Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars song “Uptown Funk” has been #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 9 weeks and counting. When I first heard the song and saw the video I knew it would be a triumph for funky music in the mainstream unlike any we’ve seen in quite some time. The past few years we’ve had funky songs such as “Blurred Lines”, “Get Lucky”, and “Happy” all enjoy long reigns at the top of the Billboard single charts. The history of funk at fifty years and counting has had periodic momments of great success on the pop charts. Funky songs like “Superstition”, “Thank You Fa Lettin Me Be Mice Elf”, “Got to Give it Up”, “Kiss”, “Theme from Shaft”, “Tighten Up”, “Keep on Truckin”, “Love Hangover”, “Family Affair”, and several others have thumped their way all the way to the top of the charts. But when we think of the funk, its never judged by sales and chart positions, what’s truly funky is determined by the way it makes us groove.
For that reason “Atomic Dog”, while being one of the most anthemic songs in the funk music canon, topped out just outside of the Hot 100 at 101. Graham Central Station’s classic funk workout “The Jam” topped out at #63 on the pop charts in 1976. One could go on and on but any funk fan would agree that Funk is not judged by what hit’s the top of the billboard charts. Funk sightings at the top of the pop 100 have been so unique however, that when a song does climb that summit, it calls for serious appreciation and assesment of how the artist managed to put together a package of funk that breaks out with such mass appeal.
The story behind “Uptown Funk” is that D.J, Producer and Artist Mark Ronson took a riff that Bruno Mars and his band had been performing in concert and expanded on it until they came up with “Uptown Funk.” This origin story mirrors that of many great songs in funk music, with bands taking snippets of music and expanding them into larger song forms. James Brown, the cornerstone in the House of Funk himself, was known for doing the same thing with his seminal “Cold Sweat”, developing from live vamps. The Genius Ray Charles was also known for the same, developing his classic funky soul groover “What’d I Say” from a routine at the end of a live song. So “Uptown Funk’s” in a live gem Bruno and his crew had laying around that Ronson heard potential in is firmly in the funk tradition and it may be part of the reason the groove is so lively. Ronson’s triumph with “Uptown Funk”, much like the success of “Blurred Lines”, and Daft Punk on “Get Lucky”, also represents a coming of age of Gen X music makers and their ability to create music in the mold of their influences as opposed to just using their music. Ronson began his career in music as a DJ, and his albums have always reflected his musicology, somewhat comparable to a figure like Questlove of The Roots. I’d been a fan of these music makers for their earnest devotion to archiving and reviving classic sounds for years but the one thing most of them lacked was signature, great, songs. Ronson had them through his productions for Amy Winehouse but this is a whole other level. “Uptown Funk” is a song that belongs in the canon of funk in its own right.
James Brown once said that the primary value of his musical emphasis, “The One”, was it’s ability to get people’s attention. He said the “Two and Four” beats had been played so long they couldn’t hold people’s attention anymore. In a similar vein, Hip Hop generation musicians and producers such as Mark Ronson can no longer sample “Funky Drummer” and “More Bounce to the Ounce” and catch people’s attention. Kanye West in his early oughts prominence as a hip hop producer, mostly stayed away from funk samples, preferring to take from soul ballads. The only way to bring the funk back then, is in it’s own right, with actual new funk grooves. This approach has been championed by many bands from the ’90s to now, but has especially heated up in the past ten years or so. In fact, I read a brief interview with Ronson himself over five years ago where he said “Funk” was the next direction for music or the next direction music needed.
“Uptown Funk” in particular builds from the work of artists such as Dam-Funk in highlighting the underappreciated Funk of the early ’80s. Early ’80s funk suffered from a particular embargo on black dance music in the wake of the rejection of disco that many writers term “The post disco freeze out.” So while a group like The Ohio Players was able to enjoy two Number One Pop Hits that indelibly burn them into the memory of the 1970s, their Ohio successor Roger Troutman and his group Zapp, had a successful career more limited to the R&B charts in the ’80s. In fact, Roger didn’t enjoy his first #1 pop hit until 2Pac and Dr. Dre used him to sing on a sample of an imitation of him, “California Love” in 1996.
Thus it’s fitting that Roger’s sound is one of the sounds most heavily invoked on “Uptown Funk.” The song has a high on the neck guitar part quite similar to his guitar playing on a tune like “So Ruff, So Tuff” and a vocal bassline like his work on “Doo Waa Ditty.” There are echoes of many kinds of funk on the song, from the works of Prince and his band The Time, to bright brassy funk band horns, from Bruno’s end chant “Uptown Funk you up” which is reminiscent of early hip hop group The Sequence’s “We’re gonna funk you right on up”, to the early ’80s new wavey funk synths. Bruno’s vocals remind you very much of the sung/spoken/rapped stylings of St. Louis rapper Nelly, who himself voiced one of the funkiest hits of the ’00s, the “Bustin Loose” inspired, “Hot in Herrre.”
All of this adds up to a somewhat new sound for the top of the pop charts. The sounds that “Uptown Funk” is reviving never made it to the top of the pop charts in their own forms, but their musical innovations remain a part of the DNA of the past 35 years. Many times people would ask me what kind of music I liked. Of course I’m a fan of hip hop, rock, soul, R&B and jazz, but Funk has got to e my favorite. When I’d tell people this, they’d look at me strangely, with no recognition of what I was talking about. Of course, folks older than me understood, but people my own age didn’t. They vaguely understood what it meant for a song to be “Funky”, and they knew many funky songs, but somehow they didn’t understand what a funk band was or that Funk could be it’s own category.
Hopefully “Uptown Funk” lays that attitude to rest for good. It’s long reign at the top of the pop charts reminds me of Funkadelics proclaimation “Us is what time it is!” The great Funk Master George Clinton, in his raps spoke of “Returning to reclaim the pyramids.” He also spoke of this as being carried out by “Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.” Well, Ronson, Bruno and everybody involved in playing on, producing and recording this record have proven to be very good clones. And I hope we all succeed in the quest to make this world a whole lot funkier.