Funk Part 4 supplement — Soul Train Lines

The immortal Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train.  Image via

The immortal Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train.  Image via


We’ve been looking at how group engagement with the groove fosters individual expression.

In the previous two posts, we’ve seen videos of dancers finding their individual voices as they perform dances similar to those all around them.

Here’s a familiar twist on that, where the group surrounds individual dancers who take turns stepping into the center to perform brief dance solos. 

Note . . .   

The soloists require a backdrop of subdued motion from the other dancers.  They mustn’t distract from what she is doing.

When soloing, each dancer strays further from the well-established moves that she might have been drawing on moments earlier when dancing amid the group.  Thus, the group dancing that precedes and follows the dance line provides essential context for this moment.   An evening of all dance line might drain the solos of their meaning.

Finally, consider that what these dancers are doing with their bodies is analogous to what they and we are doing in our minds as we listen.  We take what we hear and make something of our own out of it.  That’s why listening to music, reading a book, watching a dance performance, viewing a film, and all other forms of engaging the creative work of others is itself creative.

 Thank you for reading.


Funk Part 4 supplement — Salsa Dancers

An earlier generation of salsa dancers.  Image via .

An earlier generation of salsa dancers.  Image via


The principle that individual expression emerges from engagement with a group activity applies across genres.  Again, musical forms that emphasize repetitive rhythms generate all kinds of ideas from the individual listeners.

Watch this video of salsa dancers and note the individual styles on display.  I particularly enjoy how this scene shows the inclusive power of the groove.  The younger dancers in the foreground and the older gentleman in the background (for the first minute or so) are engaged in the same activity, yet each dancer expresses a unique personality.  No wonder we associate dance with freedom (even though the dance form and groove are highly prescribed).

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 4 Supplement — “The Harlem Shake”

The Harlem Shake.  Image via .

The Harlem Shake.  Image via


To demonstrate the principle that we find our way to individual expression through immersion in a group and imitation of what we encounter there, watch this video of dancers performing the Harlem Shake.  (The original Harlem Shake.)

The phenomenon here is familiar to people who dance—each individual dancer takes the moves everyone else is doing and makes them her own.  No one can doubt that they are doing the same dance, yet neither can we doubt that each of these dancers has found a uniquely expressive voice.

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 4 — The Collective as Field of Individual Expression

Funk dance — a highly collaborative form of self-expression. Image via

Funk dance — a highly collaborative form of self-expression.
Image via


I don’t have statistical evidence, but it’s my strong hunch that funk lyrics invoke a sense of community more frequently than most pop genres.  If this speculation turns out to be true, I can think of any number of explanations, most of them pointing to the communal African-American and African music-making traditions that are funk’s heritage.

But apart from the lyrics, it’s interesting to consider how the musical elements emphasize communal expression.  

  • The Teeter-Totter Principle (the balancing of syncopation between parts) requires the ensemble’s attention to the distribution of weak and strong beats among parts.  It is anchored in the priority of making the song danceable and thus looks toward a larger community—listeners and dancers.
  • The Puzzle Principle relies on each player to play a unique part and stick with that part in order for the groove to work.
  • The Unassuming Principle points to the fact that the groove, above all, is the star of the show.  The groove cannot be owned by any one person, and it is the thing that may never be upstaged.
  • More than in other genres, the shape of the musical time in funk tends toward evenness because the complex rhythms demand higher levels of group agreement, and more evenly rendered musical time makes that easier.  (You can imagine a ten-piece funk group whose shared sense of time is highly idiosyncratic, where everyone lurches ahead or behind at the very same moment.  But imagine how difficult it would be to pull this off and how hard to dance to.)

Similar observations can be made across various musical traditions, especially those rooted in rhythm.  What I think is worth noting is something that may be obvious, but on further reflection might also be surprising:  The aspects of funk that exalt community and discourage any individual from either taking over or straying from the groove yield an environment where individual expression flourishes.  

One might be tempted to say the opposite, that individual expression demands distance from the crowd:  “If you want to find yourself, listen to something like Schoenberg’s atonal works, which free you from the priorities of the masses.  Listening to James Brown will only turn you into an automaton.”  Such thinking is misguided, and I say that not because I dismiss Schoenberg (which I don’t).  I merely point out that this kind of statement ignores what’s happening when we listen to James Brown (and what might happen if we actually learned to listen to Schoenberg too).

