In 1970, jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson issued a proclamation. It was a 45–a cover of a Meters-backed song by Lee Dorsey, a man rightfully adored by everyone from The Clash to The Beastie Boys–titled "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)."
A lot of the music Donaldson recorded in the '60s, especially his Blue Note output following the 1967 single "Alligator Boogie," had a whiff of greasy, organ-drenched R&B; to it. But that doesn't make his rendition of "Everything I Do"–a wholehearted embrace of pure funk–any less passionate. Or even radical. The entire soul-jazz crossover of the '60s and '70s, of course, was hotly debated: In a sense it was a knee-jerk against the rarified abstraction peddled by all those avant-garde nuts (as much as I love them–the nuttier, the better) that had been popping up. On the other hand, that crossover was an opportunity for a lot of players–many of whom, like Motown's fabled Funk Brothers and Donaldson's amazing drummer Idris Muhammad, wandered from to jazz to R&B; and back again–to bring the gritty, hip-pumping fun that had largely been absent from jazz since folks like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor (and, yes, Trane and Miles) had decided to dissect the music and rearrange its innards.
If you believe this debate was laid to rest long ago, may I refer you to Donaldson's current biography at allmusic.com, which dismisses the entirety of the man's funk output with one sentence: "The success of "Alligator Boogaloo" in 1967 led to a series of less interesting funk recordings that were instantly dated and not worthy of his talent."
Instantly dated? I might kinda concede that. The funny thing is, "dated" funk still sounds the best to me. In the past few years I've had the chance to interview everyone from Greyboy to Charlie Hunter to Sharon Jones–contemporary artists who, each in their own way, dig deep into funk for some of their inspiration. Of the three artists, Jones is the one who sounds truly retro. And sure enough, she's the one I respond to on a gut level. I can appreciate and occasionally enjoy the stuff The Greyboy Allstars and Charlie Hunter pump out, especially when the latter, ironically enough, stops trying to make his signature 8-string sound like Jack McDuff's funky Hammond:
Funk still seems marginalized in the indie-rock world–that is, if it's paid attention to at all. Certain hallowed acts like James Brown, Fela Kuti, Liquid Liquid, Gang Of Four, and Minutemen get a pass, but most everything else remotely smelling of funk is overlooked or shunted into the cobwebbed basement of the hipster brain where Phish and Dave Matthews are locked up and left to starve. Granted, some unpardonable crimes have been perpetrated in the name of funk over the past couple decades. Western Civilization, for example, may never get the taste of Primus out of its mouth. And yet, funk has become a huge part of the indie sound since The Make-Up and Dub Narcotic Sound System first rattled uptight pelvises in the '90s–and everyone from LCD Soundsystem to !!! has kept that mutant beat alive. Or am I just overgeneralizing? Is funk truly still a four-letter word to some people? If so, why is it so divisive? Is it more of a social schism than a sonic one? Why can't we all just be funky from now on?