ELECTRO-FUNK - WHAT DID IT ALL MEAN?
Greg Wilson – November 2002
Electro-Funk is undoubtedly the most misunderstood of all UK Dance genres, yet probably the most vital with regards to its overall influence. Central to the confusion is the term itself, which during 82/83 (before it was shortened to Electro) was specific to the UK. From a US perspective this music would come under a variety of headings (including Hip-Hop, Dance, Disco, Electric Boogie and Freestyle), arriving on import here in the UK, mainly on New York labels like West End, Prelude, Sugarhill, Emergency, Profile, Tommy Boy, Streetwise, plus numerous others. Just as Northern Soul was a British term for a style (or group of styles) of American black music, so was Electro-Funk, and, like Northern, the roots of the scene are planted firmly in the North-West of England.
Although this has been documented in a number of books and publications down the years, often with a fair degree of insight, the subject is rarely approached with any true depth and attention to detail, the information all in fragments. Perhaps the main reason that Electro-Funk remains a mystery to so many people is because it’s audience was predominantly black at a time when cutting-edge black music (and black culture in general) was very much marginalized in the UK, and as a result essentially underground. To keep up to date with what was happening on the British black music scene in 82/83 you’d have had to have been a reader of a specialist publication like Blues & Soul or Black Echoes.
In the UK scheme of things Electro-Funk eventually took over from Jazz-Funk as the dominant force on the club scene, but not without major controversy and upheaval. The purists regarded ‘electronic’ or ‘electric’ (as they called it) with total contempt, rejecting its validity on the grounds that it was, in their opinion, ‘not real music’ due to its technological nature (although Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ would put paid to that theory). However, as time went on and audience tastes began to change, even the most hostile DJ’s were forced to play at least some Electro-Funk. Despite all the resistance, the movement slowly but surely began to gain momentum, sweeping down from the North, through the Midlands and eventually into London and the South. The reason the Electro scene took so long to fully establish itself in the capital was down to the stranglehold the all-powerful Soul Mafia DJ’s held on the Southern scene. The Soul Mafia, with big names like Chris Hill, Robbie Vincent, Froggy, Jeff Young and Pete Tong, continued to play Jazz-Funk and Soul grooves (later referred to as ‘80’s Groove’). It wouldn’t be until 84 that their virtual monopoly of the clubs, radio, and the black music press began to erode as a new order of music replaced the old, laying the foundations not only for Hip-Hop, but also the subsequent UK Techno and House scenes.
As has often been said, Electro is the missing link of Dance music. All roads lead back to New York where the level of musical innovation and experimentation throughout the early 80’s period was quite staggering. It wasn’t one narrow style that never strayed from within the confides of an even narrower BPM range, