There is a schizophrenic side to the music industry. It rears its head as musicians are asked questions with regard to the style or tribe of music they adhere to. Despite musicians attempts to dodge and weave themselves away from categories that they feel would compartmentalize what they do, media and marketing powers force artists into some defining niche or genre, some definition that allows commerce to do its work. And in the end, of course, the various music awards rain their “musical categories” upon the whole musical enterprise.
But there is a real upside to this. These categories give rise to these imitative, ringing descriptions that invade our daily language and culture: “Look at the way he drives. He really rocks. Don’t tell me I’m folksy. This writer has soul. That gal is garbed out hip hop man. I wanted to rap with her but she was way too blue. He emo rapped on me. I got this rock-a-billy truck up in the barn. She is such a bebopper. I got punked.” And of course, “Don’t you give me that jazz.” Jazz is one of the jazziest useful words in our culture. And we could go on and on.
But there is one music descriptor that, in its intrusion into English (among other languages) seems to morph all the time. And that is the word, funk. Funk is a chameleon word . . . musically and culturally. What funk music is finds its definition in where the word funk comes from. But where the word funk comes from and where funk music comes from have little to do with one another at first glance. And exactly what funk is and what a funk does and what is funky and what is not goes far beyond funk as music by itself. But all things funky have their genesis in funky music.
So what does Rick James’ “Super Freak” or Wild Cherry’s “Play that Funky Music” have to do with going to the frig and finding a piece of old meat and proclaiming, “Hey! This food smells funky?” Or what does James Brown punching the downbeat and bringing the bass and drums up to the foreground have to do with two teenage kids who say on a murky day, “Hey, it’s really dreary. Let’s go raid dad’s closet and put on something really funky?”
Well, it’s complicated. But it’s funky. Most dictionary derivations of the word funk claim that the word stems from an old, old French word that described a foul smell. Or others claim that funk derived from a west African Kwi Congo word which also describes an odor. But funk also describes a state of mind that is depressive or down.
The word funk worked its way into the jazz culture in Harlem in the 1920’s. Whether it originated from its Kwi Congo roots and made its way north to Harlem from New Orleans through jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, or whether it was already resident in New York, it appears as if the jazz culture turned the word upside down. Possibly used as a pejorative word by whites toward blacks, the black jazz culture claimed the word funk and declared it. If Dizzie Gillespie took off on a riff and a bandmate cried, “Put some stink on it,” that was funk. James Brown picked it up in the 60’s. The rest is history.
So here’s the way funk works. Funk is something bad. It smells figuratively or really. A funk is oppressive or depressive or down. Funky, however, is something good that causes the human soul to rise above the funk. It is the funk that gives rise to funky. It is in-your-face music that is celebrative, syncopated, that punches back at oppression or depression. Funk has socio economic roots. Funky blasts away at funk. But it is more than music it is art and fashion and an attitude. Hence we have music described as avant-funk, funkadelic, jazz funk and even country funk. The list goes on because the funks of life are ever present. Whatever your genre of art. You may not be able to play funk but you certainly need to get funky.