In Defense of Funk Metal
When I started this whole Bravest Man in Metal racket its purpose was to… well, I don’t know if I had any real purpose, to be perfectly honest with you. OK, maybe there was a little of that whole ‘sandpapering-against-the grain-of-the-dominant/herd-mentality-on-topics-more-than-enough-metal-heads-held-close-to-their-barbed-wire-wrapped-hearts’ business, but I ultimately come to you in the spirit of peace and fun. I’m not the curmudgeonly and cantankerous old coot to which my birth certificate alludes. I’m a lover, not a fighter, as it were.
Hilariously enough, over the course of the last few years, my sporadic appearances on MetalSucks have demonstrated that there are varieties of views and opinions within the metal community on topics big and small. I’ve been surprised how many of you are on “my” side of things when it comes to admittedly inconsequential items like how mosh pits suck ass, how it is possible to give your ears a break from blast beats and distortion without being called “faggot” and how drinking your body weight in alcohol every two days isn’t inexorably entwined with one’s enjoyment of metal as an art form or lifestyle. And when it comes to the true and pressing issues facing our little corner of the world, well, let’s just say I’m surprised so many of you enjoy the black sheep albums of certain band’s discographies as much as I do.
However, given what’s about to follow, could the lengthy honeymoon between you, the gentle readers, and I, the Bravest Man in Metal, be coming to a screeching halt? Over the course of the last far too many years than I should care to admit/remember, I’ve been writing my dumb thoughts about music in magazines and websites far and wide, big and small. Someone recently informed me that I’ve developed an admirable amount of respect, cred and cool guy currency in the process of doing so. I don’t believe that horse-pucky for one red minute, but assuming a modicum of truth here, could all that goodwill get flushed down the most shit-stained of crappers come the conclusion of today’s column? Will friends, fans, colleagues, progeny, my probably (and understandably) soon-to-be ex-wife, and strangers on the street and in clubs all view me in a different light? Will I be able to live with what I see when I look into the mirror in the morning?
Why all the dramatics, you ask? Well, it’s like this – deep breath. One. Two. Three. – “Hi, my name is Kevin Stewart-Panko and I like, maybe even love, funk metal.”
And if that wasn’t enough of a Spear of Longinus to the ball-bag of common sense and good taste, for the next few hundred words I’m going to tell you all about it and why. Whilst I do my best to avoid your pokey finger pointing, tune a deaf ear to your laughs of derision and duck the rotting vegetables hurled at my head, let me clarify that, like with any genre or subgenre of anything, I’m not an uncritical fan-boy with blinders on. Just as there’s a shit-ton of death metal, alt-rock, grindcore, thrash metal, free jazz and old-school disco I love, there’s just as much, if not more, death metal, alt-rock, grindcore, thrash metal, free jazz and old-school disco I absolutely despise. Just as there’s all sorts of funk metal and thrash funk I can get behind, despite the uproarious laughter going on behind my back, there are a whole lot of sonic kidney stones hailing from one of the musical universe’s most bizarre combinations.
For most people, the idea that funk and metal somehow ended up being combined is as ridiculous as reading Playboy, or logging onto the internet for “the articles.” However, think about how rock and roll’s origins were rooted in R&B, blues and other forms of “black music” and how rock/metal’s thumping low end and attention to those parts of the musical experience lock into the physiological experience of every Tom, Dick, Jane and Harriet on the planet. The snare/kick combination and bass notes accenting on kick drum hits during your basic rock beat matches up with a heart beat’s cycle and driving 4/4 quarter-note patterns equate with your typical forward motion/walking stride, etc. So it’s not a stretch to see why the pulse and throb employed in metal with funkier strands connect with the everyday schmoe on the street. Add in some flare, like slap ‘n’ pop bass, guitars employing that jangly shuffle stride alongside time-tested power chord progressions and a-way we go!
Dumb it down a bunch, throw in someone doing some inconsequential turntable scratching for absolutely no real effect other than showmanship and you don’t have to think too hard about how a bigger mainstream audience was attracted to the likes of Incubus and Limp Bizkit. This also explains why you don’t see a whole lot of death and black metal and grindcore excursions into funky territory. The rapid-fire, double bass helicopter patterns and mach-speed tempos allow less for that sort of natural connection with the body’s innate rhythms. Yes, there are bands of that ilk who make funkier moves — Czech alchemists Contrastic; Atheist had a dusting of funk/Latin on Elements and Unquestionable Presence; and there was a band from eastern Canada back in the early ’90s called Entrafis that somewhat successfully brought more funk into the death metal mix – but there aren’t many of ‘em.
There is a certain lineage that can, however speciously, be traced back to the grandfathers of hard rock/metal and the pulse of Motown, the flashy flare of disco and the jump of funk. Bands like Steppenwolf, James Gang, Humble Pie and Grand Funk Railroad all possessed links to the blues and funk of the 60s and early 70s. You can hear it in the four-on-the-floor drum beat, the propulsive bass and chord mixtures in the guitar work. On the other side, there was the crossover that saw indubitably funky motherfuckers like George Clinton/Funkadelic/Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone, War, Black Merda and even Tower of Power utilizing rock tropes in their material.
Fast forward to the ’80s and ’90s: bands like Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour and Faith No More started to throw all kinds of mish-mash into their own musical blenders and run it through their own kaleidoscopic filters. They kept that mixture of pumping slap-pop bass, shuffling guitars and driving drums and topped it off with charismatic vocals and hummable choruses on wholly relatable topics, so it’s no surprise that early tracks from these dudes like “Fight Like a Brave,” “Cult of Personality,” “Party at Ground Zero,” “When Problems Arise,” “Funky Crime” and especially “We Care a Lot” hit with listeners hard.
