Unwinding Dâm-Funk's Everlasting Groove

"I consider myself timeless, and the type of music that I play when I DJ and also create in the studio is timeless music."
01 June 2016, 9:00am

Dâm-Funk is our funk provost, our funk ambassador. In his work, across entries like 2009’s breakout double album Toeachizown and last year’s exquisite, underrated Invite the Light, the Los Angeles singer-producer-arranger wields a handle on the finer points of the chemistry of classic funk that can only come from an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material. The songs feel homemade but also beguilingly otherworldly. The hooks are light, but the thump is thick. Time corrodes beneath hypnotic grooves. It’s dizzying to think that the cosmic flight of “Brookside Park” could’ve come from anything less than a room full of capable session musicians. But Dâm is essentially a one-man-band.

Dâm-Funk’s dynamic range is undisputed: the back catalogue boasts collaborations with everyone from Snoop Dogg to funk lifer Steve Arrington. Last year he toured alongside unsung rock legend Todd Rundgren—another sometime one-man-band—and deftly recreated every piece of Rundgren’s involved productions short of guitar and vocals right by his side. He dropped into NYC briefly last week to visit Manhattan’s Red Bull Studios to record the first edition of what’s to be a monthly Red Bull Music Academy radio show called Glydezone, this time celebrating a new Dâm-Funk DJ Kicks mix, out Friday on !K7 Records and available now to stream and preorder on the DJ Kicks website. Dâm popped by VICE headquarters on an unusually sunny Friday afternoon and waxed poetic about the specter of Los Angeles in the open expanse of his grooves and the sobering reality of a world without Prince.

I want to talk about the state of funk in 2016. There’s been a resurgence in the popularity of the music with new albums from Anderson .Paak and Kaytranada and others. How do you feel about this thing taking off again?
I think it’s great. It’s been happening for a while, and I’m glad to see that people are embracing some of the other forms of black music, as opposed to strictly hip-hop. It opens it up to house, funk, disco… you know, a lot of the things we contribute. Even jazz. It’s a good time in music. But I’ve been building this funk thing for a while. It’s just nice to see that some of the younger cats have stepped into it as far as what’s been cultivated since 2006-2007, from that underground cooler type of funk.

Which of the younger ones are you keeping track of?
Well... myself. [_laughs_]

I respect it.
I just keep it real. Nobody wasn’t really repping funk like they are now, and it deserved to come around like that, where you represent music that you can believe in and not wrap it in other things and not camouflage what it is.

I was listening to your last record on the train today, and I wondered how much Los Angeles has a role in your music, in the sprawl and the sense of time in the funk...
LA is where I was raised, but mainly Pasadena. So it’s a different vibe than Compton or Inglewood or Watts or any of those other places. Pasadena is a little different, so I think the sound that I’ve humbly cultivated comes from a different state of mind but within LA. From the suburbs of LA. It’s a little bit more sophisticated, but still banging. It’s not just banging. So that’s what I wanted to interject in the brick wall of funk. I just wanted to give something that’s more colorful. The chords are more melodic and beautiful, as opposed to like more harsh types of chords or beats.

It feels like music you’re meant to drive to.
It’s definitely still headphone music, but I think it is a driving influenced music because I love cars. The culture of LA is cars. It’s not subways; it’s not buses. It’s just the way they fucked us. They forgot to do public transit, so, in turn, it created a very mobile atmosphere in the city. So we take care of our cars, we care about em, and yeah, the music is a part. The cars take you farther, so you get to see different scenic routes and different things, so that type of music does fit with driving.

Let’s talk about your new DJ Kicks project. I wanted to know what went into the selection process for it, because there’s a lot of stuff from now and a lot of stuff from 30 years ago...
I have a club called Funkmosphere. I’ve been doing it for 10 years this July, and what we do is we mix up some of the older, rare, 80s, late 70s bass funk and move on forward to progressive modern funk. [The mix] also includes different sounds like ambient and house. For instance, Larry Heard is involved with the project. You have people that have a mesh of funk and house like Moon B, and then you have some of the UK boogie like Index and then the Gaussian Curve stuff… It’s more ambient stuff, but there’s also Uncle Jamm’s Army with “Dial-A-Freak,” and that’s electrofunk.

It’s just really a ride through those kind of chords I was telling you about. Even the Italo stuff like Nexus “Stand Up (Instrumental)” or Gemini’s “Log In” from Chicago—he’s a house artist. It’s a certain vibe I’m trying to get over with people: the melodic and beautiful music that’s still street oriented. Everything from the streets isn’t grimy. They always make you think it has to be like fuckin’ “Rah rah whoop somebody’s ass.” It’s not like that all the time. There’s beautiful things involved. That’s what this compilation is about.

