Tuesday, February 5, 2013

METAL BREAKDOWN: The Funk-Metal phenomenon
20/20, 1990.

by Simon Reynolds

When it comes to the USA’s current birth explosion of funk-metal groups, all paternity suits should be filed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers: a “seminal” band in all senses of the word. Five years ago this Los Angeles group’s Freaky Styley LP coined a sound, an attitude and an onstage dementia that has since inspired an entire genre.

First there was Faith No More from Northern California, with their torrid, overwrought fusion of metal, rap and funk, and their morbid fixation on the darker side of life. Faith No More rapidly overtook the Chili Peppers, and last year cracked the MTV mainstream with their Top Ten hit “Epic”, an anthem-like encapsulation of their cartoon Nietzche world-view.

In 1990, the funk-metal floodgates opened. Most of the time, the names tell you everything you need to know: Psychofunkapus, Scatterbrain, Limbomaniacs, Mindfunk, Sprawl, Sweet Lizard Illtet, Moneyspank, Electric Boys, Spin Doctors. All these bands are loosely aligned to the P-funk creed originally formulated by George Clinton and Bootsy Collins (“a creative nuisance… the recognition of stupidity as a positive force”) as reactivated and reinterpreted by the Chili Peppers with their combination of zany antics, horny-like-a-mutha lyrics and elasticated funk-rock.

How is it that a generation of metalheads reared on Black Sabbath, Led Zep and Aerosmith have suddenly become turned on to Funkadelic, James Brown and Sly Stone? One reason for the shift towards funk was a reaction against the sterile impasse that metal had reached by the late Eighties. Heavy metal had undergone a striking regeneration during the Eighties, reforming its worst abuses and trimming off its flabby excesses. It even achieved a degree of raised consciousness with the apocalyptic protest of groups like Metallica and Anthrax.

But the thrash/speedmetal boom rapidly hit a dead end. With its high-velocity blur and self-flagellating S/M aesthetic, thrash was about as sexless and ungroovy as rock music can get. Light years from rock’s R&B roots, thrash was the ultimate Aryan sublimation of metal. It was almost inevitable there would be a call for a reinfusion of ‘blackness’, a return to syncopation. Even mainstream metal groups have been lubricating their sound with a bit of funk fluency (Poison’s “Unskinny Bop”, Extreme’s “Get the Funk out”).

Another factor was the influence of rap: hip hop has set the agenda for US pop in much the same way that house has completely overhauled British chart pop. In particular, it was Def Jam’s rap/metal phase (Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J) that opened a lot of headbangers’ ears. Also part of the ‘crosstown traffic’ of the late Eighties was the rise of black rock. Groups like Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz and Fishbone, coming from the opposite direction, have run head-first into the funk-metallers.

This connects with another reason for the rise of funk-metal: musicians’ tendency to get bored easily. Mixing genres allows the muso to show off. Once upon a time, it was the blues solo that provided the pretext for exhibitionist feats of dexterity: with the funk-metallers, it’s slap bass. In both cases, white musicians colonized a style that its black originators had almost unanimously left for dead. Contemporary black dance (house, swingbeat, rap) is technophile, happy to engage with state-of-the-art equipment. Funk-metal generally displays a Luddite techno-fear, following the Chili Peppers’ “organic anti-beatbox” creed, which declares that audience pleasure is in direct ratio to the amount of flailing energy expended by the band.

Body-awareness is at the core of funk-metal. In part this is a reaction against the chaste, fleshless aura of most metal. Death metal, for instance, is carnographic rather than pornographic. Its histrionic crescendos are more nuclear detonations than orgasms. And partly it’s that George Clinton’s lewd and lubricious bad-ass persona somehow seems a more acceptable role model for the male libido than trad metal’s penile dementia.

But funk-metal comprehends a range of contradictory attitudes to the body. On one hand, there’s the West Coast’s health-and-efficiency ethos--muscle-bound athleticism and the hardcore punk philosophy of straight-edge (no drink or drugs). Sweet Lizard Illtet sing of positive energy, rail against “merry-go round thrills” and aspire to the “honest bodily togetherness” of Afro-American culture. Other groups aspire to the debauchery and excess of a different West Coast culture. There’s the apocalyptic aura of decadence entwined around Jane’s Addiction, whose art-rock inflected brand of heavy metal brilliantly melds influences from funk, dub reggae and Eastern music. Or there’s Moneyspank’s pagan/voodoo vibes and sex-and-death lyrics. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career has included body worshipping (they invariably perform with their shirts off to showcase their muscled physiques) and desecrating their body-temples: guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose, while singer Antwan aka Anthony Kiedis cleaned up his act and exchanged over-indulgence for New Age eco-platitudes.

All funk-metal groups agree that one form of self-abuse is still legitimate: moshing, stage-diving and other forms of lemming-like behaviour are de rigeur. Funk-metal gigs seethe with sweaty male bonding. This is the genre’s biggest defect--it’s a boy’s own affair. Not one of the score or more funk-metal bands includes a female musician. Admittedly, examples of outright sexism are surprisingly rare (one exception being Limbomaniacs whose Stinky Grooves LP includes songs like “Butt Funkin’” and “Porno”). But it’s also true that the represensation of sex in funk-metal is totally masculine--thrust-orientated, with no place for languor or tenderness. In many ways, it’s an aggregation of the most phallocratic tendencies in the white rock and black funk traditions: Rick James meets Robert Plant.

Still, funk-metal earns a Brownie point for its anti-racist tendencies. Implicit in the musical miscegenation, these are often explicitly articulated in lyrics and interviews. The Chili Peppers even started a fashion for songs about the plight of the Native American with their “American Ghost Dance”. That said, the pro-integration sentiments don’t seem to have had much effect on the racial composition of the audiences or indeed of the bands themselves, who remain almost exclusively “white dopes on funk”.

1 comment:

James Hodges said...

i think about funk-metal a lot-- but i usually think of it as 'nu-metal'. what intrigues me is the 'missing link' with new york hardcore and crossover thrash. the nyc area gave us both run dmc and anthrax, who are included in nearly every history of the subgenre. but then the story usually switches coasts.

i always wonder-- what about the later bad brains records, or biohazard, or cro-mags? the subject matter is pretty 'hip-hop' ("survival of the streets"), and the rhythms are totally funky. did the west coasters listen to this stuff, or did they evolve isolated and parallel? does anyone know?