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Dâm-Funk: Keytar Hero

Damon Riddick, aka Dâm-Funk, lounging with a clove and a boom box
Mathew Scott

Funk gives you the right to do anything you want to do.
—George Clinton

Funk is NOT a fad ... it’s a way of life.
—Dâm-Funk

Damon Riddick was born with the funk. It’s an innate gift, being born with the funk, like running a 4.4 40-yard dash, throwing a 95 mph fastball or staying awake through congressional hearings. At some point in the indeterminate past, Riddick acquired the stage name Dâm-Funk, but, really, it was his birthright from the get-go. George Clinton may have named his band Funkadelic, and Prince may have turned himself into a symbol, but not even they were bold enough to incorporate the funk into their name — much less pull it off. But when you have the essence you can do anything you want.

Doubters need only watch Riddick transform into Dâm-Funk, his alter ego, with a slick shock of Superfly hair cascading to his clavicles, boxy, black, impenetrable sunglasses, tangerine-size gold-hoop earrings and unflappable iceberg poise. At his album-release show in mid-November, the sound man screwed up and the Stones Throw–signed funk pharaoh was delayed until almost 1 a.m. Did Dâm (pronounced dame) throw a temper tantrum or display even a minor crack in the veneer? Of course not. Instead, sans backing band Master Blazter, he busted out the keytar, the vocoder and the keyboards. He shouted out Roger Troutman. He uncorked a possessed falsetto, shaking like Stevie Wonder in a Pentecostal fervor, as though he were attuned to esoteric vibrations we will never understand. Like the Lords of the Underground said: You live for the funk, you die for the funk.

But like Keith Richards and pale young men who think that a mustache is a smart aesthetic decision, the funk will never die. Dâm-Funk will not let it. The evidence: the Funkmosphere nights he reigns over every Monday at Culver City’s Carbon, where bodies writhe to boogie, electro-funk and modern soul. Or witness the Funkmosphere Lab in Leimert Park, two days before Christmas. Outside, the block is studded with California palms wrapped in red and green aluminum foil. Inside, the Pasadena-reared 38-year-old displays the garage studio that incubated one of 2009’s finest records, Toeachizown, a sprawling, self-assured full-length debut that single-handedly resurrects and reinvents the funk sound pronounced rigor mortis around the time Run DMC ushered in the new school.

“Put on any record you like,” Riddick says, ducking into his Spanish-style home to grab a cup of coffee. The offer presents a problem. Scattered in the garage among the Roland keyboards, samplers, drum kits and other elements of creation are tens of thousands of records, stacked in crates, in boxes on the floor, overwhelming every spare square inch of space. There are Con-Funk-Shun and the Time, Zappa and Fleetwood Mac, De La Soul and the Fresh Prince, Kid Creole and Ray Parker Jr. And this collection exists after several purges and ablutions made because “I wanted a record collection where if I blindfolded myself, I could pick something that I always enjoyed.”

Bet-hedging, I put on James Brown’s Reality, the 1975 break-beat gold mine that contains “The Funky President,” a position left vacant since the godfather of soul passed away three years ago. Were one to start nominating successors, Prince and Clinton would be obvious inheritors, but in a putative cabinet of Funk, the sage move would be to send Dâm overseas to offer benedictions.

“I’m not a Brainfeeder cat,” says Dâm-Funk, name-checking Flying Lotus’ futuristic beat parade. “I’m not doing the Mochilla tribute shows, I’m not doing the neo-soul thing. I’m a funkster. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. There’s a lot of cats like me, and I don’t want to let their voice go unheard. We’re the people who grew up on funk and hip-hop, people who listened to KROQ and KDAY,” he says, sipping a bottle of Bartles & Jaymes strawberry daiquiri and smoking a Djarum clove cigarette.

That’s another thing. Could you (or I) get away with sipping wine coolers and smoking cloves? Of course not. We’d get ridiculed. Somehow, Dâm-Funk does it and you’re convinced that you’ve been missing out on the tasty combo for years. (There are three men in history who have been able to make strawberry daiquiris look cool: Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy and Dâm-Funk.)

