XL Middleton, left, and Eddy Funkster, right / Photo courtesy of XL Middleton and Eddy Funkster
LA has never given up on funk. Around the time xenophobic White Sox fans incinerated disco records in effigy in ‘79, LA began to embrace funk’s next phase: boogie. Also known as electro-funk, the backbone of boogie songs was primarily composed using analog synthesizers and drum machines. Over time, the genre became an inextricable strand of the city’s double helix, the soundtrack to clubs packed with pop-locking b-boys and the beach-bound cruises of Lowrider enthusiasts. In the 90s, boogie records by funk paragons like Zapp were reborn in the LA-bred rap subgenre known as G-funk. After a brief decline, funk/boogie evangelist (and proud Pasadena resident) Dam-Funk revitalized the genre in 2006 with the founding his weekly club night, Funkmosphere.
Due in large part to Dam’s efforts, LA has seen a mounting funk/boogie (a.k.a. modern funk) renaissance since the mid-aughts. Two of Dam’s most renowned peers are Funkmosphere constituents XL Middleton and Eddy Funkster. In addition to founding their own label, MoFunk Records, and recording their respective solo work, the duo has collaborated to craft bouncing, synth-laden suites for peers like Zackey Force Funk (e.g. modern funk classic “Press Play”). Their work has won them fans not only in LA but also among the passionate funk constituencies of Japan, France, and Germany.
On August 12, Middleton and Funkster will release their self-titled debut (XL Middleton + Eddy Funkster). Today, we’re premiering the album’s second single, “California Fly,” an ode to the city that continues to foster the funk (when used by Angelenos, "California" and "LA" are often synonymous). Middleton and Funkster temper hard-hitting percussion with a warbling collage of warm synth chords. It’s the aural equivalent of gliding over baking asphalt with top back, a song best played while driving down Sunset from East LA to Santa Monica.
Long Beach’s Domino, whom you should know for G-funk classics “Getto Jam” and “Sweet Potato Pie," and fellow Funkmosphere devotee Moniquea fortify the shimmering instrumental. The former hasn’t lost a step since his heyday, his rhymes and delivery still as polished as a set of gleaming Daytons. Meanwhile, Moniquea reprises her role as the scene’s preeminent chanteuse.
We spoke with Middleton and Funkster about LA’s funk renaissance, working with Domino, the fine line between reverence and imitation, and more. Throughout the interview, one thing is indisputably clear: Their passion for funk, like the genre itself, is undying.
Noisey: How did you get Domino on “California Fly?” Do you feel that more ‘90s G-funk rappers should reach out to work with people from the LA funk scene?
XL Middleton: It's crazy; one of our longtime supporters from Ukraine actually made the connection happen. He's a major G-funk collector, and I started talking to him online just because he was interested in picking up some my older G-funk albums that I put out in the 2000s. I was the one that asked him to make the connection and he came through for me in a major way.
I think that us in the modern funk scene, we need to connect those dots with a lot of the rappers from the G-funk era because they may not be aware of what's going on with us. For a lot of them, I think they were just making the music that was hot at the time, where for us, we're looking back on it with reverence, studying it, distilling it into what we create now.
Did you record this album entirely on analog equipment? What is your favorite analog instrument? Is it increasingly difficult to acquire pieces from the 70s and 80s?
I'll tell you a dirty little secret: no analog equipment at all. People always tell me that our music sounds like it was recorded on reel-to-reels with all analog equipment. I think that's a compliment, and to be honest, I'm not sure what it is that makes our music sound that way. Like, it's not any particular plug-ins I'm choosing or anything. The funny thing is, you'll never run across any of the OGs from the 70s or 80s who don't feel like, “Man I wish we had laptops and software back then!”
A lot of guys nowadays will use all analog boards just so they can brag online that they don't use computers. But it's like, they often don't have a sense of creating music that will just hit you right in the heart. So it's like they're using their gear as a crutch to make up for that. Don't get me wrong, I own actual boards, but I only use them for live shows these days. I hate taking laptops to live shows.
My favorite board will always be the DX7 because it's the board that my dad taught me how to read and play music on. It's still pretty easy to come across those and for pretty cheap too. But when you start talking about old school Moogs, or Prophets or Juno 60s or whatever, those tend to be harder to find and way more expensive.
The funk canon is deep. There are a lot of songs, both renowned and obscure, from which to borrow. Where do you draw the line between reverence and imitation?
There have been people that have told me, “Man such and such song that you made sounds just like something from 1984,” and I know they mean it as a compliment, but it always makes me feel like, “Okay, I've gotta come with more progressive then.” Because we love boogie funk, we love G-funk—and I know it shows very clearly in what we do—but we are not trying to create pastiche or retro music. So, I think that constantly having that in mind helps us to draw that line.
What would LA’s modern funk scene be like without Dam-Funk?
Eddy Funkster: The global modern funk scene would not exist if it weren't for Dam-Funk leading the way. He really was the catalyst for starting a wave of artists and DJs making and playing this new spin on 80s synthesizer funk. Otherwise, we would still be playing this music in the backyards of Southern California.
Is it fair to say that Funkmosphere, the weekly funk night Dam founded in 2006, is the hub of the scene? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t attended?
It’s very fair to say that it is the hub of the scene. It was the first night of its kind, and it has spawned countless other boogie nights around the world. Ten years ago it was the only place to hear this kind of music: in a very small bar called Carbon. DJs and people from all around would come to check it out and hear 80s funk being played. Now a lot of artists are making modern funk, which you can hear all the latest records being played at Funkmosphere. For anybody that hasn't been to Funkmosphere: 1. Do you live under a rock? 2. Get your butt on the dancefloor!
In your mind, what is it about LA that makes it the prime location for this funk renaissance?
LA just oozes synthesizer funk. Being an LA native, this music was always played on the streets. From lowriders on the boulevards to DJs playing it in backyard parties. Even popping and locking were invented here in California. If you have ever been here, just walk around and look up, it's in the air. The sunsets and sunrises are songs just waiting to happen.
How do you feel about the resurgence of funk in LA rap, like with George Clinton’s appearance on To Pimp a Butterfly or the entirety of Still Brazy? Do you think that you guys—as well people like Dam, Zackey Force Funk, and others—played a role?
XL Middleton: I'm absolutely certain we've played a role. These guys are most certainly watching what we do. I feel strongly about this because, with any legit artistic movement, it always starts on the underground.
Think about this: Modern funk may represent a fundamental shift in the basis of underground, hip hop-rooted music, however you wanna describe it. When we were coming up, everything was all about 70s drum breaks and soul or jazz samples. Electronic music from the 80s, guys wearing sequined suits and rocking jheri curls on their album covers, wasn't looked at as “cool” or looked at with reverence by the hip-hop “elite.” Same with G-funk, that same “elite” didn't look at it as “real hip-hop.” Now I would say that's changing, and I think modern funk is the first fully realized expression of that change.
All of that is to say, I think it's great that LA rappers are coming back to the funk, it truly validates what we are doing in many ways. If artists that have already proven themselves as relevant and viable are putting out successful funk/rap records, then surely what we are making is just as relevant and viable too.
Who are some of the contemporary funk artists that people should listen to?
Eddy Funkster: Artists that I play and listen to constantly are Brian Ellis, Zackey Force Funk, Teeko and B. Bravo, Social Lovers, and all the Mofunk artists like Diamond Ortiz, Moniquea, Reality Jonez, and Crystal Jackson.
XL Middleton: All of them. Also Psychic Mirrors, K-Maxx, and of course Dam.
Max Bell is keeping it funky in LA. Follow him on Twitter.