In part, one might see in this the familiar riddle of creative constraint—we access creative freedom when confronted with limitations.  The constraint in funk is “Serve the groove.”

But the other part of this is a less widely discussed principle, which is perfectly stated by jazz trumpet great Clark Terry in his advice to young musicians.  “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  As my friend Donald Schell (founder of Music That Makes Community) has observed about Terry’s formulation, the upshot is this: Imitation leads us to our individuality.

Funk’s repetitions (made tantalizing by way of syncopated patterns) invite us into imitation and it brings us into that imitative state with ease.  We take the groove and its dazzling patterns into us and work them over with our bodies and minds and find something waiting at the end of that process—ourselves. 

So for example, you can watch these Soul Train dancers, who are drawing on each other’s moves (and a treasury of other moves known to all of them) and thereby finding their individual dance voices.

Each dancer’s moves are repetitive, but the repetitions lead somewhere.  Note that some of the most individuating aspects of dance are subtle variations on what others are doing.   

Take a moment to reflect upon how all of this creativity is utterly dependent on the groove.  A musical form less attentive to the groove will not unleash such an explosion of creative energy with such ease. 

Funk music and dance (and their related musical forms) have historical links to freedom struggles around the world.  Few things feel as liberating as dancing.  We feel empowered when surrounded by people dancing to the same music, and we also feel liberated because the act of synchronizing with others helps us look inwardly and find some new part of ourselves to set free.

Which is why it is no surprise that funk lyrics contain lines such as these: 

Here's a chance to dance our way
Out of our constrictions
Gonna be freakin'
Up and down
Hang-up alley way
With the groove our only guide
We shall all be moved
Ready or not here we come
Gettin' down on
The one which we believe in
One nation under a groove
Gettin' down just for the funk
Can I get it on the good foot
Gettin' down just for the funk of it
Good God
'bout time I got down one time
One nation and we're on the move
Nothin' can stop us now


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 3 supplement — James Jamerson


“What’s Going On” might not be classified as funk, but the Unassuming Principle is at work here on many levels, most of all James Jamerson’s bass performance. 

Jamerson, who revolutionized the electric bass and has influenced generations of players, is known for his rhythmic counterpoint and melodicism.  What eludes so many of his imitators, however, is his ability to do all of it without calling attention to himself.

The experience of discovering Jamerson often creeps up on listeners.  They have heard Motown hits for years, and then one day while listening to, say, “Bernadette” or “I Second That Emotion,” they think, “Wow!  That bass player.”  Then they start noticing the Jamerson touch alive in so many other songs.  It’s as if some veil has been lifted from their ears.

What defines Jamerson’s greatness is that his playing sounds as if it is content to live beneath that veil. He is said to have recorded this particular track while lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.  Whether or not it’s true, it certainly sounds as if it could be.  His sound and ideas are channeled from the depths of the groove, a place the spotlight can’t reach. 

James Jamerson Image via

James Jamerson
Image via


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 3 — The Unassuming Principle

The Soul Train Dancers — peerless evangelists of the Unassuming Principle

The Soul Train Dancers — peerless evangelists of the Unassuming Principle


My interest in funk has been deepened by confronting the difficulties of playing it.  On the surface, the challenge of funk lies in the syncopations and complexity of the grooves.  But listening more closely reveals the biggest trick of all—rendering the complexity with a performance that somehow attracts attention without calling attention to itself. 

It sounds counterintuitive, because funk is well known for its over-the-top presentation, its outright renunciation of modesty—the mugging of the singers; the sunglasses, capes and top hats; the star-shaped guitars; the spaceships.  Yet all of that requires a particular humility.  

Humility to what?

The groove.

I'm not saying funk at large is unassuming.  I'm saying its bad-assed nature is born of something that somehow never needs to call attention to itself.  To play funk, one must keep one’s cool, in the deepest sense of the word, and let the groove do the work.  


Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” embodies this principle.  The groove elicits relaxation, coolness.  Indeed, the juxtaposition of the easygoing performance against the vocal fireworks and action-packed arrangement is what produces the larger-than-life coolness of funk bands in general.

