Los Angeles is to funk music what Berlin is to techno, what Switzerland is to chocolate, what South Beach is to steroids. We might not have invented the form, but it has flourished here. Among municipal transplants, it's second only to the palm tree.
You're likely most familiar with the titans of G-funk: Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Above the Law, Warren G and Battlecat. But throughout the '90s, rarely an hour elapsed without rap radio playing Parliament-Funkadelic, The Gap Band, Frankie Smith and Zapp. Schoolchildren could recite "More Bounce to the Ounce" like a civic oath.
Six years ago, though, the sound seemed marked for death. No dedicated funk station existed. G-funk had long since given way to jerkin'. The beat scene was more focused on astral levitation than freeway hydraulics.
Then Pasadena's Dam-Funk dropped Toeachizown — the first modern funk classic — and quietly inspired 10,000 bedroom producers.
Fueled by the fluorescent glow and timeless chord progressions of early-'80s boogie, a steady procession of funk torchbearers relit the flame. Between the influence of Dam-Funk and the incubation offered at his weekly Funkmosphere nights, L.A. became a vibrant hub for a once-moribund genre.
The latest to emerge is XL Middleton, whose excellent debut LP, Tap Water, caps a particularly strong year for modern funk. Released on his fittingly named imprint, MoFunk, the album features grooves so smooth-gliding that you should be legally allowed to use the carpool lane while listening.
"Funk is our first language, so we want to do our own take on it," says Middleton, 33, from the rooftop of Internet radio station Dublab, shortly after delivering a scorching all-funk set.
The Pasadena native spent most of his 20s producing hip-hop. Hearing Toeachizown and attending Funkmosphere was a Damascus moment, offering Middleton a return to his roots and a path forward. He subsequently mastered analog synths, learned vocoder and built MoFunk alongside his partner and Funkmosphere resident, Eddy Funkster.
"It's something about the setting," Middleton says. "When you see palm trees and sunshine and lowriders, somehow you're just inspired to play like a bass line that goes bowmp, ba ba bump, bowmp bow."
He's not alone. In the last 24 months, L.A.'s modern funk constellation has yielded sterling records from Zackey Force Funk (Middleton had producing duties on his album), Benedek and Turquoise Summers, Dam-Funk's younger cousin. The funk renaissance even spread to a George Clinton guest spot on To Pimp a Butterfly and the talkbox knock of YG's "Twist My Fingaz."
The brightest beam was Dam-Funk's Invite the Light, which dropped earlier this year, reminding everyone that sometimes the future can sound like the past.
"The G-funk template that we got from Dre and Quik and others mostly had to do with emcees," Dam-Funk says. "But there were record diggers and producers who liked G-funk but didn't necessarily want to have a rapper on top. Modern funk created a lane in the underground that wasn't being explored in the mainstream."
It's myopic to dismiss it as paint-by-numbers revivalism. The music coming from L.A. reflects an immutable native sensibility and impeccable sense of groove. You can grill whatever you want at a barbecue, but it's still tough to top a perfectly cooked burger or hot dog. The same goes for what you want as the ideal barbecue soundtrack.
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"Funk means freedom to me," Middleton says. "There's something about it that brings people together. When you hear a squiggly synth and a crazy bass line, there's something about it that makes people want to dance. I don't like to dance myself, but when you hear this music you can't help it."
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.