BY JAKE WOOD | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
On paper, funk has many of the same rhythms as rock, and yet they feel quite different. Funk makes people move their bodies in ways that rock does not. There is an intangible head-shaking quality to funk, a nastiness that causes you to unconsciously bite your lower lip and bob your head. In an effort to discover what causes such slick miracles of meter, we picked the brains of some of funk’s master drummers.
Our Funky 5 includes Dennis Chambers, Adam Deitch, Stanton Moore, Bernard Purdie, and Chad Smith. Each of their answers conveyed unfailing respect for the music: They were not only enthusiastic to sit down and contribute to the discourse, but they took their time to craft thoughtful answers to each question (edited here for space and clarity). Across the board, their reverence for the funk was strong, as was their obvious expertise in all things funky. All five were asked the same questions. Some of their answers offered reaffirming similarities, while others showed intriguing diversity.
What defines funk music to you?
DENNIS CHAMBERS: It’s an attitude. It’s a feeling you get when you hit heavy grooves. When you feel that thing in your back and it makes your head jerk forward, it makes your feet move. Jazz or bebop is not the same feeling. Jazz is a more serious form of music. That’s thinking music — you have to really think about what you’re doing. For some people it’s natural. There’s no thinking involved in funk — you just go up there and play something that feels good. Also, when you’re doing that in a room, whether it’s two people or 30,000 people, you’ve got to move them. If funk is played right, you definitely move them.
ADAM DEITCH: The African root is very deep. The spirit is in funk music. It’s very important that it continues. It’s important to the country and to the world. To me it’s Bernard Purdie, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, and Clyde Stubblefield; they’ve created that. It’s danceable, syncopated. Funk is something that makes you move, that makes your spirit feel great, and inspires social change. It’s inspiring producers to make funky electronic music. It’s a feeling that can be in any genre. Most genres can get to it. I like to use the term “soul music” to encompass all of that. It’s not a particular beat. It could be anything from some linear Mike Clark, or a David Garibaldi groove, or James Gadson playing 2 and 4, but it’s not a specific beat. It’s a feeling that can be thrown into any beat and any genre.
STANTON MOORE: It’s rhythmically driven, with an intensity that compels people to move. That’s a broad description. Some looser, jazz-based boogaloo can be funky. Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” — that’s funky, but that’s coming from more of a jazz approach. The Meters and P-Funk are funky, but in a much heavier way. They’re very different, yet they’re both funky to me. Rhythmically compelled music with an intensity that urges people to move. Some people won’t dance, they’ll just want to bob their head or tap their foot, but I think it’s that “compelling to movement” that is important.
BERNARD PURDIE: I have to look at all the stuff I’ve done over the course of the years to see what category of funk you’re looking for. There’s more than one category of funk. They’re putting hip-hop now as funk. That’s a matter of opinion. Taking someone else’s music, putting it into your thing, and then rapping over it — is that funk? James Brown was funk. Aretha Franklin was funk. It was also R&B, blues. It came down to the actual music itself, whether it’s a rhythm or what somebody feels.
CHAD SMITH: To me, it’s a feeling that you inject into the music you play. And when people say, “Oh, that’s funky,” it’s this nebulous term that could mean anything. When it’s funky, it feels good. That makes people feel good. Sly And The Family Stone, P-Funk, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath — funky! You can find funk in everything if it’s done well, if it’s art.
Who is your all-time favorite funky drummer?
CHAMBERS: Clyde Stubblefield, John “Jabo” Starks, Zigaboo Modeliste, and David Garibaldi.
DEITCH: Gaylord Birch, James Levi, and Harvey Mason.
MOORE: Zigaboo. I always come back to Zig. It holds up. He’s unbelievably funky. But of course there’s Clyde and Jabo, Gadson, Bernard. It’s their feel.
PURDIE: There’s so many! I really listen to the young drummers today to see where they’re trying to go. Chad Smith knocks me out. He’s really an excellent drummer. There’s Kenny Aronoff — he’s just outstanding. There’s Steve Gadd, I love him — I love his playing, I love his subtleties, and I love the simplicity of the complications of what he does. David Garibaldi [makes a cartoonishly long kissing noise with pursed lips].
SMITH: Today it could be Art Blakey or Simon Kirke from Free and Bad Company. Then there are the Motown drummers, and Stevie Wonder. Greg Errico from the Sly And The Family Stone records. Tiki Fulwood from Funkadelic. But how can you not go down the Clyde [Stubblefield] route? Also, David Garibaldi is really funky. And there’s Al Foster, Jr.
