Nik Greeley gives us a lesson in Funk 101
Ahead of his opening slot for George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic at the Ardmore Music Hall on November 27th, we asked local musician Nik Greeley to give us a quick lesson in Funk 101. Read his thoughts below.
I’m extremely excited and honored to be opening for George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic. George is one of the most important artists in pop music history, and he is one of the the founding fathers of the funk along with James Brown and Sly Stone.
I feel a spiritual connection to George. My dad grew up in Plainfield, NJ, where George also grew up. George worked at the barber shop on Plainfield Ave., the spot he would later form his first band, The Parliaments, in 1955. The rest is history…
After my Pops saw my interest in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in my teens, he told me I needed to listen to the the band that gave these guys the blueprint for their sound. He was right, of course. So, just like my Pops shared his funk wisdom with me, I’d like to share some essential tracks with you.
1. James Brown – “Cold Sweat”
This is where it all starts. Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, former alto sax and band arranger, tells the tale of the creation of the first true funk track in the JB documentary Mr. Dynamite. It was first presented to him by Brown simply humming the bass groove and preaching the power of the “One.” Pee Wee, who was heavily into Miles Davis, says the Davis tune “So What” helped mold the sound of “Cold Sweat.” Much like the way early blues gave birth to rock & roll, jazz helped give birth to a glorious rhythmic evolution we would later deem The Funk.
2. Sly & The Family Stone – “Hot Fun in the Summertime”
Few songs bring me as much bliss as this song. Even when it’s the dead of winter, when this song comes on it immediately brings a smile to my face and takes me to that special place. Sly was a master of blending multiple genres into one beautiful pot, and this song is a perfect example of that. In fact, Phil Collins and Toto both comped the piano figure for their hits “Misunderstanding” and “Hold the Line,” respectively. The groove, the harmonies, and that euphoric melody… Sly helped pave the way for funk in popular music while writing some of the greatest songs of all time.
3. Parliament – “Flash Light”
I once read a great article in Rolling Stone with Ice Cube where he said if you were a DJ back in the early 80s and you put this song on, “motherf****** would become real crazy and literally fight each other.” I certainly never wanted to fight anyone, but the first time i heard “Flash Light”, I nearly lost my mind. Bernie Worrell literally channeled aliens through his Moog synthesizer to create a whole new sonic language, which he would then bring to the Talking Heads to totally revitalize their sound. This video shows what P-Funk is all about. The outfits, the spaceship, the 20 people on stage gettin’ down, it’s complete musical freedom.
4. Shuggie Otis – “Strawberry Letter 23”
I had the pleasure of opening for Shuggie this past year at Ardmore Music Hall, and hearing this song live was a surreal moment. Otis first recorded the song for his 1971 album Freedom Flight. Soon after, George Johnson, of the Brothers Johnson, who had been dating one of Otis’ cousins, came across the song, loved it, and took it to the master himself, producer Quincy Jones. Jones then turned the song into a platinum selling hit in 1977. Shuggie has been heavily sampled by hip-hop and R&B artists over the years including Kanye, De La Soul, Beyonce and Outkast. Even Mac Demarco once said in a Pitchfork interview that if he could collaborate with any artist it would be Shuggie because, like him, he plays every instrument on his record. Do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy of Inspiration Information and see what this cult legend is all about.
5. Curtis Mayfield – “Freddie’s Dead”
Superfly is one of the definitive funk / pop albums of the 70s, and still sounds just as fresh now as it did then. This track shows all of Mayfield’s strengths as a songwriter. Painting the sad tale of Freddie on the corner, accompanied by a monster groove, and some of the most beautiful falsetto you’ll ever hear in your life. Mayfield’s guitar style is noticeably influential on the likes of Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. Mayfield and Marvin Gaye really brought soul to funk music, while writing political and socially conscience lyrics for the times. This song would also later be covered by LA ska legends Fishbone on their classic album Truth & Soul in 1988. Curtis was taken from this world far too soon; this record is a timeless reminder of his greatness.
***NOTE!! #6 would be Prince but as many of us know, his music is not available on YouTube. But do yourself a favor: go buy a Prince record (preferably Sign O’ The Times), dance around your living room, and then buy every single record you can after that. Trust me, he’s that good.
For more tunes feel free to head over to my Spotify and check out my personal page with all my playlists. Until next time, may the funk be with you.
Tickets and information for George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic with Nik Greeley can be found here.