Note that as you listen, your joints loosen.  And note how deftly that relaxation is balanced against the song's many points of emphasis.   The band implores “Get down! Get down!” but not from a place of effort and tension.  The singing, like the playing beneath it, loosens us up.

The Unassuming Principle is also embodied in funk's dance moves.  This is video from the Jackson Five’s audition for Motown.  They are covering James Brown's "I Got The Feelin'."  Michael Jackson must be eight years old here, and the expressive power of his voice is already astonishing.  The singing embodies the Unassuming Principle, and so does his dancing.   If you are as dazzled by his moves as I am, see if your bedazzlement might be located in his absence of effort.  He’s not trying to be funky; he simply is funky.  The relaxation of his entire presentation suggests "How could it be otherwise?"  

He’s not calling attention to himself, and yet all of our attention is on him.  That is the beautiful mystery of the Unassuming Principle.

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 2 supplement — Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”


The size of Earth Wind & Fire’s ensemble, with two guitars, multiple drummer/percussionists, multiple vocalists, and horns, demanded a careful ear for arrangement (which is why so many of their imitators fell short of Earth Wind & Fire’s greatness).

What’s interesting to note here is that the primary puzzle pieces of the verse (the drums, the bass, and the guitarist strumming a repeating pattern in the right channel) also accommodate the second guitarist, in the left channel, who improvises a one-note accompaniment.  This gives the piece more looseness, more of the spontaneous, improvised flavor of jazz.   Amazingly, ample room remains for the vocals. 

Such careful arranging is one of Earth Wind & Fire’s trademarks, and very difficult to pull off.  Credit is due not only to the players but also to the judicious ears of their producer, the great Charles Stepney.

Legendary producer Charles Stepney Image via

Legendary producer Charles Stepney
Image via


Funk Part 2 supplement — Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va"

One of the 20th century's musical giants, Tito Puente.  Image via

One of the 20th century's musical giants, Tito Puente.  Image via


The Puzzle Principle holds across musical traditions, though it is especially applicable in funk because of the sharp angles that define the genre.


This classic from Tito Puente illustrates the Puzzle Piece principle at work.  Note how the arrangement builds, one part at a time, not only tantalizing the listeners but teaching them how to assemble the parts.

Note also the Teeter-Totter principle at work in the intro, where the accented riff is backed by steady handclaps, so that the syncopation has a strong-beat framework to help make it pop (and perhaps to keep the dancers moving more easily).

Funk Part 2 supplement — Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman."

The awesome Betty Wright.  Image via

The awesome Betty Wright.  Image via


This week we’ve been exploring funk music.

In Funk — Syncopation and the Teeter Totter Principal and Funk — The Teeter Totter principle in action. Cameo's "Rigor Mortis" we explored how various funk classics balance strong and weak beats to produce such danceable music.

In Funk — The Puzzle Principle we heard how funk is constructed of intricately designed (and precisely played) parts.  

Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” illustrates both principles.


Note the Teeter Totter Principle in action here.  The other instruments (two guitars, bass, and horns) work the syncopation, but the drums keep a fairly straight framework around all of it.  Note how the groove come to life with the entrance of the drums.  (A more syncopated drum part might weight things too heavily on the side of the weak beats.)

And note the intricate fitting together of the parts (the Puzzle Principle).  As is often the case with funk, the song starts with the parts introduced one at a time.  One guitar, then the second guitar, then the base, and then the rest of the band.  Notice how this is not only fun, it teaches the listener how to assemble the parts in her mind and listen.

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 2 — The Puzzle Principle

James Brown, master of the Puzzle Principle. Image via alldylan .com .

James Brown, master of the Puzzle Principle. Image via


The classic funk sound that emerged in the late 1960s featured large ensembles and intricate arrangements.  Indeed, one of the rewards of listening to this era of funk is hearing how intricately the grooves have been assembled like puzzle pieces.  The pieces themselves are the simple, repeating parts that the individual musicians play that then fit together to form a dazzling whole.   

image via   Musicians carve up a unit of musical time into pieces and assemble the pieces into a groove.

image via

Musicians carve up a unit of musical time into pieces and assemble the pieces into a groove.

Image via  tangram  In funk music, the shapes combine to form intricate patterns.  Note that the sharp angles and intricate design demand a steadier sense of time out of the players.  Without that, the sharp angles would become blurred and the rhythmic images would makes less sense to the listener.  All kinds of genres, including Rock & Roll, make use of repeating patterns.  In rock, the pieces are generally simpler, in part because rock does not move in the shorter subdivisions of funk and also because in rock, the emphasis is on full-chord riffs rather than single-note patterns that can move quickly but less obtrusively, as in funk.

Image via

In funk music, the shapes combine to form intricate patterns.  Note that the sharp angles and intricate design demand a steadier sense of time out of the players.  Without that, the sharp angles would become blurred and the rhythmic images would makes less sense to the listener.

All kinds of genres, including Rock & Roll, make use of repeating patterns.  In rock, the pieces are generally simpler, in part because rock does not move in the shorter subdivisions of funk and also because in rock, the emphasis is on full-chord riffs rather than single-note patterns that can move quickly but less obtrusively, as in funk.


This approach demands each player’s disciplined adherence to the prescribed part.  Without that, the groove would fill up with notes and thereby lose shape, and in funk, the shape of the groove is everything. 


James Brown's influence will be heard in subsequent examples, so let's start with him.  “Mother Popcorn” illustrates the Puzzle Principle in action.  See if you can zero in on this or that part; you’ll hear it repeat.  This is no loose jam.  The groove's sharp angles would be lost were the players to stray from their parts.  

Furthermore, note how each part leaves a lot of open space.  The guitar, for instance, is playing single notes instead of chords, which is typical of funk.

JB w new birds.jpg

Indeed, even when the parts are combined, ample space is left for James Brown to stretch out with his singing and punctuate the band groove with percussive shouts of his own.  This is a product of his insistent attention on the arrangement.


Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is driven by the interplay between the bass and guitar, the drums providing the framework that clarifies the nature of that interplay.  (This is the Teeter Totter Principle in action.)  One of my favorite details of this groove is how Larry Graham’s bass part finds a low, sustained E every other round of the pattern.  It calls pleasing attention to the architecture of the groove.


The above video captures an excavation of the groove, as the band reunites in the studio to hear the tracks in various combinations.

Image via

Image via


This sixteenth century gate from India illustrates the principle at work in classic funk music—composition out of simple, repeating patterns that combine to produce the effect.  Note how pleasing and necessary the repetition is.  The intricacy of the design demands it, for without the repetition, the effect would vanish, just as a funk groove would lose definition if the players strayed from their parts. Note also the reliance on sharply drawn lines, which are analogous to the precision demanded of funk players.


AWB’s “School Boy Crush” is a good example of how funk grooves typically embody the Puzzle Principle and the Teeter Totter Principle in action.  The groove is constructed from individual simple, repeating patterns (the Puzzle Principle), and these patterns combine weak and strong beats in danceable proportions (the Teeter Totter Principle in action).  In fact, each part takes turns on both sides of the strong/weak-beat teeter totter. 

A final thought.  A likely source for this approach might be the compositional insights of African drumming tradition, where the individual musicians play simple, repeating parts that interlock to stunning effect.  Here's a glimpse.


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 supplement — The Bar Kays' "Shake Your Rump to the Funk"


If you are dancing along to this funk gem, note what happens during the first ten seconds of the song.

0:00-0:02     drums accent the full-band riffs
0:03-0:05     drums play backbeat
0:06-0:08     drums accent the full-band riffs
0:09- . . .       drums play backbeat

This same sequence repeats at the 1:56 mark.

Do you notice how much easier it is to dance with the backbeat in place?  When the drums join the full-band riffs, it creates a temporary imbalance because the strong-beat framework is eclipsed by the accented syncopated notes (the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth notes in the nine-note riff pattern).

ba-PAH ba-PAH ba-PAH ba-PAH BAH

This is the teeter-totter principle in action (and an example of the fun one can create by challenging the dancers).

Note that this arrangement move relies on the drummer Mike Beard's smooth transition from the accented riff to the backbeat.


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 supplement — Cameo's "Rigor Mortis."

In the previous post, Funk—Syncopation and the Teeter Totter Principle, I discussed how funk music plays with syncopation.  The great funk artists have an ear for how to balance the emphasis of strong and weak beats.  Cameo, for example.


The introductory bars of  “Rigor Mortis” present an interesting challenge.  The vocal and instrumental melody emphasize an extended series of weak beats. 

