In an unreasonably long two-part piece, Ike takes us through his humble picks for the funkiest songs ever.
When I was home for Christmas my dad and I spent an entire 40-minute car ride talking about funk. The conversation started when I plugged my iPhone into the car’s USB port and turned on some Sly and the Family Stone, a band that my father had introduced me to as a child. Thanks to my dad, Sly Stone and his crew — along with Bob Marley, Deep Purple, and ZZ Top — basically made up my early musical youth, with some bossa nova and Etta James peppered in by way of my mom. I am very proud of this. (Shout-out to my cool parents!) Things took a turn for the worse when I started picking my own music. That’s how you explain the dusty Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach CDs still lying on a low shelf in our hallway back in California. Whatever.
Back to that conversation with my dad late last month. To my delight, he told me that he thinks Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is among the funkiest, coolest songs ever. He then lamented that ever since the eighties, mainstream oldies radio stations have often avoided playing “too-funky” tracks like “Thank You” in favor of “whiter” funk songs like “Play That Funky Music” by one-hit wonders (and white dudes) Wild Cherry. Sad. (Note: both were number-one hits when they were released in the late sixties/seventies.) But to be honest, this had me thinking, “Wait, I really like both those songs.” And that got me thinking, “Hey, I should compile a list of the funkiest songs ever — no matter how impossibly ambitious that is — regardless of which artists and which songs get love from semi-racist radio stations!”
So here we are. But before we move on, we must define what we mean by “funky.” I don’t necessarily have any set criteria for what qualifies as “funky,” but I will say that the use of the bass guitar is central to funk music. And usually, when you’re talking funk bass, you mean slapping the bass, a technique — though now seen as kind of a joke thanks to Paul Rudd — widely credited to Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham. Funkiness also incorporates the classic muted (rhythm) guitar strum and chicken-scratch that James Brown popularized (the one from “The Payback” and other iconic Brown songs). And of course, groovy saxophone-playing and loud horns can do the trick, as long as none of it is done too cornily — which is why funk songs from the eighties often turn me off.
Speaking of corny, no Lionel Richie-style ballads qualify as funky in my book. Sorry. Most of the best funk songs just aren’t about love; if they touch on the subject, they do so by highlighting how bad women are, not how mushy they make dudes feel. Lyrics focus typically on sex, dancing, social (urban) issues, or bizarre stuff like mythical funk spacecrafts (see: Parliament-Funkadelic). And the vocals need to be soulful. Overall, in the most fundamental sense, in funk music rhythm takes precedent over melody, and an extended repeating groove is central. SlackPost’s very own Avinash Chak has a far simpler take on funk. He defines it as “that whole ‘free your mind and your ass will follow’ feeling, the visceral feeling that takes over when the bass hits.” Nice.
If you’re still utterly confused by what we mean, just read on and listen to the tracks below. You’ll get it. Without further ado, here is a non-comprehensive but hey-it’s-a-great-start list of the funkiest songs ever.
Lyn Collins – Think (About It)
Shocker! Kicking things off with a banger from James Brown protégé and female funk and soul singer Lyn Collins. Why? Because it’s incredible. The 30-second buildup, almost entirely devoid of drums and addressed to irresponsible and entitled dudes everywhere, is a welcome change from the norm. And the groove that follows is just exquisite. The song also spawned the catchiest and most recognizable elements of “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. Boom.
Stevie Wonder – Higher Ground
First of all, Stevie Wonder played all of the instruments on this track. Boss. Second, remember that he is blind. Even more boss. But can we talk about that for a second? Obviously he had some people helping him out in the studio — both by taking charge of the soundboards and by preparing the instruments/escorting him over to them. But let’s say you’re the guy who set up the drum set for Stevie. To be in charge of that, don’t you basically have to be a drummer yourself? How demeaning is that?! Hey drummer guy, so Stevie needs you to set the drum kit up, but once you do that you won’t actually be playing the drums — he’ll play them instead because he’s undoubtedly better than you are — but oh yeah, you’ll need to walk him over to them first. Anyway, “Higher Ground” is instantly recognizable for its wonderfully funky use of that wah-wah-Clavinet sound, achieved (and I’m just stealing from Wikipedia here) with a filter pedal. Cool!
Sly and the Family Stone – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
There have been four or five times in my life where I’ve been asked to explain what funk is. Every single time, this is the song that I’ve thought of first when searching for an example. Translation: to me, this song is funk.
Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive
One of the grooviest, catchiest, most danceable openings to any song ever. For that alone, it makes the list. I don’t care that it’s widely known as a disco track (disco was directly influenced by funk anyway), that it will forever be linked to Saturday Night Fever (although John Travolta’s dancing is phenomenal), or that THIS happened to it. It’s bigger than all that. Plus the Bee Gees are so likable that during the “Disco Sucks!” riots I seriously doubt the protesters ever meant to direct their hate specifically toward the Gibb Brothers anyway.
