I love the funk. I listen to it every day. I could probably write a Top 100 list of my favorite funk songs, but my Top 10 songs below (some well-known, some not so much) embody what I think the best of what funk music really is. You may have a different opinion. I HOPE you do, actually. I’d love to hear your Top 10. Feel free to sound off in the comments area below.
Let’s dive in…
Serpentine Fire – Earth, Wind & Fire
The opening riff of this song, with the vocal harmonies, over the top of one of the sickest, funkiest half-time drum beats, with the trumpets playing a blazing-fast staccato over the top of it all…is just one of the funkiest damn things your ears will ever have the pleasure of hearing. This riff alone is so epic it’s almost enough to put it at the top of the list. Combine this with Maurice White’s funky-ass vocals in the verses, Philip Bailey’s falsetto in the chorus and its funk perfection.
You Got To Funkifize (Live) – Tower of Power
The Soul Vaccination Live album from ‘99 holds a special place in my funk-lovin’ heart. This album was my first real exposure to horn-centered funk. Believe it or not, I was flipping through the CD rack at my local library and it was the cool album cover that caught my eye. As a bass player, I had heard of TOP’s bassist Rocco Prestia, but I had never really listened to their music. I checked it out, and I was hooked. I’ve probably listened to this album 1000 times. There are tons of incredible tracks on here, but You Got To Funkifize stands out to me as the absolute funkiest. My favorite moment is the end of the bridge part that builds up to the epic squealing-high sax solo – always gives me chills.
Flashlight – Parliament
In the 90’s, my best friend dragged me to a George Clinton show at House of Blues. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about funk. And honestly, most of the concert was pretty awful. I think George and his entire band were so stoned that had no idea what they were playing most of the time. HOWEVER, when they broke into Flashlight, the entire audience came alive, bouncing together in complete unison. That was my first time hearing the song, and it was a cool moment. Now I realize there’s hardly anything funkier in all of recorded history than the Moog bass on this song. This is haven’t-washed-your-drawers-for-a-WEEK stanky-ass funk!
Pass the Peas (Live) – Maceo Parker
Live From Planet Groove is one of the best live albums ever recorded, bar-none. The whole album is great, but for me, it all seems to culminate in Pass the Peas. Of course, considering the band has not only Maceo, but also Fred Wesley from the Original Titans of Funk the James Brown Band – you know it HAS to be funky. This album also features a young Candy Dulfer, who later went on to tour with Maceo as part of Prince’s band, when Prince brought back the old-school funk on his 2004 Musicology tour.
Mary Jane – Rick James
The slow, laid-back funkiness of this song somehow perfectly matches the subject matter. I’m not personally into smoking pot, but if I was, I’d have to think this would probably be the kind of song I would write. Actually, the subject matter of the lyrics aside, I think this is probably one of the best recorded vocal performances from Rick James. I’ve sang this song a few times live, and I can say it’s not easy. Also, it’s just a well-written song overall. The bridge section is especially tasty from a musical perspective, with an unexpected piano, flute, and a classy little guitar solo.
Too Hot to Stop – The Bar-Kays
The Bar-Kays are probably my favorite straight-up funk band. Unlike EWF & TOP, who cross over into jazz or blue-eyed soul, The Bar-Kays are just straight-up FUNK. And Too Hot to Stop is one of their funkiest. Although in the first couple measures, you can tell that it’s a straight-up knock-off of Shining Star by EWF (Shining Star came out a year before. Apparently The Bar-Kays had a reputation for knocking off other band’s sounds). Once you can get past the obvious similarities, it’s totally worth it, especially for the killer main horn hook.
More Bounce to the Ounce – Zapp
I remember hearing Zapp in the 80’s, and thinking to myself “what is that SOUND??” Roger Troutman’s now-famous keyboard talkbox sound sounded like something from another planet. But it wasn’t just his other-worldly singing/keyboard sound, it was that over-the-top BOOM CLAP sound of the kick and snare drum, coupled with that funky-ass Moog bass that makes Zapp one of the funkiest bands to ever exist. What I love about More Bounce to the Ounce is that, apparently that sound happened almost by accident. If you listen to Zapp’s first album, you’ll notice More Bounce to the Ounce sounds completely different from all the other songs on the album. According to the story, George Clinton was instrumental in helping Zapp get a record deal with Warner Bros. Upon hearing the first takes of the recording, George told Roger Troutman that was concerned that he “didn’t hear a hit”. As a result, Roger stayed up all night recording “More Bounce to the Ounce”. The song helped propel the record to #2 on the Billboard Hot R&B track charts for 2 weeks, and later went on to define the Zapp sound.
Jungle Boogie – Kool & the Gang
If there was ever a song that epitomizes “horn funk”, it has to be Jungle Boogie. The main horn hook is as memorable as any horn hook ever written. The rest of the song is just pure funk jam. The “Get Down Get Down” lyric instantly brings to my mind visions of watching Soul Train on Saturday morning and all those funky people with platform soles, hip-huggers and bell bottoms GETTIN DOWN to the Jungle Boogie. On an interesting side note, the spoken “scat” vocal part in the song was recorded by one of the band’s roadies.
Sex Machine – James Brown
To say which James Brown song is the “funkiest”, is like trying to say which Stevie Ray Vaughn song had the best guitar solo – it’s impossible. James Brown is more than the founding father of funk. James Brown IS funk. Every artist listed on this page – and every other funk band, including our own – owes their sheer existence to James Brown. If there were no James Brown, there would be no funk. With that said, I chose Sex Machine for my Top 10 because it embodies everything James Brown was – a pure-unadulterated-dancin-machine-attitude-sexy-ass-motha-f&#a! Still to this day after hearing (and playing) that song 1000 times, I still get excited when I hear that opening BOP BOP BOP BOP BOP horn riff. Sex Machine will still be funky 1000 years from now.
Prince – D.M.S.R.
Before the album Purple Rain made Prince an international superstar, the double-album 1999 was his first breakthrough record commercially. The heavy synth and Linn Drum machine sound formed the basis of the Minneapdolis R&B & pop sound for years to come. In those days, heavy MTV rotation of the big hits 1999 and Little Red Corvette put Prince on everyone’s radar, including my own. I borrowed someone’s copy of the album so I could make a cassette tape recording of it (you see kids, before you could stream music for free, you had to steal it by borrow someone’s vinyl and make a recording of it on a cassette tape. What’s a cassette tape, you ask? Ugh. Nevermind). On Side 2, I discovered a song I immediately wanted to play again and again, called D.M.S.R., which I discovered meant “Dance. Music. SEX. Romance”. Not only were my 13-year old ears scandalized by hearing the word SEX in such a brash manner, I had to turn down the stereo to make sure my conservative Christian Dad didn’t hear the lyric “work your body like a WHORE”, or he was liable to bust the door down and smash my friend’s vinyl to pieces. Dirty lyrics aside, the reason I loved D.M.S.R. as a post-pubescent teen, and the reason I love it now, is because it is just PURE FUNK. Every now and then we’ll play this super-hot live version from 2004, featuring Candy Dulfer and Maceo Parker on saxophone.