I don't see why you won't groove, won't have this dance with me.
Rigor Mortis won't sit, just sit there and you'll see,
The music sounds to good for you to look and act this way.
Just free your mind of all your thoughts and you will surely say, “Yeah!”

(I've bolded the syllables falling on the downbeats, which are strong.  The remaining syllables fall on weak beats.)

What helps the groove pop is the fact that Larry Blackmon’s drumbeat is holding down the strong beats.  He frames the context for the syncopation.  Drummers, take note.

Hall of Fame funksters Cameo.  Image via .

Hall of Fame funksters Cameo.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 — The Teeter Totter Principle

When we listen to music, our ears organize things rhythmically.  We instinctively place emphasis on some beats and deemphasize others.   Were we unable to make these distinctions, we would not be able to grasp rhythm.

Syncopation happens when rhythmic emphasis falls on a weak as opposed to strong beat.  Syncopation can thereby enliven a rhythm by simulating what happens in our bodies when we dance.  We might land on the strong beats, but our joints are flexing on the weak beats, so emphasis there keeps our bodies in motion.

You might think of syncopation as analogous to hot sauce: It can be added in varying amounts, with varying effects.

Funk music, aimed as it is at dancers, provides countless illustrations of what I call the teeter-totter principle, the balancing of the tradeoffs that come when we make a particular groove more or less syncopated.  



This is a classic track from the Whispers, with drumming by one of my all-time favorites, Wardell Potts Jr.

Note the handclaps that enter with the singing.  They fall on “two” and “four” of each four-count measure, aligning with the words thusly:

When times get tough, I want to . . .

Now, try clapping (or patting your knee) on “one” and “three.”

When times get tough . . .

You may notice how this switch saps the groove somewhat.  The shift to clapping on “one” and “three” changes the balance of strong-beats to weak.


Think of the groove as a teeter-totter.   At one end sit the strong beats and at the other, the weak beats.  When balanced, the riders have an easier time moving up and down.  But when we start shifting weight to one side, the work for the riders increases.  The work will appeal to some and not to others.


In “The Best of My Love” by the Emotions, the hand claps in the song come on “two” and “four” of each measure.   If you were to clap along on “one” and “three,” the groove would not suffer as much as in the case of the Whispers track.  That’s because the song's melody emphasizes weak beats:

Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee
Never, never will I be discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery

If you were to pat your hand on “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four” of each measure, you’d notice that Sheila Hutchinson’s vocal line hits all of the moments when your hand is raised.  The song has a tad more syncopation built into it.  Even so, this groove and the Whisper’s groove hit a sort of iconic funk/r&b sweet spot.

While it may be natural to suppose that syncopation  make a song danceable, it’s interesting to consider the tradeoffs that come with each added bit of syncopation.  


Consider the aptly titled (and oft-sampled) James Brown song, “Funky Drummer.”

Notice how this track immediately assumes a listener’s ability to make her way through a more syncopated landscape.  Listen to the Clyde Stubblefield's famous (and oft sampled) drumbeat at 5:20.  Is it danceable?  Of course!  But will everyone who can dance to the Emotions be able to dance to this?  No, because to do so requires a greater ability to feel the strong beats even when they aren’t played.  Those who can feel the strong beats, however, will feel the full ticklish power of this groove.


Tower of Power’s classic, “What Is Hip,” makes even bigger demands of the listener.  Again, this is merely an observation, not a criticism.  Audiences enjoy having demands placed on them.

If you dance along with the track, notice what is expected of you at 0:52, when the drums and bass combine to emphasize weak beats and leave dancers to imagine the strong beats in their minds. The weak-beat end of the teeter-totter is getting heavier.


Devo’s reworking of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” is so weighted on the side of syncopation, a listener can easily get lost.  As a result, notice the difficulty of dancing.  (This is not to deny that some may be thrilled by the rhythmic play and Devo’s twisted and insightful reworking of the original.)

If one does get lost, it’s because one has become so overwhelmed by the syncopations as to be unable to decide which beats are strong and which are not, which results in our inability to organize things rhythmically in our mind.

The teeter-totter principle does not prescribe any particular weighting between strong and weak beats.  It simply observes that shifting the balance comes with tradeoffs.  And playing with the tradeoffs is what art is all about.

Thank you for reading.