Music by VICE

Dâm-Funk Breaks Down the Freaky Influence of Electro Pioneers Uncle Jamm's Army

Ahead of a new documentary he scored, we join the LA funk scion in his studio to talk about growing up with the game-changing hip-hop crew, attracting women with vinyl, and why funk is like "a smile with a tear."

by Torii MacAdams
Oct 26 2017, 2:12pm

In the early 1980s, no one in Los Angeles was cooler than Egyptian Lover. His Jheri Curl was a dense, dripping thicket perched atop an inch-perfect beard; he–a kid from South Central!–drove a Rolls-Royce; and, when he'd take the stage during Uncle Jamm's Army's shows, his turntable dexterity would turn gyrating dancers into unmoving gawkers. Alongside his companions in Rodger Clayton's pioneering hip-hop crew Uncle Jamm's Army, he permanently altered the trajectory of Los Angeles and West Coast music.

By about 1981, young, black Angelenos had grown bored with the slower tempos of disco and funk. The electro movement led by Uncle Jamm's Army offered a quicker, metronomic tempo and body-rending 808 bass–and, perhaps best of all, it looked and sounded like the future. No more ten-piece funk bands in matching jumpsuits and platform boots coordinating their dance moves, just DJs in sweat-soaked silk shirts cutting and scratching until the wee hours of the morning. Of the DJ crews vying for teenaged Angelenos's attentions, none was more popular than Clayton's Uncle Jamm's Army.

When he wasn't DJ-ing, Clayton was a tireless, ambitious promoter with a keen eye for talent; members of his Army (named for the Funkadelic album Uncle Jam Wants You) included Egyptian Lover, future N.W.A. member Arabian Prince, DJ Bobcat (who'd go on to work with Def Jam), co-writer of Friday and prolific producer DJ Pooh, and a pre-gangster rap Ice-T. They dictated what was played on LA radio, filled arenas with flirtatious, grinding teenagers, and when they issued their seminal "Dial-A-Freak/Yes, Yes, Yes" single, they became bonafide stars. Then it fell apart.

On October 27th, ahead of a one-night-only UJA reunion performance with Red Bull Music Academy LA, Red Bull and Yours Truly are premiering a documentary about the groundbreaking group. Though performance footage of Uncle Jamm's Army is virtually nonexistent, Ice-T, Egyptian Lover, Arabian Prince, the World Class Wreckin' Cru's Lonzo Williams, and others provide rare, entertaining insight into a vital moment in Los Angeles's music history. And, scoring that documentary is the man carrying the torch for funk, boogie, and electro in Los Angeles (if not worldwide): Dâm-Funk. You can check out the trailer below. With his seminal albums Toeachizown and Invite the Light, and his recently-discontinued weekly party Funkmosphere, Dâm-Funk has advocated for a particular brand of funk he has described as "a smile with a tear." A documentary soundtrack is simple—he could score a chemical Creamsicle LA sunset, or profound neon-lit heartbreak. We sat down with Dâm-Funk in his studio to discuss Uncle Jamm's Army, the documentary, and attracting women with vinyl.

Noisey: What attracted you to Uncle Jamm's Army when you were a kid?
Dâm-Funk: What attracted me to Uncle Jamm's Army was the fact that everybody around my neighborhood and LA at that time was very interested in the parties they were hearing about going on. We heard about the Sports Arena being packed, the Nissan trucks, all the freak lines that would go on inside the club. The freak lines were where the boy and the girl would get in the back of each other and dance and do The Freak with each other, like rub up on each other. We heard about these lines being in the whole Sports Arena, like uninterrupted, like girl-boy-girl-boy to the music.

And even the music. The style of music was electro-techno-funk around that time, between '82 and '84 and '85. After that it kind of switched. It was a lot of dancing, a lot getting phone numbers, talking to girls and vice-versa. It was a teen thing for a lot of us. So they started doing shows in Pasadena at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. That's when I got to experience it.

Just buying Egyptian Lover's records, the Uncle Jamm's Army 12-inch "Dial-A-Freak/Yes,Yes, Yes;" it was so popular on [LA hip-hop stalwart] KDAY and you couldn't get away from it. It was like our Prince. We still loved Prince, because [UJA] were influenced by him as well. I'm telling you man, at a certain point they were more popular than Michael Jackson and Prince in LA. It was that huge, especially Egyptian Lover.