Rose Royce – Do Your Dance
A 9-minute funk jam from the group most famous for their song “Car Wash.” Like many of the other songs on this list, this track often turns me into the guy from that VW commercial.
Graham Central Station – Hair
Slap the bass, Mr. Graham. Do your thing. And don’t let anyone judge you for the length of your hair. Anyway, this song has everything you could ever want from a funk song: a deep-voiced male vocalist, a soulful female vocalist, yelping and harmonizing from the group in general, some of the heaviest electric slap bass-playing ever, a guitar solo, a backing Clavinet groove, frenetic horns, and a collective call to action for the widespread tolerance of hair of all shapes and sizes.
Ohio Players – Love Rollercoaster
People really, really like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version of this song, so much so that I often hear claims that the cover is better than the original. But I will never, ever subscribe to that belief. Never. Even if a girl really did die during the recording.
One Way – Cutie Pie
This song is a wonderful exception to my stupid pseudo-rule that eighties funk songs are too corny for my liking. Unlike Roger Goodell, I can work around the rules. For the better, that is.
Rufus & Chaka Khan – Tell Me Something Good
Pretty sure Chaka Khan could have done nothing else in her career and she’d still be regarded as the badass queen of funk and soul thanks to this.
Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music
Is it reasonable to call this song meta because of the whole “white boy” thing? Totally. Think about it.
Rick James – Ghetto Life
Rick James was a boss. Just look at the hilarious album cover for this record. If you’re close to my age and were born in the late 80s or early 90s, chances are you just think that photo straight-up depicts Dave Chappelle instead of Rick James himself. Years after his psychotic break/disappearance, Chappelle still manages to make a mark. Awesome.
Rick James – Mary Jane
Here, Mr. James proclaims his love for a drug called Mary Jane. Or maybe it’s a woman. I can’t tell. But he does say that he’s cool with her playing around and spreading her love. Things were different before HIV.
Curtis Mayfield – Superfly
It’s remarkable to consider that I’ve never seen Superfly, the blaxploitation flick from which this track comes. Given that I’ve listened to it dozens and dozens of times, and thought of the movie each time, you really have to give it up to my laziness. The justification for not seeing the film: the soundtrack is so freaking good that I’d rather listen to it straight through instead of in bits and pieces interspersed with depressing scenes of the early-70s drug underworld. That said, as my current celebrity love interest Jessica Chastain always says, worthwhile movies should create a(n intelligent) conversation, and Superfly was apparently really controversial, so I should see it.
Kool & The Gang – Jungle Boogie
Say what you want about Quentin Tarantino — and I thought Tina Fey’s calling him out at the Globes for his sexual creepiness was hilarious, especially ever since his whole toe fetish came to light — but the man knows how to pick sweet music for his films. All of his movie soundtracks are loaded with great tracks, but it’s the best of his pictures, Pulp Fiction, that holds the distinction of having “Jungle Boogie” in it. What a wonderfully frenetic, loud song. It never lets up.
Etta James – All the Way Down
Consider me a music douchebag, but I was pissed when Avicii, and then later the perpetual music-klepto Flo Rida, sampled Etta’s voice from “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” in their songs. As mentioned earlier, I was grooving to Etta jams (see what I did there?) like that one as an elementary schooler. Now an entire generation of people have no idea who she is and think HAU5 MUSIC!! whenever they hear that sample of her sensational voice. Sad. In any case, Etta was more of a gospel and jazz singer, but “All the Way Down” represents one of her (successful) forays into funk music from later on in her creative years. It’s got a sweet 1:30-long buildup with all kinds of funky-ass stuff going on, then Miss Etta comes in with lyrics about urban strife and substance abuse that somehow come off as… cool. That’s definitely the wrong word to use, especially coming from a privileged, suburban schmuck like me, but I can’t help it — the instrumental is just so groovy.
Mongo Santamaría – Me and You Baby (Picao Y Tostao)
Adding some Latin flavor to the affair with this gem from legendary percussionist Mongo Santamaría. That this is the one purely Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz entry on this list probably means that I’m ignorantly missing out on some other funky masterpieces from the same (or similar) genre(s). No doubt I need to invest some time in discovering more tracks like this one.
Chakachas – Jungle Fever
Shameless admission here: I only know about this song because some genius at Rockstar Games selected it for the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Do I own the entire CD box set of the soundtrack? Of course I do. (I also own the eighties-gloriousness that is the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City box set.) Anyway, this track is literally composed of the sounds of a Latina woman getting off during intercourse, played over a dirty funk instrumental. Literally.
Marvin Gaye – Got To Give It Up (Part 1)
Absolute jam. Shout-out to all the dudes out there who love singing along in their crappy versions of Marvin Gaye’s falsetto whenever this is playing.
Fred Wesley & The Horny Horns – Four Play
Sweet instrumental track here from legendary trombonist Fred Wesley and his gang. Released in 1977 on the album A Blow for Me, a Toot to You (produced by Bootsy Collins and George Clinton and featuring Maceo Parker), “Four Play” was released and later withdrawn as a single, apparently because of its sexually suggestive title. How lame. But it’s a great listen and has been heavily sampled, which tells you that creative, musical people (future hip hop DJs) were listening to it when it came out.
