Peaking between 1983 and 1985, the digital funk sound took the base elements of early pioneers James Brown, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and combined them with the new studio technology of the early ’80s.
Producers Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Leon Sylvers III (The Whispers, Shalamar), Kashif, Prince and Steve Arrington, and keyboardists/programmers such as David Gamson, David Frank and Robbie Buchanan, instigated a new kind of funk incorporating syncopated synth parts, percussion and intricate rhythm guitar.
The resulting sound is instantly recognisable and an influence on everyone from Beck and Bruno Mars to Daft Punk and Mark Ronson. Here are 11 tracks that still retain the wow factor. Play ’em loud…
11. Zapp & Roger: ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ (1980)
Roger Troutman took the key elements of George Clinton/Bernie Worrell’s P-Funk template (squelchy synth bass, solid drums, clipped rhythm guitar) and stripped them back to their bare essentials, creating this classic single which made the Billboard top 100 in 1980.
10. The System: ‘You Are In My System’ (1982)
Later covered by Robert Palmer, this was the trademark track by the New York outfit comprising Mic Murphy on vocals and David Frank on keyboards and programming. Their most recent album is 2013’s System Overload.
9. Person To Person: ‘High Time’ (1983)
This was former ABC drummer David Palmer’s bid for solo pop stardom after jumping ship from the ‘Lexicon Of Love’ tour. Produced by David Frank, it’s catchy and beautifully arranged but lacks a decent vocalist and didn’t dent the charts on its 1983 single release.
8. The Girls: ‘I’ve Got My Eyes On You’ (1983)
Minneapolis was a hotbed of digital funk in the early ’80s too, not all generated by Prince (but I’d definitely have included ‘DMSR’ or ‘Erotic City’ if they were on YouTube…). This curio, produced by his 1979-1981 touring bassist Andre Cymone, lacks a decent chorus but is still a catchy funk stew all the same. The Girls released their one and only album in 1984.
7. Kashif: ‘Stone Love’ (1983)
This has more than a whiff of Luther’s ‘Never Too Much’ about it, but it was also a major influence on Scritti Politti (see below). Kashif released five studio albums between ’83 and ’89 and worked with Whitney Houston and George Benson before his death in 2016.
6. Chic: ‘Believer’ (1983)
The corking title track from their last studio album of the ’80s which received a critical mauling at the time. It sounds pretty fresh these days though maybe lacks the killer pop hooks that categorised their most successful work.
5. Scritti Politti: ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ (1984)
Arif Mardin produced this classic single which made #10 in the UK chart in March 1984.
4. Wally Badarou: ‘Chief Inspector’ (1985)
Best known as keyboard player for Grace Jones and Level 42, Badarou also scored movies (‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’) and came up with this classic Afrocentric take on the digital funk sound.
3. Loose Ends: ‘Hanging On A String (Contemplating)’ (1985)
Obviously at the commercial end of the sound, this reached the giddy heights of #13 in the UK singles chart and was all held together by a superb performance by Ron Jennings on guitar.
2. Chaka Khan: ‘I Feel For You’ (1984)
Overfamiliar it may be, but this Prince-penned epic is undeniably the commercial apotheosis of the digital funk sound. The famous opening was apparently a total mistake, producer Arif Mardin getting trigger-happy with the sampler. Chaka was apparently not amused, wanting it erased, but Mardin insisted on keeping it in, telling her: ‘Don’t worry, my dear, it will be a hit.’ A hit it was, the only number one of her career.
1. Beck: ‘Get Real Paid’ (1999)
The Los Angeles chameleon revived the sound for his underappreciated 1999 solo album Midnite Vultures.