Are there any contemporary funk acts you feel are carrying the torch?
CHAMBERS: Kneebody. The music is a little complex, but it has funk hints to it that make you groove. Snarky Puppy will strike up on a funk groove, then play something that’ll just blow you away. Then there’s Funky Knuckles, out of Texas. They’re phenomenal. They opened for us when I was with Victor Wooten, and they blew us away. People are always complaining that there isn’t anything new, but there is. They’re there — you just don’t hear them on the radio.
DEITCH: The Dap Kings. Ghostnote. Dumpstafunk — that band is on fire all the time.
MOORE: Lettuce. Childish Gambino — he’s drawn a lot from Funkadelic elements. Turquaz is killing it. Tauk is killing it, too.
PURDIE: I listen to a lot of the songs, and what people call R&B, and I’m still not totally satisfied with the one-chord beats. James Brown did that, and it’s behind us. Just add something else to it — let’s add a little something to the rhythm, let’s add something to the melody. That’s what’s missing in so much of the rap stuff. They’re going with the electronic beats, and that’s fine, but there’s no place else for it to go.
SMITH: Anderson .Paak. Thundercat. Knower.
Extremely funky Brides of Dr. Funkenstein live set, Houston 1979
Do you have an all-time funkiest moment?
CHAMBERS: [Playing with] P-Funk. I was 18 when I joined the organization, and I came in through the Brides Of Funkenstein. Rodney “Skeet” Curtis, the bass player, who now plays with [saxophonist] Maceo Parker, tried to get me in the drum chair, but by the time he’d get to me, the drum chair would be filled. The only way he could get me in was for me to play with the Brides, and about a year later, I was with Funkadelic.
DEITCH: Getting to play with Maceo Parker on Jam Cruise. He wanted to play with Lettuce. We played “Funky Drummer,” and he did this thing where he marched around the room, just stepping to the groove, making sure it felt right, nodding in approval. This was a rehearsal. I started crying. And once, also on Jam Cruise, [keyboardist] Bernie Worrell started dancing, letting us know where the 1 was. Having those guys there, being around them — those are some of the all-time funkiest moments. Also, going to see Tower Of Power when I was 12 years old.
MOORE: The first time I ever saw Russell Batiste. I was 17, he was 24. It was an outdoor gig. No shirt on. Totally ripped. It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen. He had so much power, so much facility. I thought, What the hell was that? To me, the funkiest drummer of all time is Russell. But he hasn’t been recorded right. You’ve got to catch him on the right night.
PURDIE: Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady.” The bass hits right in the beginning, but my little drum break is what people recognize all over the world. I got it because of Chuck Rainey’s bass part. He made me think of what I wanted to do, and that — most people didn’t know — was an accident in the first place.
Aretha was playing the piano, and she dropped the music. The bass was going, and she didn’t want to stop, so she’d say “rock” and bring her hands up, and then “steady.” She did that for eight bars, and I just kept on playing. It was the most wonderful thing in the world for me. It was time. We did 50 other takes, but they all went back to where the mistake was. That’s what got put on the record. That was the special one. And I’ve had that in so many different records, especially Steely Dan. Most of the records everybody hears me on are from the first, second, or third take, but that didn’t stop us from doing 50 to 100 takes more. It was just a way of life.
SMITH: In 1989, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were on a spring break tour, and we were in a taxi in Florida the first time I heard NWA on the radio. I just remember thinking, “What the f*ck is this?” Another one was when we did a festival in New York years ago, and we had to rehearse in a spot around Snoop and Bootsy [Collins]. Bootsy and Flea were going to play the bass. And then we go to rehearse “Sex Machine,” and Bootsy didn’t remember how it went. Flea showed him how to play the bass line he invented in ’65 or whatever it was, and I remember thinking, “This is pretty funky!” We jammed for half an hour. Everyone took a solo. I remember thinking, Everyone is levitating in this room.
Are you currently working on any funky projects?
CHAMBERS: I’m real busy with this Victor Wooten project, and having a blast with it. It’s got some funk edge to it.
DEITCH: The Break Science album, Grit Of Souls, just got released. It has some live drums, some electronic drums, and it’s a funky record. We’ve finished tracking the new Lettuce record and it’s now in the mix phase. We have Russ Elevado, D’Angelo’s mixing engineer, and he’s going to mix those drums right. It’s all analog, and he’s going to run it through tape. And then I have my solo record, which is the Adam Deitch Quartet. It’s kind of a tribute to Idris Muhammad-style songs.
