Is It Funky Enough?

When Guillaume was here last week, we discovered in conversation that we both had long been sitting on posts that centered on the question of Africanness and UK funky. I joked that we should both finally get around to finishing these posts and drop them on the same day, causing a ruckus on the ol’ ‘osphere, but then G went and jumped the gun (en frances) and here I am playing catch up ;)

Of course, since Guillaume wrote his post in French, I guess that leaves it to me to provide some, as they say in French, explication for the Anglophone side of things. I too have been interested in what Guillaume calls “la récupération du Funky par les jeunes africains vivant en Angleterre, qu’il soit de première ou de deuxième génération” — or, the reshaping/reclaiming of funky by African youth in England, whether 1st or 2nd gen — at least ever since Boima put me on to T-Boy’s hilarious “Don’t Jealous Me Funky.”

What’s interesting about Guillaume’s post — and different from where mine was focused — is that he’s looking at the actual participation in funky on the part of Africans in England, hearing the UK’s African (as opposed to Afro-Caribbean) heritage finally come into the mix, so to speak. As Guillaume points out, what makes the current crop of “African” funky tunes interesting is the explicit use — if often tongue-in-cheek — of African accents and other symbols (including traditional dress), esp if we compare to Afro-British artists like Dizzee or Tinchy who seem to speak with a more creolized (and often Jamaican, or Carib-cockney) accent. That all of this is happening in London at the same time that a new kind of Afro-kitsch permeates the global beat-o-sphere is curious to say the least.

At the same time, as we attempt to think through this stuff, we would do well to heed Dan Hancox’s warning

It’s unnecessarily reductive for us to posit the idea of Africa (e.g. ‘Donaeo’s ‘African Warrior’, and the potential but difficult-to-prove influence of Afro-house percussion) against the Carribean, in some kind of bizarre fight for the lion’s share of influence over funky, but these are issues worth thinking about.

Whether this phenomenon actually signals a shift in poco cultural politics for cool Britannia is a fascinating question, though it’s not what I would like to focus on in my own post. Rather, what caught my attention in the discourse around UK funky was the common projection of Africanness (prior to the likes of T-Boy) onto the genre even as it was simultaneously denied its “funkiness” (and there, as I’ll explain, we get into some fascinating differences between hearing Africanness and hearing African-Americanness). I still don’t feel like I have the time to give the big questions here the requisite attention. But in lieu of that, and in the interest in actually publishing this post and keeping the convo going, please accept my attempt at suggestion.

I noticed, many months ago now, that a lot of people have claimed that UK funky house is, in so many words, not really that funky. This is a funny position in a way, as it puts forward a certain essentialist notion of funk or funkiness — based, far as I can tell, on the sonic priorities of (African-)American funk circa the 70s — at a time when “funk” and “funky” are more loosed from that moor than ever.

I was particularly struck seeing this notion advanced by UK cultural theory heavyweight, Paul Gilroy (who has shaped my own thoughts and work around race and nation as much as anyone). In an email to Hancox, Gilroy appears to put forward a certain kind of essentialism (or is it anti-anti-essentialism?) about the ontology of funk — i.e., about what is truly funky, or what it means to, in his words, “bring the funk”:

We are moving towards an African majority which is diverse both in its cultural habits and in its relationship to colonial and postcolonial governance so the shift away from Caribbean dominance needs to be placed in that setting. Most of the grime folks are African kids, either the children of migrants or migrants themselves. It’s not clear what Africa might mean to them. Not all are Muslim. They are open to a US sourced version of black style and culture which is also contentious and repellent. Their ambivalence towards it is the key I’d guess. The Ethiopianist framing of a post-slave history means next to nothing to them, even as a generic signifier of human suffering and powerlessness. I suppose that Pokes’ ironic celebration and affirmation of the DJ lineage is a residual trace of that past. He is not Wiley, “Bashy” or African Boy.

I am an agnostic when it comes to the “rudeness” comparison. I suppose my basic difficulty is that the misnamed “funky” and its adjacent styles are a problem precisely because they aren’t remotely interested in bringing the funk. That has always been a dividing line for me. I haven’t gone deeply into soca/grime but “funky” often sounds just like soca to me and has some of the same small island rapture that made that unlistenable.

