The staff at George Petrelli’s Steakhouse in Culver City greet Dam-Funk like a celebrity, even though they’ve never heard his music. He’s a regular, but it’s more than that. Some people just naturally command respect.
If they listened to his catalog, they’d understand their instincts are correct. Dam-Funk has done much more than earn admiration: He’s defibrillated an entire genre of music, forged a path for peers to follow and brought back the keytar. He’s a true hero of modernity. People have gotten MacArthur genius grants for less.
If we ever contact extraterrestrials, Funk’s sophomore album, this month’s Invite the Light, could be our best initial peace offering.
“That’s why I chose those chords. I’m hoping that those sounds could be relatable to something traveling through the galaxy,” Dam-Funk says with a laugh. “I know it sounds crazy, man, but I’m telling the truth.”
Released on Stones Throw, Invite the Light is a beatific, 20-song, 80-minute space odyssey whose fellow travelers include Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Jody Watley, Ariel Pink, Nite Jewel, Flea, Junie Morrison (Ohio Players), Joi Gilliam (Dungeon Family) and both Leon Sylvers III and IV. It’s sophisticated funk without pretension, celestial but gritty, a cloud spray-painted with colorful graffiti.
“It reminds me of a black sci-fi book from back in the day but brought from a different level,” Funk says, wearing a denim Vans button-up and jeans.
He sips a gin and tonic with a splash of grenadine. The waitress tried to talk him out of it, but he insists on a beverage with a little extra flavor. This is classic Dam-Funk, the Gemini Twin: mix the bitter with the sweet, a smile with the teardrop.
“This is a record from a black dude from L.A. who knows everything about the ’hood but can talk about it from a different perspective,” Funk continues. “I want to talk about this city and other things in the world and represent for guys like me, and others who have known people like me. We still have a voice out here.”
If we’re being literal, there’s no one like Dam-Funk. It’s strange to consider the graveyard state of funk before Damon Riddick swung out of the 626 and dropped 2009’s sprawling funk opus, Toeachizown. We’ve been living in an A.D. (After Dam) world ever since.
Tyler, the Creator, Tori y Moi, Salva, Animal Collective and Hudson Mohawke have tacitly or openly acknowledged his influence. He brought back a Technicolor Dreamcoat of chords that had been moldering in the closet since Reagan’s first term.
It’s been nearly six years since that last full-length solo album, but in that time, Funk never stopped flourishing. He dropped an album with his boyhood idol, Steve Arrington of Slave, and provided backing keys and musical direction on tour with another hero, Todd Rundgren. He released a string of sterling EPs, a mini-album with Snoop Dogg and a half-dozen classic funk mixes — to say nothing of metal and gospel blends.
He toured constantly and released roughly 100 SoundCloud loosies that never once failed to float.
But Invite the Light is the payoff, one of those records whose greatness might not be fully understood for another half-dozen years. It’s afro-futuristic but modern, the sort of thing that can make an Oldsmobile feel like a UFO. It’s the rare inspirational album that avoids corniness.
“I’m still the same person — I never changed,” Dam-Funk says. “This album is about staying focused on the good things in your life and not letting the darkness overtake you. It’s about staying true no matter what.”
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Dam-Funk celebrates the release of Invite the Light at the Teragram Ballroom on Saturday, Sept. 5.
An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.