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

“You wouldn’t think that the house side and the funk side would keep in touch. With my club Funkmosphere, Moodymann would just walk in and play. I’d try to pay him. He’d say, ‘Nah, I want to come and just disappear.’ All of us have that connection with each other around the world in different countries. So those guys are cool. The Detroit guys, Chicago guys, whatever. Anybody who’s into house and also the Detroit techno sound, electronic. We have a connection with the modern funk side of things because, at the clubs where I DJ, we play some of that stuff as well, like Pal Joey, even Metro Area. Stuff like that will go in the mix, not just funk.”

Dâm recalls buying one of his favorite house records, “What About This Love” by Mr. Fingers, a moniker of Chicago house DJ Larry Heard. The 12-inch was released in 1989 and became a Chicago house classic. Dâm picked up his copy from a record store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“In my early days of being adventurous and leaving Pasadena, California in my little Chevy Spectrum, I’d drive across the freeway, pass by the stadium, over the tunnels, and see that skyline approaching. I’d hit the Hollywood freeway and get off the exit, hang a right on Melrose [Avenue]. I’d park my car. It was always hard to find a parking space. I would get out and walk the streets and buy records.”

“I picked this particular record store, and they were so on point. Nowadays, there are a lot of used record stores. Back then, it was all about new records. When you walked in, there were displays on the wall with the records that just came out. There’d be stuff like Glenn underground, Carl Craig. I loved Mr. Fingers’ ‘What About This Love’ because of the chorus and mood. He wouldn’t just be doing straight dancefloor stuff all the time. It was danceable, but it was still melodic and moody. That is one of the songs that just totally opened my mind to house music.”

“I was kind of — not to say sneaking to listen to it, because I was always into my own stuff from way back in the day, from even being into KISS and Rush. But later on, with my friends, I had to kind of tuck those house records underneath real tough because my friends were into NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul. Stuff like that. When I discovered the house world, it just really opened me up to a lot of new possibilities.”

Despite Dâm’s willingness to expand his sound to new sonic territories, his approach to recording has in many ways stayed the same throughout the years.

“I use pretty old — like, from the ’90s — Roland drum machines. On ‘Sun Gospel’, that’s the Roland Roland R-70. Things like that that I was able to manipulate and use to make very unique sounds. I use various Oberheim drum machines. Also, the MPC2000XL from Akai. I still use that. But I use it mainly for just the drum sounds, the programming. I don’t do a lot of sampling. Actually, there’s no sampling on [Architecture III]. All of that is live.

“Also, the music that you hear is played all the way through. So if this is a seven-minute song, I’m playing it all the way. There’s no sequencing on those records. That’s pretty much the way I play most of all my stuff. I layer it. I go back and play live all the way through, and then I layer some of the tracks all the way through. The only thing sequenced are the bars of the drum machine, whether it be 16 bars or whether it be eight or whether it be more.”

Dâm’s recording methods energize his sound in ways unique from many of today’s software-based producers while keeping one foot firmly rooted in funk’s heyday.

“The era I came up with, the Prince days and the Minneapolis sound or what have you, my ear was used to listening to people playing live. I just kept carrying that tradition into the new era. I tend to have more fun playing live all the way through as opposed to sequencing. But sequenced stuff comes out banging. It’s a really great way to record. You can punch in and out and bring stuff back in and that kind of thing. But I like hearing like little slips of the fingers and things like that throughout the song.”

Ghosts of funk’s past materialize in subtle forms: the beefy thump of analog drum machine kicks, pitch-bends like concentrated heatwaves, shimmering neon fluid spilling from modular synths calling back to how funk musicians rendered the future circa 1982. The clank from Dâm’s drum machines and a few melancholy chords give his sound away within seconds. His vocals convey none of rap’s braggadocio. Instead, the lyrics share the earnestness of classic r-n-b. The delivery is smooth and melodic, often spritzed in reverb, flowing through the track instead of punctuating over it. In Dâm’s soundscape, the silver-suit era and ringtone rap never happened, funk’s mainstream appeal was never relegated to a cartoonish party piece, and trap music’s millennial influence is nowhere to be found.

Despite this, let’s be clear: Dâm does not make throwback music. He’s too skilled and creative a musician to tread over well-worn ideas, his interest in music is too omnivorous, and his dedication to funk’s roots keeps him mining the genre’s nuances instead of skimming the surface and settling for caricatures or parodies.

In fact, talking to Dâm about funk music involves him predicting the future as much as respecting the past.

“I stand by embracing the youth and trusting them to discover funk. The future of funk is in the hands of new funksters who’re doing a lot of things independently right now in their homes, in their studios. A lot of people overlook them. I think they’re just brewing within a lot of basements, recording studios, and bedrooms around the world. The community is very thin but strong at the same time. There are more new artists encompassing all styles of funk that we didn’t look at as favorable about ten years ago or 20 years ago. People are embracing the deeper late ’80s stuff or early ’80s stuff and mixing it in with stuff that came out in ’97.”

“I also think that people are going to be taking funk more seriously, not just from a perspective where things are always fun. It doesn’t always have to be a party. We love that music, but I think there’s another layer of funk that isn’t often shared. Now that music is so accessible, someone can be listening to nothing but a Youtube video for like a whole week straight, and the song was pressed on cassette, and there were only 200 copies. Now it’s on YouTube, and it’s someone’s favorite song. She’s just walking in her own experience to that one song, and they’re not talking to anyone about it or anything. That’s the kind of vibe that I want to see in the future with funk, where it doesn’t have to be like you’re a superhero all the time. You can just be chilling, leading a life that doesn’t require you to be superman. You can just be whoever you are. That’s what funk in the future is: a sliver of another listenership and players in the game who respect the funksters that came before us.”

“I enjoy supporting and uplifting a lot of the new funksters. I was alone out there for a moment, or it felt like it, but not now. That was my only dream, to hope that more people would perform and record this music and not just DJ it out at fun parties. People are making it now, and it’s starting to show. That’s a great future for me as well.”

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