I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 years old when I heard my first funk record. It was at my godparents’ home on a cold winter evening. We were all sitting in their living room when my godbrother Jeffery brought an album into the room. The adults were talking amongst themselves and for once, I was quiet, probably in a food coma. I watched him open the lid to the record player of his dad’s hi-fi stereo set with the nice speakers and everything. He was purposeful, choosing the right song and timing it just for the right moment. Then, all the sudden, came the sound of the lyrics, “funk used to be a bad word…,” from the song Take It to the Stage by The Funkadelics. His father jumped from across the room and ripped that record off the player, scratching it like a master DJ. Wow, what just happened? I was vibing off this new awesome sound and the reactions to the adults was outrageous! I’m sure they must have thought the same thing, showing the disdain for the lyrics.
What I didn’t understand until I got to college was that this was a sound of revolution, free love, and expression. And none of that was allowed in my house, my godparents’ house, or any other house that I knew. My village was very conservative, careful, and conscientious, God-fearing, “Dr. King-following folks” who considered Little Richard way out of bounds. But there was something about the music, the beats, the lyrics, and especially the album covers of many of the funk bands had that literally, “blew the roof off the mother…” It was so dangerously appealing and irresistible. My takeaway occurred after many assassinations of black and white leaders: Medgar Evans from NAACP, President John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party members in large cities, and the Kent State massacre. These real events weighed heavily on the psyche of youth in America, especially the huge pink elephant in the room: the Vietnam War. I was only 2 years old when President Kennedy was killed, and it still resonated in my family’s consciousness. The country was exhausted with murderous accounts, just like now, and rebellion this time was seeking freedom. The music became the sound expressions of the pain, horrors, and upheaval of the world they knew.
The first time I went for actual rebellion was in 1972, when Sly and the Family Stone was booked at the Field House at Toledo University (TU). Yes, I’m old enough to remember the old field house at TU, not UT. I had saved enough money to buy a ticket to the concert, and everything was set except one thing: how was I going to get there? My mom was already set against it and basically said no. That meant one thing, I had to escape the house. My dilemma was that none of my friends who had older siblings who could drive were in on the plan. They weren’t going to be responsible for sneaking me out and facing the consequences. I was on my own, and just as I was ready to jump out of my first-floor bedroom window, the January wind blew inside and hit me square in my face. To make matters worse, I found out at the last minute that the venue was not TU, but the Sports Arena across the river in East Toledo. My walk to the field house was only 1.5 miles, but to the Sports Arena? No way! My sixth-grade sensibilities slowed me down and my sneaking out of the house skills were nowhere near developed. I was only 11 years old, so I sulked all night.
The next day, my mom read the Blade to me out loud: Sly Stone disappoints and is a no-show for the Sports Arena. Ok, so Sly Stone was unreliable, so much so that George Clinton’s band Parliament covered for them and became huge stars because of Sly’s fickleness. But Sly and the Family Stone was just one of many funk bands circling the country. We had the Ohio Players, Lakeside, Slave, Faze-O, Heatwave, Roger Troutman and Zapp, and Sun, all from Ohio, mostly Dayton. Bootsy Collins and his brother “Catfish,” from Cincinnati, broke out after they left James Brown’s famous band featuring the great Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. The exodus to playing funk in a new volatile way trailed straight to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic band and most of James Brown’s band abandoned him.
The ’70’s were music magic for me. We had the Jackson 5! And I loved everything that Michael sang, and I mean EVERYTHING! Then as I got older, it was Earth, Wind, and Fire, the phenomenal group started by Maurice White that opened the portal to psychedelic funk, with every type of instrument playing in perfect harmony. Kool and the Gang, the Commodores, Tower of Power, the Isley Brothers, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, and The Brothers Johnson were just a morsel of sound coming out into the musical stratosphere. I was truly devoted. The funk sound was so pervasive to young black people that as hip hop and rap started to develop, the rappers “sampled” the funk sound tracks to play behind their rhymes. James Brown and Michael Jackson are still the most sampled musicians ever used.
Even though a lot of these fantastic musicians produced unbelievable music, they were scarred by the drug culture, many overdosing on the drug du jour, like Jimi Hendrix, Michael, and Prince, and so many more. The music they left behind made history and the creativity of these artists were a tumultuous reflection of America. Funk’s crossover appeal changed fashion, hairstyles, politics, and opened consciousness that is still just over the horizon.