11 Digital Funk Classics

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.

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Sly Meets Scritti: Tony LeMans’ 1989 Debut Album

downloadPaisley Park/Reprise, released 29th September 1989

Bought: Mr CD, Soho, 1992?

7/10

This is an intriguing, very promising, almost completely forgotten debut album by a young singer and songwriter who very sadly died only three years after its release.

I came across Tony LeMans completely by chance at the Mr CD shop on Berwick Street, Soho. It had piles and piles of albums at five quid a pop, quite a steal by ’90s standards. You just never knew what you would find, in the days when you would take a chance on an album just on the strength of the label, cover, musicians and/or producer. Me: I saw the words ‘Sylvester Stewart’, ‘David Gamson’ and ‘Paisley Park’ on the back and had to have it. I’m pretty sure I’d never have read about it in a magazine or seen it advertised on TV.

Tony-LeMans-Tony-LeMans-1989-Back-Cover-79406

Gamson plays keyboards and produces beautifully, fresh from Scritti Politti’s Provision. Tony LeMans was released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records – rumours were abound of the Purple One’s involvement, but he doesn’t appear.

But other ’80s funk masters do: Bernard Wright supplies some cracking wah-wah clavinet to a few tunes, though bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. are fairly nondescript. Prince cohort Boni Boyer adds occasional back-up vocals alongside Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett (phenomenal on the opening ‘Higher Than High’).

The sonic clarity and mastering of Tony LeMans are outstanding; it would make a brilliant CD for auditioning a hi-fi. It’s also a real relief from the over-loud, over-compressed music of today. Musically and lyrically, it initially comes on like a ‘standard’ late-’80s pop/soul/funk album, but closer inspection reveals a strong psychedelic flavour. Mainly though, due to Gamson’s total involvement, the album sounds like Provision-era Scritti fronted by Sly Stone.

tony lemans

The opener ‘Highest High’ fuses the synth hook from Prince’s ‘Lovesexy’ with Sly’s ‘The Same Thing’ (though neither get a songwriting credit) to great effect. ‘Forever More’ is a luxuriant ballad with a fine falsetto vocal from LeMans and some classic Gamson chord changes, while ‘Good For You’ is an infectious, catchy slice of doo-wop-influenced pop.

There’s a bit too much filler on side two, but the closing ‘Different Kind Of Thing’ is possibly the stand-out and the nearest thing to a Prince song (very much influenced by ‘Erotic City’), though it was only an extra track on the original CD release.

LeMans toured the album in the States, sometimes supporting MC Hammer (!), and was recording his second Paisley Park album at the time of his death. It was due to feature a Prince composition called ‘Fuschia Light’. Sadly, we’ll probably never hear what it sounds like.

You can get hold of Tony LeMans and listen to it here.

Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85: 30 Years Old Today

scrittiVirgin Records, released 10th June 1985

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (morning of Live Aid)

10/10

We come to another of my absolute ’80s favourites. Cupid is also one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that, despite big sales and critical appreciation, is still inexplicably awaiting a re-release/remaster, unless I’m very much mistaken.

David Gamson, Green Gartside, Fred Maher

Fred Maher, Green Gartside, David Gamson

Listening again to Cupid 30 years after its release, I wonder if it sounds very dated to modern ears. I suspect it does but it was so much part of my musical (and general) coming-of-age that I can’t judge. Whilst it unabashedly utilised all manner of mid-’80s technology (Fairlight, drum machines, sequencers), I don’t really ‘hear’ those elements any more. All I hear is top-notch songwriting, intriguing and intelligent lyrics, great grooves and Green’s unique vocals. Cupid hit me at exactly the right age; it was the soundtrack to endless summer evenings, teenage crushes, adolescent musings.

Though Scritti leader/vocalist/co-songwriter Green Gartside left behind his post-punk roots and the ‘indie’ sound of his Rough Trade debut album Songs To Remember to create this major-label debut, Cupid certainly had antecedents: Green and keyboardist/co-composer David Gamson revered the highly-syncopated R’n’B/electro of The System, Chaka Khan, ZAPP and Michael Jackson, but they added some classic pop songcraft and intricate harmony.

Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis gave Green his blessing and, coupled with manager Bob Last (who also managed Human League and ABC), Green pitched the Americans his fusion of pop and funk. As he told Word magazine in 2006, ‘The American labels were all tickled pink by these big NME interviews we did and that loosened their wallets. Bob and I were terribly persuasive as to why they should part with vast sums so we could make a record.’

Legendary Aretha/Chaka producer Arif Mardin came on board as did a raft of quality players such as Marcus Miller, Steve Ferrone, David (The System) Frank, Robbie Buchanan, Robert Quine and Paul Jackson Jr. But Green apparently turned out to be more of a perfectionist than any of them: ‘It took us a great deal of time to get our bits right and my anxiety about singing was pretty acute. I would demand to sing things over and over again and I’m not sure I ever got it better than the first time.’

Cupid featured three classic singles – ‘The Word Girl’, ‘Absolute’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, though eventually a total of five tracks were released as A-sides. The John Potoker remix of ‘Perfect Way’ (far superior to the album version) even became a massive hit in the States, reaching 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushing worldwide sales of the album over the million mark (check out this guy’s incredible play-a-long).

While ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ and ‘Lover To Fall’ might be deemed ‘filler’, they easily transcend that label by dint of their sprightly grooves and sheer catchiness. The beautiful ‘A Little Knowledge‘ showed that Green and Gamson were on the same page as Prefab’s Paddy McAloon when it came to sumptuous, intelligent romantic ballads in the mid-’80s, and the track is a great companion piece to ‘When Love Breaks Down’.

Post-Cupid, Green and Gamson booked and then cancelled a world tour (they were apparently visited in the studio by MTV executives who told them, ‘Just think, you’ll never have to tour again!’), wrote songs for Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan, made friends with Miles (who covered ‘Perfect Way’ on Tutu), hung out with George Michael at various London nightspots, embarked on a year of press in America to cash in on the success of ‘Perfect Way’ and then reluctantly hit the studios of New York and London to record the follow-up Provision.

george michael green gartside

George and Green, London, 1986

A cursory listen to a radio station like Absolute 80s reveals the wide-reaching influence of Cupid on countless late-’80s bands: a-ha, Go West, Climie Fisher, Living In A Box, Pet Shop Boys, Bros and Aztec Camera all tried for those clinical, Swiss-watch-precision arrangements and that uplifting pure pop sound, but generally lacked Gamson’s ingenious chord changes and Green’s gift for melody.

Happy birthday to a bona fide ’80s classic.