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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Angela Bofill: Angel Of The ’80s

angelaThe strand of jazzy soul music developed by artists like Minnie Riperton, Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan, Jon Lucien, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford and Carl Anderson probably reached its commercial apex with Anita Baker’s eight-million-selling 1986 album Rapture.

angela bofill 01

But perhaps the most underrated singer in that style was Angela Bofill, an ever-present on the US R’n’B charts between 1978 and 1984. Best known for her sultry ballads and Latin-tinged mid-tempo jazz/soul tracks, I stumbled upon an Angie Best-Of sometime in the early ’90s and have been a fan ever since.

Her voice has a lovely, yearning quality, with power, range, great enunciation and a hint of Whitney Houston about it. But you’ll never hear Bofill’s music on the radio, at least here in the UK, and it’s a shame that she didn’t quite manage that breakthrough pop hit.

angie

Born in the Bronx to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, Bofill studied classical singing at the Manhattan School of Music. After a tip-off from Latin Jazz flautist Dave Valentin, she was initially mentored by producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, recording her successful first two albums Angie and Angel Of The Night for the fledgling GRP label.

Moving to Arista Records under the supervision of legendary impresario Clive Davis, she worked with some big-name producers throughout the ’80s: George Duke, Narada Michael Walden, Norman Connors and The System (David Frank/Mic Murphy). Narada particularly seemed a good fit for her, co-writing a few killers such as ‘Tropical Love’ and ‘Too Tough’ and teaming up with future ‘American Idol’ judge Randy Jackson on bass to make a phenomenal rhythm section.

Angela also made a wonderful guest appearance on ‘Where Do We Go’, the standout track from Stanley Clarke’s lacklustre Hideaway album of 1986, and there were also interesting duets with Boz Scaggs and Johnny Mathis around the same time.

But her most impressive material was self-penned. ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’, ‘Gotta Make It Up To You’, ‘Song For A Rainy Day’ (which she also produced), ‘I Try’ (memorably covered by Will Downing in the early ’90s), ‘Accept Me’, ‘Rainbow Inside My Heart’ and ‘Time To Say Goodbye’ are all stand-outs which demonstrate her fine musicianship as well as vocal skills. It’s a shame her composing, producing and arranging talents were never properly utilised, though she left us with a few classics nevertheless.

Angela made a comeback in the mid-’90s with Love In Slow Motion, a nice album featuring three superb tunes – ‘All She Wants Is Love’, ‘Soul Of Mine‘ and the very Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis-esque ‘Love Changes‘ – which matched anything from her ’80s peak. She also made a notable appearance at the 1998 Montreux Jazz Festival with Billy Cobham and George Duke.

Unfortunately serious illness befell Angela in 2006. Two strokes have limited her recording and live appearances, but she did make a brief return to the stage in 2012: ‘The Angela Bofill Experience’ featured stories from her life and career, with artists such as Maysa Leak, Phil Perry and Melba Moore performing signature songs.

Since then, things have been quiet, but we send good vibes from London. Angie’s certainly not forgotten in these parts.

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.