For some time, it’s felt as if the California funk revival has been coming from one man in particular: Dâm-Funk, the keytar maestro hell-bent on reintroducing Los Angeles to its funkified history. With apologies to everyone else — associates of Funkmosphere, G-Funk revivalists, white-boy Prince ripoffs — Dam’s put the team on his back and taken us as far as he can go.
Enter Harriet Brown, the 26-year-old Bay Area transplant residing in Inglewood, who arrives touting a fully formed funk sound on his debut LP, Contact, out April 21 on Innovative Leisure. While Brown — who asks that his real name be withheld because “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me” — follows a funk tradition outlined by Prince and carried forth by Dam, his music isn’t necessarily reliant on adhering to the aesthetics of his spiritual forebears. This is nervous music, infused with the anxiety of the modern world.
Contact has been a long time in the making. The 11 songs on the record were written as early as 2013 and recorded more than a year ago in Brown's previous home base, Koreatown. But as the world continues to spiral downward, its themes remain fresh.
When I speak with Brown by phone, he’s not necessarily quiet but pensive and deliberate with his thoughts. We discuss his residence in Inglewood, an L.A. locale fairly untouched by newcomers. Koreatown was fun, he says, "but I needed to chill out a little bit more. It’s pretty hectic around there, and I was cramped into a little studio with my girlfriend. We were able to get a little more space in Inglewood, and it’s also a bit more familiar.”
Contact was created in that cramped Koreatown studio, but the album is in no way a reflection of Brown’s surroundings. The album is spacious and wandering, a funk record surely indebted to the Purple One but also reflective of ’90s hip-hop and R&B.
“I was listening to a lot of Janet. The ’90s stuff, especially. I got very into Velvet Rope. I really love Seal, too. Just that ’90s U.K. R&B sound. I love it dark,” Brown explains. These two aesthetics, the ’90s and the darkness, manifest themselves again and again on Contact. Brown’s best skill is melding fairly minimal, bouncy beats with lyrics that carry serious power and emotional weight.
On “Mother,” one of the album’s finest tracks, Brown sings, “People tryna eat but I’m tryna fly/People struggling to stay alive/When I’m trippin’ on catching my vibe.” As Brown talks about "Mother," it’s clear that the song’s lyrical content reflects a deep internal struggle. “I wrote it two years ago and I think it applies very heavily to our generation. It was a personal feeling for me, but we’re all in a similar boat. I guess the record is about feeling ridiculous when you get caught up in your own issues when there’s so much crazy stuff going on.”
This tends to be a prevailing notion these days. As the world implodes, the whole endeavor of doing anything creative or personal can seem goofy. “It feels stupid sometimes," Brown agrees. "Even just being a music artist, it’s like, ‘How do I continue making music? What is this doing? How am I interacting with the world?’”
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This obsession with the personal taking precedent over the horrors of modernity serves as the emotional center of Contact. It's a love album less about the act of loving than it is a reflection of how love manifests itself and controls us. “It can still be a little bit esoteric or mysterious," Brown says of his creation, "but at the end of the day, when I look over what I’m writing, I do have to feel a message coming across.” It's funk music for a new generation, for all of us worried about saving the world while having a good time, catching vibes while others are struggling to stay alive.
The weight of the world rests heavily upon Contact, but for Brown himself, the daily hustle of being an independent musician is a more immediate challenge. “If I can not work another job and be able to keep making music, I’d be pretty happy,” he says with a chuckle. The goal may not be lofty, but the music certainly is.
Contact is out April 21 on Innovative Leisure via iTunes and your local record store.