Q&A: Dâm-Funk on Modern Funk and Back Alley Keytar Deals
"I was tired of seeing the bell-bottomed guy with the rainbow Afro on compilation covers. It made a mockery of what funk is."
The last time New York was privy to the backlit neon glow of Los Angeles' Damon Riddick a/k/a Dâm-Funk, he was on a (motherfucking) boat. It was just him, and us, and his silver stallion of a keytar moving along the Hudson. The Stones Throw artist's self-described "modern funk" music works well in front of this kind of murkily sparkling backdrop; synths glide and collide with syncopated drumbeats that simultaneously reach for the stars, as well as the '80s.
"Funk is not a fad--it's a way of life," is a mantra Dâm has repeated since the beginning of his career. To be sure you knew he's serious, he dropped his full-length debut Toeachizown last year. But it wasn't just in any form; it landed as an epic five-layer stack of wax and a sprawling double-CD opus.
In 2010, Dâm continues to be a man of his word, spreading love from the funk scripture with live shows backed by his band Master Blazter. In addition to pushing funk forward, he also reveres those who came before him: projects currently underway include a collaboration with minister Steve Arrington, former lead singer of the late '70s/early '80s Ohio funk band Slave, and production for Jody Watley of the Don Cornelius (Soul Train producer) masterminded group, Shalamar.
Dâm's all about the boogie and the party, but he's also fiercely serious about the music that he loves. Here he tackles the meatier end of the, uh, funk stick.
You've been labeled the "Ambassador of Funk." What kind of role do you personally see yourself playing?
I just consider myself to be someone that's continuing the legacy of funk before it got dropped off and forgotten about, within the late '80s and '90s and 2000s. This was because major labels weren't concentrating on signing--or even investing interest in-- actual funk artists. And that lineage goes through Prince and One Way and even Loose Ends--those types of groups who were more soulful, but had an urban beat to them, [but] just got forgotten about. So I don't really consider myself being an ambassador of anything, but I do appreciate people giving me that title.
So you feel like you're directing people back to the true meaning of funk music?
Yes, that's what I'm trying to do. That's my main message: that [funk] got off track. The commercialism of it, and some of the compilations that came out--like the packaging of some of those things--it really misconstrued what it was. I was tired of seeing the bell-bottomed guy with the rainbow Afro on the compilation covers. It made a mockery of what funk is. Granted, some of that stuff was highly entertaining with that type of imagery--some of the P-Funk stuff--but they [also] took it and watered it down and misconstrued it... I'm just trying to continue where it left off.
Can you explain the ideology of funk?
The ideology to me of funk, and my interpretation, is it's like the black sheep of soul and R&B. I would compare funk almost to heavy metal, which is the black sheep of rock and country. In my experience it's the darkest tones yet more colorful, freer tones of music... it attaches itself to being more free, even to the understanding of other places; not just earth.
I'd like to think of myself as trying to be a part of the universe and from the ideology of George Clinton. What he went into, and only scratched the surface on with some of the intergalactic themes, is that it definitely is an ideology that is still being formed. The funk ideology is not just about the party beat, it's about those chords, it's about where it can take you, what kind of mood it can make you feel.
So how did you come to use the keytar for your live shows?
It's kinda weird, I was just guided. I saw something on Craigslist that said 'keytar' and thought, "This looks kinda cool, I think this is what I need." And then sure enough, I made this weird deal with this dude in this back alley and came back with it.
You've managed to gain appreciation in circles that spread beyond traditional funk fans. How have you managed to open up what is quite a niche genre to a wider audience?
People who have a respect for music and not just formula usually are a part of those circles, no matter what genre it is. There were funk musicians who loved Todd Rundgren, or Frank Zappa. George Duke played in Frank Zappa's group way before he went solo, so those alliances have always been there under the table. I just wanted to re-awaken that kind of thing, and I think that it's just music that people see truth in. The way I'm presenting it is more truthful--and I think that the indie and alternative circles just identify with truth, no matter what it is.
You've been quoted as saying that hip-hop has been the main urban story told within the U.S. You also said that we have been slower to catch onto your sound than other parts of the world. Do you think it's because America is attuned to one story from the urban scene only?
That's a very good point, and there are so many stories in the urban world... That's why I say, "Fuck keeping it real, keep it fantasy"... I already know someone got shot, I already know someone got robbed. How many times can you tell me that in your song? There's just more to the urban experience than a dope drop-off underneath the freeway. I'm trying to take people elsewhere with the music, and hopefully inspire a whole new generation.
Two years ago I was in a truck, delivering tools. And I'm trying to show people that if you stay true to yourself, [but] work in a day job--don't ever give up your dreams. See, a lot of these cats they don't stay true, they start taking shortcuts, they pave into their artistic integrity, and I'm never gonna do that. I wanna show people that not just in music, but anything you're doing, you just gotta stay true to everything you believe. It's a universal law. If you stay true and what you do is not compromised, you're gonna get paid back because the work you do is always gonna flow back to you. I don't mean to sound preachy, but that's just my opinion.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.