and the bass-line is the first thing that defines funk. 

Strong, uncomplicated, melodic and very danceable, the bass guitar often plays centre-stage in funk music. 

#2. Syncopated Rhythms

Syncopated rhythms are what makes funk so east to dance to…even for people who can’t usually dance!

Syncopation is at the heart of funk music.

With both the drums and the bass guitar playing syncopated rhythms, funk has a greater feeling of anticipation than most other genres of music before it.  

#3. Seventh Chord Variant

The seventh chord variant…the musical linchpin of tension-and-release.

Funk almost always uses seventh chords, and often with further extended versions, like the 11th, 7th+9th, and 13th.

#4. Less Verse/Chorus Structure

Funk doesn’t tend to care about the regular verse/chorus structure that you’ll find common to the songs of many other genres.

Instead, funk songs tend to bubble along to their main groove with each element of the song weighing in with equal prominence. 

Examples of Funk

Do you like funk?

Do you love funk?

Do you not like funk at all?..Or do you not even know what you think about funk?

Have a listen to a few of these genuine funk classics to help you decide.

In no particular order:

#1. ‘Thank You’ by Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone blazed a trail for many funk bands to follow.

And they probably laid down the very beginnings of dance music as we know it.

Sly and The Family Stone released eight studio albums between 1966 and 1976.

They were dropped by their record label ‘Epic’ in 1977 and while they didn’t officially break-up until the mid-’80s, they became increasingly troubled from that point on. 

#2. ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ by Funkadelic

This single was released back in in 1978 I believe.

I can’t imagine how outrageously original it must have sounded at that time.

It must have been mind blowing to hear this on the radio for the first time!

#3. ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ by James Brown & The Famous Flames

This was a 1965 release.

Definitely laying down the foundations of the funk groove. 

#4. ‘Superstition’ by Steve Wonder

Okay, nobody leaves this ‘what is funk’ article without declaring their love for Stevie Wonder.

A musical masterpiece? One of the coolest songs ever written and produced? 

Both of those things. No doubt!

This song is a perfect example of funk’s syncopated rhythms. 

#5. ‘Kiss’ by Prince and the Revolution

Something from 1986.

And another great example of syncopation.

The bass-line on this track is a piece of music production genius. 

And of course, Prince was indeed a genius.

If that lot hasn’t improved your mood, I don’t know what will!

A Brief History of Funk

The History of Funk Music

Funk music first began it’s emergence in the very late 1950’s.

James Brown had started a band in 1958, named James Brown and the Famous Flames.

James Brown and the Famous Flames

The music that the band played was to be the first origins of the funk sound.

By the mid-1960’s, James Brown and the Famous Flames had developed a very definite sound and style that firmly established the direction that funk would take, and had all the characteristics that we associate with funk today.

As you would expect with any exciting new sound, it wasn’t long before other artists started to adopt the style.

And so, during the ’60s new funk bands would emerge to really cement this new kind of music as a genre all of it’s own.

Sly and the Family Stone, and the Meters were two of the first emergents, pioneering the sound of this new genre into the ’70s.

The 1970s were to be funk’s heyday. Pretty much all the music stations were playing funk and funk record sales were growing all the time.

Well-known and popular musicians such as Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis were all rolling at tunes with a pure funk groove throughout the whole decade.  

Funk certainly did not disappear in the the ’80s, largely because a handful of super-talented artists were progressing the sound to adopt some of the latest music production technology.

The aforementioned Stevie Wonder, as well as Michael Jackson, Rick James and Prince, would all add further dimensions to the foundation sound of funk, and in so doing keep it fresh for another generation of music lovers.

Sub-Genres of Funk

My gosh, the sub-genres of funk are confusing.

I’m going to try and untangle it a little now…wish me luck!   

#1. Electro Funk

Let’s kick this off with electro funk. Not because it was the first sub-genre of funk but because it’s the easiest to explain.

Electro funk span directly out of funk, when funk producers started to adopt new technology, notably the Roland TR-808 and the Korg Vocoder.

This new production tech led to an expansion of the sound, while still remaining completely true to the primary elements of funk.

The very late ’70s and early ’80s was when electro funk first emerged.     

#2. Psychedelic Funk

Probably the first mutation of the funk sound.

Psychedelic funk is simply the product of the melding together of funk music and psychedelic rock.

Psychedelic funk was already a thing by the late ’60s, so it was very quick to develop from the core sound of funk.

Launched by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, it remained popular for a long time. 

#3. G-Funk

G-funk, or gangsta funk.

It’s easy to see why people took to calling this sub-genre ‘G-funk’, because gangsta funk is without doubt the most ridiculous name given to any genre of anything ever.

The combination of rap lyrics on top of funk bass-lines and drums, with an added layer of synths, was seen as a more chilled approach to hip hop.

Cool deep grooves with slower bass-lines, melodic elements likened to those of Motown and R&B alll led to G-funk attracting a huge following. 

#4. Funk Rock

Okay, well, this one is pretty easy to figure out.

Funk, and rock.

The deep warm grooves of funk music, with the riffs of rock music…funk rock.

Still not there?

Think Lenny Kravitz, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, INXS, that kind of thing.

#5. Go-Go

Originating in Washington, DC, in the ’70s, go-go got it’s name because the sound became known for keeping anyone dancing to it ‘going and going’.

High-energy live performances delivered by musicians playing a variety of acoustic and electric instruments, but always with focus on a relentless, driving drums.

Who Invented Funk?

James Brown.

It’s pretty rare to be able to clearly identify one person as the definite catalyst to an entire music genre.

But in the case of funk music, James Brown, already dubbed the ‘Godfather of Soul’, was the fire-starter.

Of course, a number of other talented musicians quickly got on board with the new sound and were important in its further development.

But if you simply want to lay the invention of funk at one persons door…it’s James Brown.

Wrapping it Up!

Wrap-ups. I don’t really do wrap-ups.

It’s all been said above.

Now it’s you turn to leave a comment if you have something to add.