Now, maybe I’m just missing something, and I’d be curious to hear more about what Gilroy means by “bringing the funk.” There’s clearly a socio-sonic agenda undergirding his comments, and, knowing my sympathies, I’d likely find Gilroy’s take on this persuasive. But not if what he means is that soca drum-patterns are too far from James Brown’s rhythm section to be worthy of the “funk” label. I sure don’t mean to be reductive in my own reading of Gilroy’s position here; perhaps I’ve simply seen in too many other places a kind of insistence that funky isn’t funky. For example —

“Im calling this UK House Because there certainly isnt any funk to it!”

“so many Funky records just aren’t funky.”

I don’t mean to rehash too much of this if it’s already a settled matter (which is another reason I need to publish this post now and move on); for instance, in a long and fascinating thread on dissensus a while back Gabriel Heatwave expressed a similar reaction to Gilroy’s comments as my own —

my problem with gilroy’s thing about ‘funk’ in funky is that it’s such a widely used word, to mean so many different things to different people, that it seems ridiculous to start making claims that something does or doesn’t have it. there are many more interesting things to say about funky than this.

Gilroy’s response on dissensus is worth bringing in, as it offers some interesting elaboration —

didn’t mean to recycle anti-disco heresies but rather to point out that the issues of swing, syncopation and what I call “generic thump thump” electronica do correspond directly to the conceptual and critical problems that arise when the racialised attributes of musical styles are articulated.

What is disco? Are Chic funky, is Sharon Redd, are The System, Ian Levine and the South Shore Commission? These questions aren’t very interesting. But the problems involved in finding, using, claiming and loving the black in this music are, as this thread reveals, still alive.

Some folks love the blackness they hear but aren’t quite so keen on the company of the people whose being invests that quality in the music. This matters as we (hopefully) shift towards a post-exotic relationship with black culture.

Above all, I wanted to highlight the evolving and unstable character of contemporary Britain’s (europe’s) black communities. Ethiopianism is still there but it is residual. Another, postcolonial Africa is emergent. Does unfunky, funky herald its becoming? probably.

I want to take a moment to counterpose these questions of funky’s funkiness with the assertion of its (sonic) Africanness, which is more often than not a quality taken for granted — unlike the more audible aspects Guillaume focuses on — and hardly elaborated upon beyond vague references, as in the following, e.g. —

It was only a matter of time before the hottest dance music in London, with its African influences and syncopated jangling, began drifting into reggae territory.

Perhaps not the most alluring genre-heading in electronic music, Funky House, or UK Funky, or just UKF for those with shorter attention spans, is currently the most invigorated and lively branch of British urban music. The sound of UKF is typified by refurbished House music templates injected with elements of Soca, broken beat, dub and African music, sometimes fashioned into R&B style vocal smashers, but often stripped into dark yet party-fied instrumental anthems. Put another way, UKF is basically a toughened and stripped, yet fluid and sexy House music often made by ex-grime producers, with traces of their former style still apparent in the predilection for African rhythm flavours and sub heavy grooves. (emphasis added)

Maybe Kevin gets at it a bit more directly with this quip (which is funny counterposed to this) —

Interestingly, qualities like “loose” and “shuffling” bring us back to some commonly remarked features of funk-qua-funk, even if the kind of “looseness” or “shuffle” Kevin is hearing (and I am too) in UK funky and African house alike is not quite the same as deployed in the music of JB or George Clinton.

In general, though, I find myself in alignment with Bok Bok’s sentiments here than with any attempts to hear in UK funky an engagement with contemporary African house & techno (much as I look forward to that) —

Ok I’m getting really sick f this. All of you romantics talking about African influences wake up!!! These ate at LEAST second hand. I’m willin to bet nobody in funky has heard of dj cleo. Us house a the source of all the new non-uk soubding ideas you’re hearing. Now stop this false anthropology, it’s no better than Reynolds ket-fiction

And I appreciate Gabriel’s attempt at some nuance in his own comment on that post, even though he opens a big can of worms with the reference to “traditional african drumming” —

as much as people say that funky sounds like soca, I don’t really believe that this is where the rhythmic ideas actually come from.

like you say, masters at work etc are obviously a big influence and though it’s worth noting that they (maw) have worked with soca artists (e.g. that song ‘Work’), I think it’s more the case that soca, dancehall, (funky) house and reggaeton use rhythms that are rooted in traditional african drumming.

so it’s more a case of them sharing the same influences than funky directly originating from soca. though clearly now things have got going, all these different scenes are crossing over – precisely because they share similar rhythmic foundations and operate at roughly the same tempo.