Ohio Players – Funky Worm
Dr. Dre sampled this song to help create G-Funk. As an added bonus, it also features a grandma with a pet worm who’s so funky she might make $1 million off of him. Just listen to it.
Earth, Wind & Fire – Shining Star
Earth, Wind & Fire had a number of sweet hits throughout the years but to my ears most of them were of the pop variety. A lot of harmonizing and pseudo-ballads that feel a little dated when you listen to them now. In their defense, they weren’t trying to only record funk songs, so I am in no way saying that those love jams and smooth vocal harmonies are bad. I’m just saying that for the purposes of this list, most of EWF’s songs don’t cut it. But “Shining Star” absolutely does. The first 18 seconds alone (before the vocals come in) have me dancing around in my head whenever I hear them. And as catchy as other hits like “Let’s Groove” and “September” are, “Shining Star” shines brightest (had to) because of how much harder, heavier, and groovier it feels. (Even with its use of a talk box, “Let’s Groove” is just a lighter, poppier song.)
Zapp & Roger – Living For The City
Semi-blasphemous move going with Zapp & Roger’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic instead of the original, but it’s just plain silly how funky they’ve managed to make it. The video, on the other hand, is really, really, awesomely bad.
Tower of Power – You Got to Funkifize
Some legit big-band, horn-heavy funk awesomeness for you here. Likely my favorite Tower of Power recording.
The Trammps – Disco Inferno
So I know this is basically a disco anthem, but screw it. Just listen to that groove during the first 30 seconds (before the chorus) and try not to think, “This is some funky-ass shit.” You can’t. Plus this was on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which gives it a pass because it makes the song nearly as cool as the Bee Gees just by association.
Sly and the Family Stone – Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa
Everything about this song is glorious, from the slower-than-usual bass groove to the subtle keyboards/Clavinet in the background to the guitar to the hard-to-make-out vocals, most (if not all) of them reimagined takes on the lyrics from “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” You don’t dance to this song as much as you bob your head, snap your fingers, and sway from side to side. Actually I guess that could qualify as dancing.
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Yeah so obviously this was going to make the list. I like this song too much to offer a coherent take on why it’s here, but just know that among the many great things this track has going for it, there’s the easy-to-sing-along-to and totally memorable chorus, the saxophone, the strings (as in, violins!), the catchy synth riff, the altered talk-box (female and male) vocals, the yearning for a utopian promised land where dancing and grooving are all that matters, and the fact that this was featured in Shrek 2. Basically, it has a lot going for it.
Mandrill – Mango Meat
Slight underdog of a track when it comes to classic funk songs, but for its stirring opening minute, “Mango Meat” firmly deserves a place here. Much of the incredible opening was reused later by the Jungle Brothers. Smart move on their part.
The Temptations – Papa Was a Rolling Stone
A bunch of similarities between this masterpiece and the aforementioned “All the Way Down” by Etta James. Etta’s song is kinda sorta like the female counterpart to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” if that makes sense. In any case, I refuse to pick between the two. But this song is just great.
Herbie Hancock – Chameleon
A 15-minute funk symphony masterpiece.
Average White Band – Pick Up the Pieces
This is one of those songs that you always hear in movies or TV shows during time travel or 70s recreation/flashback scenes. It’s also used more broadly in scenes meant to show characters having a good time, being cool, or getting shit done in montages. Basically, it’s overplayed. But no matter. It’s got one of the most recognizable grooves in music and remains undeniably funky. And if you give it a chance and actually listen to it in its entirety, it will take you by surprise — in a pleasant, “Oh damn I forgot how sweet this song is” kind of way.
The Meters – Cissy Strut
Real groovy instrumental track from 1969 that remains as funky as ever. It also just screams of countless hip hop samples, though I honestly can’t name a single one right now. But take my word for it, I guess.
Archie Bell & The Drells – Tighten Up
Just a fantastic, good-natured song that conjures feelings of joy and late-sixties nostalgia across the board; seriously, just look at all those comments under the YouTube clip! I have no idea what the “Tighten Up” dance actually looks like, but I’m doing some crappy modernized version of it right now. In my living room. By myself.
Carl Carlton – She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)
Remember when I tried to define what I meant by “funk” at the beginning of this piece? Yes, it was a long time ago. But recall my disregard for love songs and ballads in favor of funk songs that celebrate how bad some ladies are. This song is the poster child for that whole theme.
Dazz Band – Let It Whip
That repeating riff in the background is just so good. Let it whip.
So, are you absolutely outraged that I haven’t listed any James Brown or P-Funk tracks? I am too. But not to worry; this is a two-parter, baby. Part 2 of SlackPost’s Funkiest Songs Ever coming real soon. In fact, it’s finally here!