On a quest to change attitudes about the genre, Dam-Funk opens for Morris Day and The Time to kick off the Twilight Concert Series at Santa Monica Pier
By Billy Singleton
Somewhere along the line, funk became a punchline.
That’s how prolific modern funk artist Dam-Funk sees it, and he’s on a mission to change the face of the genre and negative or dismissive attitudes surrounding it.
“I just want it to be respected and not looked at as some Jheri curl or Rick James joke,” he said. “What I came to do, humbly speaking, is to change the image of funk.”
Tonight may offer one of his biggest opportunities to date. Dam-Funk opens for legendary pop-funk artists Morris Day and The Time to kick off this year’s Twilight Concert Series at Santa Monica Pier. If last year’s free pier concerts are any indication, thousands will attend.
After years in the musical trenches, it’s also another sign that Dam-Funk’s message is being heard.
He recently collaborated with rapper Snoop Dogg as the sole producer of “7 Days of Funk,” a genre-defying record that combines Dam-Funk’s instrumental synth-funk with Snoop’s laid-back flow.
Born Damon Riddick in Culver City, Dam-Funk grew up in Pasadena in the 1970s and ‘80s — a time and place where funk was in the air.
“Everybody in my neighborhood was very into The Time. It was a great time.” he said, listing Prince, Leon Sylvers and Slave as early influences as well (former Slave frontman Steve Arrington appears on “7 Days of Funk”).
Riddick played drums in high school before switching to keyboards and recording his music on a Radioshack cassette deck. He took up an apprenticeship under Leon Sylvers III, leader of the Sylvers and the producer behind hits by performers such as Gladys Knight, Shalamar and the Whispers.
Emerging from those experiences as the artist Dam-Funk, he initially struggled to find commercial success with his silky-smooth, drum-machine-laden sound. But Dam-Funk’s luck changed in 2008 upon signing with prominent L.A. hip-hop label Stones Throw Records.
That same year, Riddick founded the bi-weekly Funkmosphere parties in Culver City and Silver Lake, which featured a rotating cast of deejays spinning rare ‘80s electro-funk and brought these forgotten sounds to the forefront of L.A.’s underground musical consciousness.
Dam-Funk began to tour with his new trio, Master Blazter, which came to an abrupt end with the death of drummer J-1.
After the 2009 release of the critically-acclaimed Toeachizown, Dam-Funk began to collaborate with established artists such as Bootsy Collins, Ariel Pink, Patrice Rushen and Snoop Dogg.
Dam-Funk said his forthcoming album, “Invite the Light,” departs from his previous, instrumental-based output by prominently featuring his vocal work.
“I want to alert people that they can be a little more expressive. Other genres are so affiliated with being like the quiet boy behind the screen on stage,” he said. “You can open up a little bit more. That’s what I’m trying to inspire.”
Vocals and an independence from computers are important elements of the kind of evolution that Dam-Funk foresees: a new emphasis on personality and performance.
“I think it’ll evolve on a songwriting level,” he said. “If you want to last, I suggest you start incorporating lyrics.”
When speaking with Dam-Funk, it’s hard to ignore the clarity of this kind of long-term, overarching thinking. His point of view deals primarily with the big picture — he seems constantly aware that his output is both the continuation of his funky forbearers (The Time included) and an influence for the artists of the future.
“I’ve evolved to a level where I’m confident enough to release music that’s not affected by anything that’s going on musically around me,” he said. “I’m only influenced by what came before me and what I’m envisioning in the future. I’m evolving because I’m able to stick with that particular mindset.”
Dam-Funk clearly loves funk for the freedom that it allows. And that freedom from contemporary influence, it seems, is what allows his music to be influential.
Dam-Funk performs at 7 p.m. tonight (July 9) at the Santa Monica Pier, opening for Morris Day and The Time. The show is free and all-ages. Visit santamonicapier.org for more information, including a list of future Thursday-night concerts.