Photo: Courtesy of Score Press

Dâm-Funk’s Endless Quest for the Perfect Groove

Using old-school analog tech, Dâm-Funk is using his unique ear for a deeply-felt funk groove to give us a hint at what dance music’s dirty future might be.

Architecture III
Glydezone Recordings
23 April 2021

Funk is more than sound. It’s an ethos — and no one embodies it better than Los Angeles-based musician Dâm-Funk.

Dâm Funk constructs grooves from primitive drum machines and saturates them with synthesizers reminiscent of tangerine sunsets, mauve twilights, hot pinks, and deep reds emitted from tubed glass. He recorded G-Funk flavors with Snoop Dogg and syrupy synth-funk with Steve Arrington.

He posed on the cover of his debut full-length, Toeachizown, with a thick but immaculately trimmed goatee and massive visor sunglasses. He was mentored by Leon Sylvers III, a former member of the ’80s funk group the Sylvers. He started Funkmosphere, a series of LA-based parties where DJs spin ’80s funk, boogie, electro, and modern soul. He answers emails with Princian grammar flair: U for you, 2 for two. He has been dubbed the father of modern funk, a somewhat trivial genre tag that at least acknowledges his intent to continue pushing the funk sound into the future.

Dâm’s sound has an invigorating physicality generated by his old-school approach. He records with analog equipment and plays each part of a track from start to finish instead of digitally dragging and splicing. Sonic tension keeps the music fresh: the melodies are pleasant, but the beats are raw. The rhythmic backbone is galvanized, rigid as flange beams. These are beats meant for blasting out from Jeeps. The synths are deliquescent. Their presence on each track is best described with verbs like gush, pour, glaze, dribble, drip, pool, rush.

Dâm is a scholar of funk. His music nods to funk’s forbearers while simultaneously mining the genre’s palette for untapped sonic pleasures. He takes a sound that some deem retro and, out of an organic love for the genre, strives to take it to new places. His songs suggest that funk was never retro. That it isn’t nostalgic, and it isn’t undergoing a rebirth either. Funk never left. It’s all around us. Those who don’t know should tune in.

And nobody is better tuned in than Dâm-Funk.

In conversation, Dâm is affable, open, down-to-earth. His voice radiates cool. His attitude is laidback, optimistic. He talks about the inspiration he took from late funk legend Junie Morrison, a friend and a former member of the Ohio Players and Parliament-Funkadelic. He compliments the younger generation of funk producers, chats about cooling out with Detroit house maestro Moodymann. He discusses his favorite records with the offhanded knowledge of a longtime crate digger.

In other words, he’s exactly what you’d expect him to be like from listening to his records and DJ sets (during which he’s known to grab the mic to do some impromptu singing and rally the crowd to get on down). There’s no noticeable contradiction between Dâm’s personality over the phone and the music he makes. It’s easy to imagine how such an organic brand of funk flows from this guy.

“I’m not trying to look like a retro cat,” Dâm says. “The aesthetic of my record covers, the art that’s chosen, the way that I dress, it’s not forced. I’m not going into a dressing room. People know I’m not trying to be the retro-funk guy at the county fair playing ‘Fire’ by the Ohio Players. That’s not what this is.”

This is an important point for Dâm to get across, one he has made in previous interviews to squelch misunderstandings about his music. In a 2010 interview for Cyclic Defrost, titled “I Don’t Do Retro,” he says, “People sometimes talk about my work as if it’s a throwback … I like to consider it a continuation.”

He views his music and image as a recording artist specifically as a continuation of the ’70s and early to mid-’80s funk groups whose mainstream careers were cut short by the rise of hip-hop’s boom-bap era.

“There was an era when hip-hop came, and a lot of the record labels realized they didn’t need to book these bands on stage and pay all this money to these guys with horns and keyboards and drums, that they’d be saving a lot of money. There was something going on in the streets, and it was called hip-hop. You just had a DJ and a guy with a microphone prancing back and forth on stage. And, you know, that was great. That Run-DMC era came, and the rest is history. A lot of the funk bands got dropped. I always felt that they still had something to say.”

It’s interesting to imagine an alternate history of black American music in which hip-hop never supplants funk music and eventually regurgitates it back into the popular consciousness as G-Funk. In which Jheri curls are stylish well into the ’90s. In which keyboardists and bass players show up to the studio in place of MPC samplers.

A genre doesn’t fall out of fashion because its signature sound is depleted of its creative possibilities. The trends simply change. But for Dâm, there was never a clear divide between funk’s heyday and hip-hop’s golden era.

“I just don’t remember it being such a cut-off point,” he says. “I was still listening to funk, along with hip-hop, along with house, along with drum-n-bass or what have you.”

Like a true music aficionado, Dâm’s tastes never swerved with the trends; they just expanded. “I walk three miles a day. If I’m taking a walk, in my earbuds, there’s anything from Brand X to Prefab Sprout and Soft Cell, some Prince unreleased stuff, Barry White. It just bounces around. Who knows what I’ll be into. My interest in music when I walk seems to be the mood or the chords in the music. Sometimes the chords and the mood transfer to a lot of different genres.”

The Architecture EP series exemplifies how Dâm’s eclectic taste blends with his signature funk sound. Like the previous two EPs, Architecture III consists mostly of uptempo four-to-the-floor tracks made for dancing.

The clackety electronic percussion on “Grow” calls back to Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”, which laid the groundwork for Detroit electro. In a DJ set, “Shine” would transition beautifully into Cybotron’s “Clear”, which shares a propulsive rhythmic backbone. “Think” would slot well into a techno set transmitting from a subterranean Berlin nightclub, while “Sun Gospel” is destined to be spun at a rooftop party just as the sun appears over the horizon.

“After Invite the Light and all that Snoop era stuff with 7 Days of Funk, I had decided to go down some other avenues. So I started doing the Nite-Funk thing with Nite Jewel. I created Glydezone, my label. I was expanding with some of the stuff I was playing in my DJ sets. A lot of that stuff is housey, like Larry Heard, Mr. Fingers, and Kyle Hall. That kind of stuff. The Architecture series is related to that kind of sound.