MOORE: In July I released a tribute to Alan Toussaint called With You In Mind. It’s a record with all kinds of guests, including Maceo Parker, Cyril Neville, Donald Harrison Jr., and many others. Galactic has been releasing some singles, too. We’re currently working on filling out an album.
PURDIE: Oh yes, I’m actually working on three. They’re all coming out this year. I have an album that came out April 21. It’s a solo record. It’s a phenomenal group, absolutely wonderful musicians. Another one is all originals. It’s jazz, blues, funk, and R&B. I wrote more than half the songs. And on top of everything else, next year is my documentary. We’re doing a lot of shooting in the next six months.
SMITH: The next album by DRAM. We’re going to write all the music for his record. It’s me, Pino Paladino on bass — who I’ve never played with — Ivan Neville doing his funky-clav New Orleans thing, and this producer Andrew Watt. DRAM is a rapper, but he wants to do a D’Angelo-ish vibe for his next record. I can’t wait! To me, on paper, this sounds really funky.
Which up-and-coming drummers should we be looking out for?
CHAMBERS: Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy), Greg Clark (Snarky Puppy), and Lee Pearson (Chris Botti).
DEITCH: Homer Steinweiss (The Dap Kings), Alvin Ford (Dumpstaphunk), Daru Jones (Jack White), because he embraced simplicity in a modern-day-chop era, Lenny “The Ox” Reece (Demi Lovato), Zach Najor (Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson).
MOORE: I’ll keep it to NOLA: Alvin Ford (Dumpstaphunk), Julian Addison (Dirty Dozen), and Jamison Ross, a world-class drummer and singer.
PURDIE: I need to pass on that comment right now until I can put more time in, because there are so many young drummers who can play, getting them to understand what they’re playing is very serious to me. If I’m going to speak on somebody I need to know what I’m saying about them. That said, I’m going to add one name. I can’t call him super young, but I can call him supernatural: Will Calhoun. He reminds me of myself. If you have a room of 10,000 drummers, he would stand out because he has the touch, the taste.
SMITH: Anderson .Paak. Incredible musician. He sings and plays. I’m very taken with him.
Chad Smith and Flea lay out some impromptu funkiness on the NAMM show floor, 2009
How can a drummer become funkier?
CHAMBERS: That’s a hard question. Depends on how deep your feeling goes with it. Go to the foundation. The better you understand the foundation, what you get from it, and how you present it, that’s how you become a better funk player. It all depends on your understanding of it and what you get from it.
DEITCH: By listening to the greats. Putting your headphones on. I would play along with the funk records, record just the drums, and ask myself if I was close to the original pocket. You have to listen back to yourself and self-edit, and each time you get closer.
MOORE: By playing with other great musicians. You start playing with those guys and you become funkier. You can’t become funkier in a practice room. You’ve got to experience things, music, life.
PURDIE: Learn your craft. Stop trying to be everybody else. You have to know time, feel, and attitude. And it’s got to be very, very positive. Practice what you preach each and every day. You must learn how to count. You have to learn how to focus. Time is everything. Time is money. Learn how to relax with it and let Mother Nature take her course.
SMITH: Easy and most predictable answer: If this was Flea, he’d say, “Go live in the armpit of Bootsy’s brother [and former James Brown guitarist] Catfish for six months and you will become funkier.” If you’re a younger musician looking to widen your palate, it’s always great if you listen to lots of different kinds of music. I just listened to those records and played along. Try and figure out what makes it feel good — is it the drumming? The songs? How they interact? Expose yourself. Really get into it. Don’t just listen to it once. You have to really immerse yourself to get any benefit. It always helps if you like that music. Miles Davis said he could tell a drummer was funky just by how he walked. You can play to a metronome all day long, but the really special players are the ones that have a special sense of time, an inner clock. I don’t know if that’s a teachable thing. Listen and play along.
Adam Deitch sitting in with Papa Grows Funk, 2013
What is the all-time funkiest song ever?
CHAMBERS: “In Time” by Sly And The Family Stone.
DEITCH: “Sex Machine” or “Soul Power” by James Brown. You can’t have a discussion about funk music and not mention those two songs.
MOORE: “Africa” by The Meters (from the live album Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live On The Queen Mary).
PURDIE: “Hey Joe” (the Tim Rose version) and “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” by Aretha Franklin.
SMITH: The intro to “Superstition,” from Talking Book, with Stevie Wonder on drums.