11 Digital Funk Classics

Peaking between 1983 and 1985, the digital funk sound took the base elements from 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, ‘You Are In My System’ was the trademark track by the New York outfit comprising Mic Murphy on vocals and David Frank on keyboards and programming. If the opening minute of this doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead…

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 not amused and wanted it erased, but Mardin insisted on keeping it, 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 pop chameleon revived the sound for his underappreciated 1999 solo album Midnite Vultures.

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Marcus Miller: Suddenly

marcus millerWarner Bros, released June 1983

Bought: HMV Richmond 1989?

7/10

I first became aware of Marcus when I saw him playing bass with Miles Davis at the trumpeter’s Hammersmith Odeon ‘comeback’ gig in ’82. He quickly became one of my bass heroes a few years later when I was bowled over by his contribution to Miles’ Star People album.

Marcus’s name came up again recently when I was talking to someone about great multi-instrumentalists. In the soul/funk/R’n’B world, obviously there’s Stevie, Prince, Lewis Taylor and Sly. Marcus’s 1983 debut Suddenly almost puts him up there with that esteemed company too, though in the final analysis it suffers from a lack of top-quality material.

Marcus has put it on record that he was first inspired to play music by Michael Jackson and Stevie, and Suddenly was his first attempt to enter their world of quality soul/funk/R’n’B songwriting. He’d certainly paid his dues for Warner Bros Records by 1983, producing, composing and/or playing bass with David Sanborn, Donald Fagen, Joe Sample, Roberta Flack, Grover Washington Jr. and Claus Ogerman, so a Warners solo debut was always on the cards.

Marcus-Miller

You can hear elements of ZAPP, Gap Band, The Time and Cameo on Suddenly, and if Marcus doesn’t quite establish himself as a genuine ’80s funk contender, there are a myriad of great grooves and musical touches to enjoy. He pretty much plays all instruments, getting in selected guests (drummers Harvey Mason and Yogi Horton, Vandross, Sanborn, Mike Mainieri) to add spice here and there. Marcus is not a great singer, his voice rather light and uncertain, but his bass and keyboard playing, songwriting and arranging really save the day.

‘Lovin’ You’ is uplifting pop/funk with a classic bassline, while ‘Just What I Needed’ features some great Richard Tee-like, gospel-tinged piano from Marcus. And his piccolo bass solo on ‘Much Too Much’ had me checking the sleevenotes in vain for the presence of late great guitarist Eric Gale. ‘Just For You’ was previously recorded by David Sanborn on the classic Voyeur album, but here it gets a nice new vocal treatment.

It’s telling though that the closing instrumental ‘Could It Be You’ is by far the most successful track, featuring Miller’s fabulous fretless bass solo. It was later covered excellently by Dizzy Gillespie on his 1984 Closer To The Source album.

Goin’ For The Duran Duran Money: Prince and The Family

the family

Paisley Park Records, released 19th August 1985

Bought: Sister Ray’s, Soho, 1991?

8/10

I’ve bought this album on almost every format since I first found a cassette copy in the early ’90s, back when it was a pretty rare groove. It came out during my favourite Prince period, 1985 to 1989. He was embracing jazz, fusion, psychedelia, classic rock and even modern classical, mainly prompted by his collaboration with the very excellent (and possibly under-appreciated by Prince) Wendy and Lisa but also other associates Sheila E, saxists Eric Leeds and Eddie M and string arranger Clare Fischer.

The author with The Family in background, summer 1991

This was my soundtrack to teenage unrequited love in the summer of ’91. I instantly loved the retro Hollywood glamour of the cover artwork and the way it chimed with the whole Parade/Under The Cherry Moon concept.

The Family slipped out on Paisley Park Records in summer ’85 (just three months after Prince’s Around The World In A Day) to a very low-key critical and commercial reception. These days, the album is known mainly for including an early version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.

But it’s full of far superior fare to that such as the killer opening funk medley, classic near-hit ‘The Screams of Passion’, charming pop of ‘Desire’ and especially instrumentals ‘Yes’ and ‘Susannah’s Pyjamas’ where Prince indulges in some fantastic Sly Stone-meets-Miles bass, guitar and drum grooves. This is the album that led Tutu producer Tommy LiPuma to recommend Prince to Miles as a possible collaborator and it’s easy to hear why.

The Family was put together by Prince when the first incarnation of his massively successful offshoot project The Time split up in the summer of 1984. The band’s keyboardist/vocalist Paul Peterson (renamed St Paul by Prince), drummer Jellybean Johnson and vocalist/dancer Jerome Benton were summoned to Prince’s house along with his then-fiancee (and sister of Wendy) Susannah Melvoin and Leeds. A band concept was quickly ad-libbed by Prince, who, according to engineer David Rivkin (reported by Per Nilsen in his superb Prince: The First Decade book), issued them with the directive: ‘We gotta go after some of that Duran Duran money!’

the family

But what they ended up with was far from Duran Duran music. Prince wrote all the songs (except ‘River Run Dry’), played all instruments on the basic tracks and sang all the guide vocals.

Peterson and Melvoin painstakingly replaced Prince’s scratch vocals (and apparently took dance and acting lessons!), Leeds added his trademark baritone, tenor and flute and Fischer provided deliciously non-linear string arrangements.

Prince’s ‘no bass’ philosophy (as famously heard on ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss’) seems well to the fore on The Family. I still have in my possession a cassette of demos from the album, given to me by my old friend Marlon Celestine, featuring Prince’s phenomenal bass playing on ‘High Fashion’ and ‘Mutiny’, presumably deleted at the last minute.

The Family was released without much fanfare or marketing. After just one gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis (rare footage of which was recently removed from Youtube), the project was put on hold when Prince recruited Melvoin, Benton and Leeds for his Under The Cherry Moon movie. Peterson was put on a retainer, but, tired of waiting around for Prince to get back from filming in the south of France, served his notice by phone call. According to Per Nilsen, Prince was flabbergasted, believing that The Family’s time wasn’t far away and that St Paul was jumping ship too soon.

And, in a way, he was right – The Family album just won’t go away. At the request of Roots/D’Angelo/Erykah Badu drummer Amir ?uestlove Thomson, a long-time fan, the four-piece minus Prince delivered a mesmerising comeback performance at a pre-Grammys bash in 2007.

And then in 2012 a full-length album Gaslight was released under the new name fDeluxe (with considerable contributions from Wendy and Lisa) and a successful world tour followed (including a great Jazz Cafe gig in London). It proves that this band was much more than a Prince side project and are a pretty formidable funk/soul act in their own right.