It felt like you were trying to present the timelessness of the sound.
Definitely timelessness. I consider myself timeless, and the type of music that I play when I DJ and also create in the studio is timeless music. I never like to be affiliated with fads. With this I could’ve used all the hot guys right now. I could’ve did a whole modern funk compilation, but I didn’t. I wanted to use different artists and different sounds based on the music, not who is who or who is hot or who the buzz is about right now. Because buzzes are just what they are. They come and go. It’s not about popularity, it’s about the music, and I hope that’s what people absorb from this !K7 DJ Kicks project.

Is that also what you're going for with your Red Bull Music Academy radio show?
Yeah. The first episode today is gonna be surrounding this. The Red Bull show is a monthly show on a Friday, and I’m gonna do all types of styles. I’ve interviewed people: Patrick Adams, who’s the king of disco and sweet soul, Leroy Burgess, king of boogie, GE-OLOGY, François K, a great mixer from Prelude Records who has his own club in New York as well. It’s gonna be an experience that is kind of related to the Boiler Room show I did live from my house. It’s kinda like... presenting music that’s rare and also talking about the music. It’s called Glydezone. It’s someplace you can just glide and not feel like “I can’t be a part of this.” There’s some things going on right now where people have a nose up and you feel like you can’t be a part of it. Glydezone is something for everybody, and that’s gonna be on Red Bull radio.

Over the last month you’ve been keeping Prince’s name alive, and I wanted to hear more about how his artistry filtered down through your music.
I think Prince is a modern day Mozart, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He never did, for some reason. I think it was because of the outfits and his flamboyant nature and the way he was. But the guy is incredible. He’s one of my major influences along with Junie Morrison and Barry White and, you know, Change, Loose Ends, Mtume, Leon Sylvers III, Todd Rundgren, Prefab Sprout, Frank Zappa. But Prince, to me, was my main influence. When 1999 came out, I was a kid, and that’s the album that made me go get a drum machine, made me go into my bedroom and start recording from tape to tape. That was my guy.

A lot of people nowadays in this generation have other guys that “changed their life.” Prince changed my life, and he’s gonna be missed, just in his freedom and his inspirational qualities, his own world that he created, and the way he fought back in the industry. It’s not noted but he was really an advocate for artists owning their masters and not being pimped and punked by labels. He fought back all the way since the 80s. I just heard a song last night called “Anotherloverholenyohead” from Prince, and I’ve always heard the song, but this guy was deep. It blew me away. If you listen to that song…

I’ve been doing that a lot.
You peep what he’s talking about in that shit? You think it’s about a girl, but if you look at everything that happened, with the accusations and things going on with the industry and the label trying to get at him… Listen to that song and listen to the lyrics. Decode his music. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been decoding all his music because he would mix it up with the flamboyant stuff, but then he had messages in the songs, especially in the unreleased catalog. The released catalog was something different, but the unreleased stuff was very deep. But “Anotherloverholenyohead” is talking about current things. I just listened to it last night, and I was blown away. At the end, he said “It’s gonna be a riot if you don’t clap your hands…” but what he was talking about… He was talking about the industry, he was talking about the label, he was talking about the people he was in business with.

We’re losing a lot of legends. What does it do to younger generations of musicians to not have really have someone older to mentor them?
It’s important and I try to big up and reach out to my people that I respect. Steve Arrington, I did a record with him. It was a pleasure and an honor. Junie is on the album Invite the Light. Leon Sylvers, of course. Even Q-Tip is on the record. I respect a lot of cats that came before me and I think that we should do that more. Everybody’s so into this “yung” thing. Yung this, yung that, I’m yung. When I was coming up we didn’t even care about that. You didn’t know what age Prince was. You didn’t know what age Michael or Rakim was. He wasn’t walking around saying “I’m Yung Rakim.” What’s that? It feels like there’s some kind of obsession with knocking off the older cats.

I think it’s something specifically in the character of hip-hop. It’s about overturning what came before, but I think that that’s kind of limiting.
Good point. Just the yung thing, though... When we were young—and I’m timeless, but—we never tripped off of that. You didn’t know how old Frank Zappa was. That’s just Frank Zappa. George Duke. Is it Yung Duke? Yung Zappa?

That’s my rap name: Yung Zappa.
There you go! That’s a good one.

Craig has declared so many rap names he might have to start rapping now. Follow him on Twitter.