What Makes Music Funky?

Funk Music Defined, Yesterday and Today

Kool And The Gang In Concert - Charlotte, North Carolina
Bootsy Collins is a famous funk bassist. Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

Funk is a very distinct style of music that reached its height in popularity from the late 1960s to late 1970s. Funk is a mixture of soul, jazz, and R&B that has influenced many popular musical artists and is incorporated into their music.

Birth of Funk

The term "funk" originated in the 1900s when "funk" and "funky" were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of jazz. The word transformed from its original meaning of "a pungent odor" to a "deep, distinctive groove."

Funk music emerged in the mid-1960s, with James Brown's development of a signature groove that emphasized the downbeat with a heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure, the application of 16th note time signature and syncopation on all bass lines, drum patterns and guitar riffs.

Role of Bass Guitar

One of the most distinctive features of funk music is the role played by bass guitar. Before soul music, bass guitar was rarely prominent in popular music. Players like the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson brought the bass to the forefront, and funk built on that foundation, with melodic bass lines often being the centerpiece of songs.

Other noteworthy funk bassists include Bootsy Collins who played with Parliament-Funkadelic and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone. Graham is often credited with inventing the percussive "slap bass technique," which was further developed by later bassists and became a distinctive element of funk.

The strong bass line is primarily what separates funk from R&B, soul and other forms of music. Melodic bass lines are often the centerpiece of songs. Also, compared to the soul music of the 1960s, funk typically uses more complex rhythms, while song structures are usually simpler. The structure of a funk song consists of just one or two riffs. The basic idea of funk was to create as intense a groove as possible.

Current Funk

The funk genre tapered in popularity after the 1970s. Many artists in the 1980s incorporated the funk sound in their music, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, the Talking Heads, Chaka Khan and Cameo.

Funk had a mini-revival in the early 1990s due to the sampling of funk songs by hip-hop artists.

Examples of popular contemporary funk artists include Soulive and funk pioneer George Clinton, who has churned out new funk music for more than three decades.

Many rock bands use a strong funk element in their music, including Jane's Addiction, Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.

Funk has also been incorporated into modern R&B music by many female singers such as Beyoncé with her 2003 hit "Crazy in Love" (which samples The Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman"), Mariah Carey in 2005 with " Get Your Number" (which samples "Just an Illusion" by British band Imagination) and Jennifer Lopez in 2005 with "Get Right" (which samples Maceo Parker's "Soul Power '74" horn sound).