When the Meters were formed in New Orleans in 1965, with crooner Art Neville as their frontman (who had already been performing solo since the mid-’50s), guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter, Jr., and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, the genre of funk had not yet been classified.
The term “funky” in a musical sense was first used in the jazz world. When players were riding an improvisational wave or blowing someone away, they likened the performance to body odor—more specifically, to smells experienced or created when two sweaty bodies are colliding on the dance floor or in the bedroom.
Players were encouraged to “make it funky” or “put the stank on it,” and the term stuck. It wasn’t until decades later that the term was used to describe a specific sound, or a genre of music, as if it was being saved for a type of music that represented the designation best.
It’s hard to define funk, but its essence is immediately recognizable. Like many music lovers who have set out to find the funk, I wound up in front of George Porter, Jr. and we tried to put our finger on its foundations:
“Back then I didn’t really participate in music as a fan. I couldn’t really tell you one band from another. I didn’t listen to music, and when I did, it was classical music. I listened to a little jazz—up until Bitches Brew.
There were differences in the music, but exactly what elements were different? What the Meters were doing in the ’60s was called R&B at the time—straight-up R&B. Now I’m talking about our first three albums only [The Meters, Look-Ka-Py-Py and Struttin’]. Those three albums are now considered funk—and even considered the beginning of funk. From the New Orleans point of view, at least.”
Porter contends that the bands who laid the foundation of funk are the Meters, George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, and James Brown & the JBs.
“I think that Parliament grew out of the James Brown thing. What little history I know of Parliament, I do know that a couple of their key musicians were members of the James Brown’s Band—the JBs—before they joined up with George Clinton.
I was certainly aware of James Brown. In fact, when he released Live at the Apollo Theater , the band that I was involved with back then, the Royal Knights, covered the album in its entirety. This was all before the Meters. I wasn’t even really a member of the band, I was kinda like that band’s roadie, and whenever someone needed to go to the bathroom, I played their instrument. I played drums, guitar and bass. I just know that Brown’s album played a role in my personal musical upbringing in the early ’60s, but I don’t believe the JBs influenced the Meters music at all.
When the Meters’ musical style surfaced in 1967 [the Meters were the studio band for Allen Toussaint], that music made a loud, broad statement across the entire music community in all directions—north, south, east and west. The Meters music made a loud enough statement that all the people would turn their heads and say, ‘What is this?’ or ‘Where is this coming from?’”
So what was so different about what the Meters were doing? And what defined it as “funk?”
“I think it was the syncopation. So many of our songs were not ‘on the 1.’ It seems like everyone else on the planet was playing downbeat stuff … 1,2,3,4—1,2,3,4. And we were playing ‘and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4—and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4.’ We were playing ‘off the one.’ I think that’s what made what we were doing entirely different than anyone else on the planet. We weren’t pronouncing 1. [laughs] Our first notes were usually before 1.
The Meters’ music really never made it into the mainstream. I may be wrong, but I think we were always ‘musicians’ musicians.’ I don’t think the general public knew what we were doing, because they didn’t know where ‘one’ was, they didn’t know where the downbeat of the music was. I think the radio stations were in the same boat. In order to get airplay, the deejays had to like it, but if ‘one’ was so difficult to find, then they wouldn’t play it; and I think that’s what happened to us. Our first three albums got a nosebleed because they were just too hard to find anywhere—on the radio or on the shelves.”
Where is the funk in 2014? Those who live in New Orleans know it’s everywhere, but the rest of the world is finding the funk through the jam-band scene and festival circuit. Some may see the jam-band scene as unlikely steward of the funk, but not if you take into account many early funk pioneers had a jazz background, including Porter.
Some bands that find themselves in the jam-band genre, like Galactic, Dumpstaphunk, the New Mastersounds, Lettuce and Soulive, are part of our “modern” funk era, but have found a welcome home in front of jam band-loving fans.
“The jam-band community is bringing a lot of the music of us older guys back up to the forefront. They have really embraced funk concepts, and a lot of the jam bands are being classified as jam/funk bands. I’ve had a problem with that ‘jam band’ term for a while, too. I mean, where did that come from? It’s just another term to classify our music. I understand that jazz musicians want their label, and they are very proud of the term jazz, because no other music can touch it, and I can dig that. Jazz was one of the first American musical terms. Funk music evolved from musicians who played jazz and R&B. Myself, I played jazz, bebop and a little bit of every music that could be played, growing up. I even played country songs like ‘Home on the Range’ and ‘Red River Valley’ when I was learning the acoustic guitar as a kid. Those labels aren’t for musicians.
I like what Eric Krasno does with Lettuce and Soulive. I’ve grown fond of Adam Deitch and Nigel Hall. John Scofield’s funk band is great, even though it’s more fusion than funk. Here in New Orleans, Stanton Moore can lay down the funk. Then there is Dumpastaphunk. I think the Revivalists seem to have picked up on funk elements, too. Those young cats have probably done more homework than an old fogey like me [laughs].
Click the graphic to read what other musicians had to say about funk.