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A Beginner's Guide to Funk

Funk may be a dormant genre these days, but its influence can still be felt from the heights of mainstream pop to the depths of the hip hop underground. Every genre, in some form or another, has been impacted by the wave of funk classics that flooded the ‘70s and ‘80s. Known for its rich, driving basslines, syncopated percussion, and irresistible grooves, funk takes the summery flair of soul and the chaotic back-and-forth of jazz, combining the best parts of both genres and dialling up the danceability. In this guide, I’ll recommend 10 insatiably groovy albums to ease beginners into the legendary world of funk.


1. James Brown – The Payback (1973)


There’s no better entry point to funk than an LP by the genre’s pioneer, James Brown. Of all the hundreds of albums in his catalogue, The Payback stands out as his strongest, and equally, his most accessible. Its eight tracks consist of tight, hypnotic grooves and driving basslines, over which Brown rambles into the microphone in his signature raspy delivery. Tracks like “Mind Power” and “Time Is Running Out Fast” are classic funk jams where percussionists and horn players alike take turns to deliver colourful solos and follow Brown’s musical commands. What makes The Payback such a great starting point is simply how catchy it is: full of memorable chants, mesmerising basslines, and plenty of charisma from the singer, this LP captures all the vibrancy, danceability, and messiness that make funk unique. Even more, songs like “Doing the Best I Can” and “Forever Suffering” resemble classic soul songs, making The Payback a brilliant starter for those more versed in soul, R&B, and jazz.


2. Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)


Parliament-Funkadelic is one of the most influential collectives in funk history, and there is no better introduction to P-Funk than Mothership Connection. The album is a sprawling odyssey into a world of dazzling synths and thick basslines, building rich walls of sound where dozens of players and singers bounce off each other at once. Unlike old-school funk which took a more acoustic approach, Mothership Connection embraces the electronic, with addictive synth-lines and rippling electro-basslines acting as its foundation while drums and group vocals are layered on top. Structurally, there are seldom any verses, with various refrains and choruses looped, swapped, and intensified from beginning to end on almost every tune. As messy as it sounds on paper, the sound of P-Funk is too catchy to turn away any beginner, striking a perfect balance between instrumental nuance and commercial accessibility. If you like the sound of Mothership Connection, 1977’s Funkentelechy vs the Placebo Syndrome takes the P-Funk style to even greater heights.

3. Sly & the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)


Often hailed as the greatest funk album ever made, There’s a Riot Goin’ On showcases the genre at its darkest, moodiest, and most deeply political. Centred around ideas of political apathy and societal pessimism, the cynical themes bleed into the music itself, with grumbling basslines and rough, soulful vocals throughout. The band come together for vibrant jams on highlights like “Poet” and “Africa Talks to You”, working together to build a rippling wave of guitar, drums, and bass. Heavy basslines and riotous group vocals are trademarks of funk, but they were perfected on this Sly Stone classic, influencing future funk pioneers like Herbie Hancock and the P-Funk collective. Impact aside, the music itself is simply enchanting, with the band working in perfect harmony to create tracks as complex on the page as they are easy on the ear.


4. Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971)


Maggot Brain is the quintessential funk-rock album. Unlike the later work of Parliament which takes on a more electronic, commercially driven approach, the output of early Funkadelic is raw and abrasive, bringing together the groove of soul with the punch of rock. The title track is a testament to this: a 10-minute electric guitar solo capturing all the pain, death, and conflict the album covers without a word spoken. The rest of the album offers a range of soulful highlights where the group scream together over a foundation of fuzzy, revving guitar and explosive drum-work. The energy on display is palpable, with the spotlight constantly switching between lead vocalists, backing singers, organ soloists, and guitar players. The music is messy and incredibly layered, but within that chaos are irresistible grooves which make every splatter of funk sounds palatable.


5. The Meters – The Meters (1969)


The debut album by The Meters is instrumental funk at its finest, offering 12 tight, rhythmically hypnotic tunes driven by groovy guitar riffs and spotless drum patterns. While the rhythm section eases the listener into each song, it’s the mesmerising solos that keep them engaged, with stunning guitar passages and improvised keyboard solos sprinkled throughout its runtime. What The Meters does best is show off the improvisational glory of funk music, wherein the band bounce off one another, meandering into solos while the danceable riffs keep the musicians from going too far off track. Unlike forms of jazz which embrace the unpredictable anarchy of improv, there is still a level of structure to The Meters, encouraging the musicians to flow freely without sacrificing the accessible grooves that signify the genre.


6. Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul (1969)


Although it isn’t strictly a funk album, the prominent grooves, throbbing basslines, and sporadic solos present on Hot Buttered Soul put it up there with the most intricately produced albums in the genre. Hayes’s vocals are deep and cinematic, complementing the grand production of the record which combines elements of funk with classical, most effective on the incredible “Walk On By”. While a smooth bassline plays, elements of strings, choral vocals, and horns swell in the instrumental, rising to a soulful apex before fading away to make space for an ever-evolving guitar solo. A landmark in soul music as well as funk, Hot Buttered Soul is a musical achievement whose boundless intricacies make it an essential in both genres.


7. Kool & the Gang – Light of Worlds (1974)


Light of Worlds is a stunning crossover of funk and jazz, where intricate horn solos are performed over booming electric basslines. Many tracks on the LP take the form of a jazz song filtered through a lens of ‘70s synth-funk, with bluesy piano solos sharing the spotlight with glamorous synth passages. Songs like “Fruitman” and “Rhyme-Tyme People” show off funk at its most summery and upbeat: thick, demanding basslines drive the tunes while the Gang chant and blow their horns over the groove, building a rich and lively atmosphere only P-Funk could match. There are also incredible instrumental cuts such as “Summer Madness” and “Whiting H. & G.”, both of which show the futuristic heights funk had ascended to just five years after The Meters perfected the classic funk formula. With an array of vibrant, feel-good classics in their catalogue, Light of Worlds stands out as their most consistent, catchy, and iconic.


8. The Temptations – All Directions (1972)


All Directions might not be one of the most influential funk albums, but it’s certainly one of the most essential. A colourful blend of soul, funk, and R&B, every song is a masterclass in harmony, wherein the band members join together to perform gorgeous choruses over each groovy bassline. The first leg of the record is a nonstop barrage of funky madness, with the opener “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” displaying the high energy danceability the group is capable of. Even better is the iconic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, a 12-minute funk classic with a chilling bassline that pierces through every verse and chorus. The back end of the LP takes a more soulful approach, stripping back the groove to place more emphasis on the singers’ melancholy voices.


9. Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)


As funk rose to prominence through the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s, jazz musicians began to incorporate funk into their music, and there is no greater example than Head Hunters. Rather than ditch his avant-garde roots to adopt a fully commercial style, Head Hunters sees pianist Herbie Hancock combine the complex production of his past jazz with the irresistible catchiness of funk. Every song has its catchy synth-bassline, but over the bass are intricate layers of head-bopping drums, sprawling piano solos, and erratic horn passages. Embracing the improv of jazz while maintaining the groove of funk, Hancock lures the listener in with catchy basslines, only to ensnare them in a chaotic back-and-forth of keyboard and clarinet, making even the messiest solo into an accessible jam thanks to the easy-going grooves that make up the foundation of Head Hunters. This jazz-funk sound would become Hancock’s signature style for the next decade, with Thrust and Man-Child reaching similar heights.


10. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)


Like many albums in this guide, Innervisions is not just a funk LP, hailed in high regard as one of the greatest soul albums ever made. The record shows off Stevie Wonder at his most creative, innovative, and consistent, demonstrating his prowess as a singer-producer through its nine phenomenal tracks. More importantly, funk is laced throughout every minute of its runtime, evident from the very first seconds of “Too High” where a throbbing synth-bassline carries all the same groove and thickness of a classic Herbie Hancock tune. Dense synths dominate Innervisions, helping create a distinctly funky and bass-driven sound unlike any other record in the singer’s catalogue. Whether it be political anthems like “Living For the City”, romantic tunes like “Golden Lady” or the motivational hit “Higher Ground”, Innervisions is brimming with unforgettable grooves and hypnotic rhythms. A brilliant introduction to the world of funk-inspired soul, Innervisions is the perfect gateway into other funk-adjacent classics like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Baby Huey’s The Living Legend.


Further listening…

To dive even deeper into the world of funk, completing the Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue is essential. Funkentelechy, Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, and America Eats Its Young are some of the collective’s finest efforts. James Brown is another artist whose discography is full of classics, with Get On the Good Foot and Live at the Apollo among his best albums. As for other acts, work by Average White Band, the Isley Brothers, Bootsy Collins, Earth Wind & Fire, and ‘70s-era Miles Davis are all fantastic. Into the ‘80s, the synth-funk era, 1999 by Prince and Speaking In Tongues by Talking Heads are phenomenal LPs.

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