Speaking of “traditional african drumming,” let me attempt to move toward a close with a brief video clip I ripped from the recent film, The Visitor. It offers an oblique sort of reflection on some of the issues swirling around the question of funky’s funkiness and the implications of hearing/thinking Africa. I actually quite liked the film, so bleak and beautiful, though I was puzzled by a couple (well-meaning?) scenes.

Especially given that some of the drumming-in-the-park moments were so full of funk (in my own somewhat capacious understanding of the term, which does have to do with looseness and syncopation but doesn’t privilege any particular interpretation of them — and hears Pretorian funk and Rio funk as equally “funky” despite each having its own distinctive but decided grid-iness), I was quite struck by the following scene’s insistence on drawing some stark (and erroneous) lines between African music and its Other(s) —

In case it’s not obvious, what’s weird about this scene is that Tarek explains the difference between classical music (“in 4s”) and African music (“in 3s”) in terms of metric organization, and yet WHAT THEY ACTUALLY PLAY is better counted in 4/4 time (and yeah, classical has its fair share of waltzes obviously, making this a weird shorthand). I appreciate the distinction Tarek attempts to draw here, calling attention to the centrality of 3:2 interplay in West African drumming and the relative lack of such polyrhythm in European art music, but this is really clumsy language for illustrating these differences. This sort of (mis)representation of African music (not to mention “classical”) props up a misleading racialist dichotomy (which even opens into how — or whether! — people “think”), if, perhaps, with the best of intentions.

It’s those same good intentions that can perhaps lead us astray in guiding us into hearing UK funky as funky, unfunky, African, or not. I hope I haven’t kicked another hornet’s nest with this post. My interest (investment?) in talking about and thinking through these issues brings me a lot closer to some of Gilroy’s thoughts above than my differences with him w/r/t “funk” might imply.

At any rate, this is all moving so fast that we may as well just keep our ears open for the time being. Just yesterday Boima told me that coupe decale appears to have arrived in London, and this degree of transnational Afrodiasporic/YouTubey interaction is precisely the kind of thing that will toss all these theories on their, as they say in the UK, arses:

Have you seen some of the Anglophone Logobi spinoffs? I saw a youtube of this group K5!, I don’t know their background (I think I remember seeing Ghana), but if they’re Londoners that means we got Coupe Decale-Funky Scene Fusion going on, and that just makes me wet my pants :)

Actually, interestingly, the tags on the YouTube video are:

clifford owusu cliff opoku K5! k5 wanna dance want to coupe decale africa african ghana ghanaian stand alone k5live mapouka ivory coast Yep! ça c’est du vrai renoizR Couper Decaler instrumental

Bringing us full circle in a sense, an anonymous commenter on Boima’s logobi post had this to say:

Say – this Coupe Decale shit is the most boring shit on the planet! Okay, not THE most boring shit…just more homogeneous Euro-dominated artificial zombie robot music for people with no soul or funk about them. Oh well, can’t stop “progress” can we?

Is this commenter just missing out on what today’s “unfunky” Afrodiasporic dance music actually “heralds” (to return to Gilroy)? Or is he or she all too convinced that what is emerging is an alarmingly “Eurocentric” loss of funk and soul? This reminds me that more-or-less the same debate about (Africanized/racialized) funk and its various (Euro/whitened) others has been rearing its head all over the place lately — most memorably in SFJ’s latest gauntlet-toss, in turn tossed right back at him by Victor Vasquez of Das Racist.

But that’s quite enough for now innit. DISCUSS!

Finally, here’s the real full circle, uploaded in May (!!!), back when I should have published this post and well before any of us outside observers caught on to any of this —