How old were you when they played the Pasadena Civic Auditorium?
That was about '84 or '85, maybe even '86–some of the last stuff they were doing. I was about 14, 15. I was there for a couple of them–shootouts, fights. Let me be clear: that was Jackie Robinson Park with the shootouts, but the fights sometimes happened outside. It became kind of a gang vibe, but they couldn't control that because the culture was changing. You had people selling dope, not using it, but selling it, so there was a lot of drug dealing and stuff like that going, especially in Pasadena on the Westside. A lot of the Blood gangs would converge–they wanted to have fun, too, 'cuz the Uncle Jamm's parties came out of the house parties that people would have–and when you'd have these shows. it'd be like, "Oh shit, this is like a big party at the Civic Auditorium." It was like LA coming to Pasadena.

That was one of the striking things in the documentary, is when the gangsters start showing up. Did that kill off the scene?
That's a good question. To be fair, I think it was already bubbling, and already existent, but musical styles changed. Things slowed down a little bit, because we never stopped playing funk like Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" and that kind of stuff–it was just a part of the culture. But the tempos started slowing down and people were more into hooking up with people than dance crews and that kind of thing. You had the mods, the creeper shoes on, the trench coats with black and white rude boy buttons–it was lot of dancing elements going on with that uptempo style of music.

But things just changed around that time, and I blame it more on the music style and interest change. And in like '83 you had "Sucker MC's" and "It's Like That" by RUN-DMC that dropped on Profile. When that came out, that one 12-inch changed the game. People were still pop-locking at Jackie Robinson [Park] or what have you, still playing "(Not Just) Knee Deep" at the skating rink at Jackie Robinson, but hip-hop just took over. The East Coast was yelling 'Yo, it's on the way, y'all,' and sure enough the West Coast started emulating what the East Coast was doing as far as wardrobe with the adidas, the sweatsuits, breakdancing–cuz the West Coast is more related to pop-locking and locking. Breakdancing came from the East Coast influence.

There weren't too many more [electro] records to be played, so it was the same records being played over–Hashim's "Al Naafiysh," Soulsonic Force's "Looking for the Perfect Beat," Planet Rock"–it just wasn't any more of that stuff being made so a lot of people converged onto hip-hop. I saw the change. World Class Wreckin Cru, Lonzo [Williams], Egyptian Empire, they started having gangster stuff on the covers of their records. I'd see MC Eiht on the cover and being like 'This is really changing.' Egyptian Lover started letting the gangsters record on their stuff. It was just part of the times.

Taking it back for a second, why do you think electro caught on so hard in LA?
With Zapp, it was a connection between the Midwest and the West Coast. It was a migration of people, a similarity in weather. It was people with money, because in the hood there was a point in time where people worked–well, they still do–but there was disposable income. A lot of families that lived in the Midwest moved from the South and worked in factories. Christmases were great for kids. This is one of the most undocumented eras and experiences in black culture. There were jobs, there were picnics, parties, and kids were getting instruments and DJ equipment as gifts. Nobody was coming to South Central or Pasadena or the Valley to capture what was going on with prosperous families buying DJ equipment for their kids. You'd go to the record store every weekend and leave with the current stuff that KDAY and KJLH was playing.

I think that [electro] caught on so well because it was energetic. Like ten people on stage in a Cameo-like band kinda got redundant. Electro was futuristic. The one thing about black culture is that it always moves forward. That's one thing I kind of complain about, because like the rock culture bigs up the Rolling Stones–they go to their concerts today. The O'Jays? The Isley Brothers? We go, but you won't see people walking around with Isley Brothers t-shirts. You still see people rocking Stones T-shirts! When [electro] came in, people didn't have any problems leaving behind P-Funk, and Slave, and One Way, and all those groups, cuz the DJs were taking the place of the DJs playing funk and soul and R&B.

You told NPR that funk is "a smile with a tear." Do you feel like that description applies to electro, or those things separate in your mind?
I think electro is an extension of funk because of the people who broke off and started listening to Kraftwerk. "A smile with a tear" to me is a whole 15 minute version of [Funkadelic's] "(Not Just) Knee Deep," where, if you sit the fuck down and listen to the actual whole version, you'll hear the credits rolling on an era. That was 1979 when that record dropped, and that's when crack started invading neighborhoods. P-Funk dominated for so long, and it moved into hip-hop. It just swung hard and the labels were like "Yeah, we don't need to pay for a nine-piece band on tour for five weeks, we can just get couple guys with turntables and a microphone." It was logical. The "smile with a tear" is something I apply to the music I make, y'know, and, for me, funk isn't always a party. Funk has a lot of nuance, and that's what P-Funk touched.