A prime example of how physiology and music can work to congeal in outsiders’ ears comes from my own personal listening history and trajectory. You shouldn’t be surprised to know I fucking love metal. I also like a lot of non-metal. To wit, I’ve often have had it put to me that the reason funk and other forms of “black” music connect with me is because being part black, I grew up surrounded by music from the black side of town that sunk its hooky tentacles into me before metal did. I mean, my mom (who is black) is from the Caribbean and my dad (who is white) obviously likes his brown sugar, so there must have been all kinds of related sounds echoing throughout the house I was raised in. But nah, dude! This is couldn’t be further from the truth. I grew up in about as non-musical an environment as you could ever imagine. To this day, my parents don’t own a stereo. They have no understanding of what I do, what I listen to, or even why I do, and listen to, the things I do. Everyone is amazed at how music has basically become my life and how I’ve essentially made a living at it considering it was never a part of my formative years. Similarly, I’m convinced my parents are actually soulless robots because they don’t interact with music of any real sort in any real way. Huzzah for nature; fuck you, nurture!
Now, I don’t think a comprehensive look at why hardcore and metal dudes started to get in touch with their funky sides has ever been explored, but when the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Primus, Mr. Bungle’s first record and parts of Praxis’ first two albums (on which Parliament/Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins played bass) came onto the scene, it provided not only respite from the ordinary sounds and metallic inundation at the time, but did it with one foot in the world of metal and another in the alternative world that, at the time, had already conquered the UK, parts of western Europe and was making its way to North America. If you were there and remember, you’ll recall heaping amounts of boilerplate thrash and death metal coming out of everywhere in light of the popularity of the scenes in the Bay Area, Florida and Germany. The result was people probably looking for something different to sink their faces into.
As well, as much as I don’t know what, for example, drew someone like Zack de la Rocha away from the hardcore punk he was doing with Inside Out towards RATM, or how a bunch of white dudes from Sweden ended up on the floor hip-hopping it under the Clawfinger banner, I also don’t know what the fuck the collective conscious was thinking in terms of wardrobe. Many, many – too many! – people took it upon themselves to look like they rolled out of bed and got into a changing room Battle Royale with a Gold’s Gym denizen in the back of a deadhead’s bread box V-dub in the Heavy Metal Parking Lot. If I never see a pair of painter’s palette-patterned skate shorts/baggy pants and a backwards baseball cap again in my life it’ll be too fucking soon.
But despite the fact everyone was walking around looking like a bunch of multi-coloured idiot parrots flying north for the winter, there was some great music being produced. OK, I say great through the lens of my personal and subjective viewpoint, but I wasn’t the only one who thought some thrash funk/funk metal/what have you didn’t have broader redeeming, if not attractive, qualities and even when I was rocking out in my basement to 24-7 Spyz’s Harder Than You I could surmise the difference between it and those bands that couldn’t cut the mustard at all. As much as I enjoyed (still enjoy?) Scat Opera’s About Time, I know they’re borderline awful, if not entirely, and would never hold them up as an example of where to start when introducing a non-believer to the virtues of funk metal (watching their videos today pretty much confirms that these lily-white British nerds were laughably faking the funk). Even the biggest apologist/sympathizer to the cause has to admit that Dog Eat Dog and Bootsauce shouldn’t be listened to by anyone at all.
Lest you think thrash funk was a bizarre subset reserved for only the un-tr00est of the un-tr00, those of you who picked up a copy of Relapse’s comprehensive reissue of Death’s Spiritual Healing and made it to the bonus discs will have heard Evil Chuck and the gang doing a (terrible) funk rendition of their own which they called the “Primus Jam” alongside various other funky nic-nacs. Don’t forget Sacred Reich’s “31 Flavours.” Listen to much Clutch? What about what is arguably Death Angel’s most popular track, “Bored”? The power of the mothership compels even the heartiest of metal warriors, apparently.
Despite my wishy-washy defence of the sub-genre thus far, in addition to classic works by those mentioned above, there are indeed a number of gems that did come out of funk metal’s peak time on terra firma. Mordred probably could’ve went on as a stellar member of the Bay Area thrash brigade — before they discovered how to let their backbones slide and added a DJ/turntablist/keyboardist (Aaron “DJ Pause” Vaughn) to the mix — gave the world two killer records in Fool’s Game and In This Life. There’s the psychedelic technicality cartoon-come-to-life of the first half of Primus’s career. Mindfunk’s moniker didn’t leave anything to the half-measured imagination as they (“they” being former members of Celtic Frost, Uniform Choice, M.O.D. and Zoetrope) grooved their way onto a major with their self-titled debut. Psychefunkapus put out a couple of killer records in the very early ’90s (the self-titled debut and its follow up, Skin), but never got much recognition outside of the Bay Area due to a lack of touring opportunities (hell, the Deftones, Green Day and No Doubt used to open for them!) and the fact that they and fellow San Franciscans, Limbomaniacs, came around at the tail end of the public’s interest in funk metal. The UK’s Ignorance certainly were more thrash than funk – dude, they were from Coventry, ferchrissakes, and were definitely a band that decided to be a band after one too many drunken nights cranking The Real Thing — but The Confident Rat is still something I enjoy despite the fact I might not admit that fact in many public forums. Atom Seed, Scat Opera, Infectious Grooves (featuring some guy who went on to play in some band called Metallica or something), Russia’s Crownear, all sorts of weird Japanese takes on funk like the Garlic Boys, Shellshock and Maximum the Hormone… shit, I could go on and on. However, I’ve made my point, and in doing so have embarrassed myself enough. Happy hip swingin’ folks!