In fact, the only way to agitate him is to accuse him of being a gimmick or a biter. Dâm-Funk is from the old school, where you never shark another man’s style. Sure, he wears his influences (Slave, Aurra, Mtume, early Prince) on his 501s-and-black-Dodgers-jersey sleeve, but he’s no revivalist. As his song title explains, Dâm is “Searching 4 Funk’s Future.”

“When something blows up, the industry forgets about everything else. I grew up on hip-hop, but it got so much attention, the funk got left out,” Dâm-Funk says. “I’m not a retro artist, I’m not trying to re-create funk. I’m trying to continue it.”

What makes it so exciting is the way in which he threads his singular vision with a scholastic and soulful reverence for the past. Like a missing quadrant between the sparkling sequin sheen of Slave, the talk-box groove of Roger Troutman and Zapp, and the G-Funk glide of Dr. Dre and DJ Quik, Toeachizown is quintessential California ride music. After all, there is a song called “10 West,” and if you point your car in the direction of the setting sun and crank the low end till your system screams, you get the feeling of effortless velocity, like your car could sail off the Santa Monica Freeway into a weightless azure infinity.

No less than Dr. Dre himself (or at least his representatives) recently attempted to enlist Dâm-Funk for a studio session, an offer he was forced to turn down due to conflicting tour dates. Everyone from the Low End Theory crew to tastemaking British DJs Mary Anne Hobbs and Benji B, Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite and Animal Collective has given Dâm-Funk props, the latter inviting him to remix their “Summertime Clothes.” Most recently, he and Smell-affiliated noir-disco artist Nite Jewel collaborated on the stellar “Am I Going to Make It,” the lead track from a forthcoming EP.

“So many musicians want to revive certain eras of music because they feel it’s a good marketing tool or it will make them famous,” Nite Jewel said recently. “Dâm does nothing of the sort. Dâm does what he loves. Have you heard the synth solo on “The Sky Is Ours”? Tell me that’s not a man showing us love of music.”

Ticking off a broad array of interests (science fiction, horror films, the paranormal interests explored on 640 AM’s “Coast to Coast Radio With George Noory”), Riddick is impossible to pigeonhole. Behind the superfly façade lies a real dude, one who’s unfailingly gracious and polite, and, as his own song intimates, has his “hood pass intact.”

Raised on a Bloods-controlled block in North Pasadena, across the street from the Kings Manor Projects, Riddick has seen a lot of trouble, but would rather focus on furthering the evolution of the “sounds we heard in our head playing hide and go seek, getting our first girl, getting our first car.” Initially drawn to music by KISS, Earth Wind & Fire and Funkadelic, he started making homemade funk tapes on cassette while attending Blair High School. (Stones Throw honcho Peanut Butter Wolf plans to release these tapes next year under the title Adolescent Funk.)

While holding down day jobs ranging from music-store employee to Red Cross driver ferrying a truck full of frozen blood (always with a boom box in tow), Riddick spent most of the ’90s playing session keyboards for Priority Records rappers including All Frum Tha I, MC Eiht and Westside Connection. If it wasn’t for a chance meeting with Peanut Butter Wolf — then deejaying at Funky Sole’s old Star Shoes location — it’s conceivable that none of this would’ve transpired.

“I originally had no idea that he even made music. I was spinning ’70s disco and ’80s soul, and he came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe someone’s playing this, it’s a breath of fresh air,’ ” Wolf remembers. “He said he had a rare DVD of Slave [whose Steve Arrington has recently begun collaborating with Dâm-Funk] and mentioned that he deejayed at Funkmosphere. I started deejaying there and eventually he gave me a demo.”

Enlisting him for a series of remixes and finally offering a multi-album deal, Wolf’s Stones Throw deserves credit for being the rare imprint willing to dictate, rather than cater to, popular taste: The label is bravely helping to resurrect a once-moribund genre, funk. But ultimately, this is Dâm-Funk’s trip, one that took a while to take off, but figures to float for the foreseeable future. Despite his candor, Dâm-Funk claims this is one of the last interviews he plans on doing for a long time. “I don’t want to keep repeating myself,” he says. “I want to let the music speak for itself.” But it always has. Everything else just makes for a better story.

Toeachizown | Dâm-Funk | (Stones Throw)