Rappin' about funk
Canadian music prof to lecture on funk's musical, cultural impact
David J. Craig
Musicologists and social scientists have studied rap music extensively in recent years, mining its lyrics to understand the attitudes of black youth, and examining its practice of sampling — incorporating into compositions bits of music from other recordings — as a strictly urban, African-American innovation.
Meanwhile, despite having laid the musical and cultural foundations of rap, funk has largely been ignored by scholars. It's only a matter of time, however, before the genre gets its due, according to Victor Coelho, a music professor at the University of Calgary, who has written on subjects ranging from Renaissance music to the history of the guitar. He will present a free public lecture entitled Funkology and Its Canons: Understanding the Funk Perspective in Music, on Wednesday, January 28, at 8 p.m., at CFA 219.
Among the parallels between funk and rap that warrant study, Coelho says, is how funk artists in the 1960s and '70s provided role models for black rappers and record producers by achieving economic and artistic control over their music. “Funk always had a strong relationship to race, and funk artists felt it was important to preserve the music's black identity, and for it to remain unassimilated,” he says. “James Brown was involved in buying radio stations in order to preserve black control” of radio programming, “and a lot of funk records were released on black-owned independent labels.”
Furthermore, funk's popularity “grew through black social networks,” Coelho continues. “Rap began the same way, and rappers saw funk as the guiding light.”
Rap artists also have traditionally looked to funk for musical inspiration, even for the actual beats they vocalize over. Funk is up to the task, Coelho says, with its wealth of sophisticated and innovative material, especially from the genre's heyday in the late '60s and early '70s. “Funk is a lot more interesting than is generally assumed, having been influenced heavily by jazz, in particular bebop, with its tight brass arrangements and sense of groove,” he says. “The foundation of the music is the bass and drums, which keep a hypnotic rhythm cycle repeating, and over that you have bursts of guitar and horns that create a very dense texture, and sometimes even polyrhythmic interplay between the instruments.
“The prototypical polyrhythmic funk song is James Brown's ‘Cold Sweat,' which made people start to take notice of the complexity going on,” says Coelho, who recently coedited Cambridge Companion to the Guitar (Cambridge University Press, 2002), a collection of essays about various styles of guitar playing. “It wasn't really surprising because the musicians playing in the James Brown Band were all schooled in jazz. . . . And then of course, you had Brown's imploring, oratory vocal style, which was influenced by scat and gospel, and was very proto-rap in that it wasn't particularly melodic.”
For more information about the lecture, call 617-353-3349.