With electro-funk, it was more about the party and futuristic thinking. It originated in Detroit, and the cats from LA picked up on it. Juan Atkins, the Underground Resistance, Cybotron–that's what Egyptian Lover and them were playing, but also the Kraftwerk stuff. What can't be forgotten is that they were playing funk first. One of the biggest songs in the Uncle Jamm's Army repertoire was "Let's Work" from Prince. "Atomic Dog" was too slow.

Will Abramson, executive producer/cofounder of Yours Truly: George Clinton came to The Playpen, which was like a steady spot that [Uncle Jamm's Army] did, and it was apparently wild, crazy, free sex shit happening there. George comes and he has a white label pressing of "Atomic Dog," and he shows up and gives it to Egyptian Lover to play it. It's during the height of the party and it's slow...and it just didn't work. [Clinton's] like, "What should we do?" "A little faster." So they went back and reengineered the drums, and that's the "Atomic Dog" that you hear now.

Dâm-Funk: They were very influential.

Abramson: Obviously the name [Uncle Jamm's Army] comes from George, but Treylewd, who's George Clinton's son, was good friends with Rodger Clayton growing up, so Treylewd was going to the Alpine Village events.

Dâm-Funk: That's what I'm saying: people forget that they were playing that stuff, then the tempos changed and people craved faster tempos. Times changed, culture changed, dancing changed; disco was hot in the 70s, and all of a sudden they burnt the shit [at Disco Demolition Night] and after that it went funk, then it went uptempo again in a new way.

Me, Egyptian Lover, and Peanut Butter Wolf go out sometimes; Egypt was telling me that Michael Jackson came in disguise, and was studying shit. Any real artist that's out there, hungry, you're gonna go find out what's going on. As opposed to what's going on now, where cats are so angry at what's going on with the music scene–they ignore it, middle finger–these young idiots...Michael was like, "These cats are killing it right now." He studied the moves and what was going on the Sports Arena parties.

One of the things that seeing the documentary has made me consider is that Uncle Jamm's Army was part of the wider Afro-Futurism movement.
Dâm-Funk: That's a pretty good point, but it's still nestled in sexuality. It wasn't about any hocus-pocus woke shit, y'know what I'm saying, it was just about having a party. It was a Freak Zone. Before all of the AIDS scare, it was just about "I'm getting me some numbers tonight, I'm getting a freak." That was the term back then. It wasn't like they were idiots—"freak" was compliment. Like "Yo, she a freak." Nowadays you'd say "Oh, she's a bad bitch"—I don't like that term, either, but that's the equivalent. It wasn't like [affecting rigid, nerdy voice] "Where's the freaky people?" It was a compliment.

What would your outfits be at the Uncle Jamm's Army events?
We were wearing Pumas with thick shoe laces, maybe an Izod or Polo shirt tucked in with jeans. It was all about the LL Cool J look when I was involved.

So you weren't in the silk shirt era.
That was before my era. The influence of East Coast hip-hop had stated coming, but we were so convoluted at that period that we were still trying to love the Fat Boys, RUN-DMC, and Whodini. Our age group was trying to dress like the new cats; the previous group was dressed in trench coats. The store Flip on Melrose would have cut-off shirts, they were wearing creepers, sweatsuits. And, I didn't realize this until I looked at the documentary, but they almost had a Studio 54 vibe.

How did you end up scoring this documentary? Who approached you?
Will from Yours Truly approached me, and approached my team. This is something I've been wanting to do; I've been wanting to score movies for a while. I think one thing is people think I'm so insular, that I'm not willing to work with others. I'm just trying to shed that [reputation], where people can realize I'm not that insular, bedroom, only-child guy, emulating the influences that Prince has given me—I can work with other people, as evident in my work with Snoop, Ariel Pink. I'm doing stuff with Christine and the Queens right now. I'm comfortable in my skin and I'm ready to work with others, to contribute different soundscapes outside of funk; even though my name is Funk, I have wide influences and wide styles.

How would you describe the soundscape that you're going for with the soundtrack?
The soundtrack's scoring vibe is more introspective, reminiscent—nostalgic!—but also emotive. It's about looking at the emotion of what people are saying in some of the scenes, and, as someone who's lived it….

I was on the bus one time, coming from Poo-Bah [Record Shop]. I'd bought "Egypt, Egypt" when Poo-Bah's was on Walnut and Wilson, before it moved to Colorado [Boulevard]. I got on the bus, had my brown paper bag, and one of the finest girls in Pasadena was on the back of the bus—all the cool people were on the back of the bus, packed—and she said "What's in your bag?" and I said "This, right here," and it was like [fawning] "Ooooh." I was that dude because I had the right record. It happened to be "Egypt, Egypt" with the gold label on Egyptian Empire Records.

Read more: A Freak Is a Freak, and Egyptian Lover Is an Icon

For people who aren't in the room, what equipment are you using for the soundtrack?
I'm using some vintage equipment. One of the keyboards over there is from Roland, and was made in 1985. I'm using another Roland keyboard that has some cool sounds in it—I'm not gonna tell exactly what it is [Laughs] 'cuz I get too many biters. At this point now, I've been a bit out of control, and I get it. I think I've given enough. I want people to go find their own shit, y'know, but I'll keep it like this: I'm using a drum machine that got knocked off the market by Roland because they put the 808 drum machine, and there. I'm just using three pieces for this score. I equate that to knowing your equipment and being able to get your best out of it.

I read in an interview that you felt like people didn't take 80s funk seriously. Do you think that's changed?
Yeah. I'm glad that people are opening up their minds to rediscover some of the things people chuckled at, like Roger [Troutman]'s Jheri curl, or Dave Chappelle's Rick James skit, or P-Funk with some of their members in a diaper. I think with people interested in electronics, and rediscovering the talkbox or the Vocoder, or, after Prince's untimely passing, some of his catalog, I think right now it's great that funk and post-disco is being respected. Not just Giorgio Moroder, not just Chic, not just those cats; it's about other cats like Mtume, Kashif, Slave, One Way, Change, all the way to Loose Ends, even the Boogie stuff from the UK like Freeze. I credit that to us, the people that started Funkmosphere. We played a lot of this wax that wasn't known, and a lot of other clubs around LA and around the world are starting to pick up that template. We even include Egyptian Lover, and Uncle Jamm's Army, and Cybotron, it's all mixed in.

One of my only missions was, when I started Funkmosphere, I wasn't just thinking about myself. I wanted to bring the respect back to funk that wasn't just James Brown or the people that were sampled by A Tribe Called Quest or whatever. Beyond Roy Ayers.

Even with the Bruno Mars thing, I've never dissed Bruno Mars's trajectory—his coming to funk—because in a way it was blessing in disguise. It helped someone at the local sports bar or the bowling alley be able to be like, "This is some cool stuff, lemme dig deeper. Let me see what else is out there." When it was happening, people were hitting me up, making memes like "Don't ever ask Dam-Funk about Bruno Mars ever again." I don't look at it as a negative thing. People expected me to get on my high horse and fuck around. More people are interested!

Now that you mention it, it feels like East Coast rap created this funk canon of Roy Ayers and James Brown that was sort of exclusionary of other types of funk, especially stuff that was a lot more pastel, a little more synthy.
Exactly. I think what happened was that East Coast hip-hop was so influential, and since it was so James Brown-Clyde Stubblefield breakbeat [oriented], that persisted. The synthy stuff is a progression. Every generation takes over. My generation is after the A Tribe Called Quest generation—and Q-Tip is my dude—but my point is that people born in a certain year are more attuned to Zapp, and the kids when I were growing up were maybe only attuned to 70s funk. I don't really know if the 90s is gonna be that kind of flavor, but then again with 90s house, you never know what's going to happen.

How does Uncle Jamm's Army make you feel when you hear it?
Uncle Jamm's Army 12-inches and Egyptian Lover's output makes me feel proud to be from Los Angeles. Makes me feel proud that we have a culture that people didn't really cover, and now that this documentary is being made, people will be able to see that it was unique experience in music that happened in a very small envelope of time. It's almost like New Orleans with second lines—we have a culture as well, and it was Uncle Jamm's Army and Egyptian Lover.

Torii MacAdams is a proud cat owner and native Angeleno. Follow him on Twitter.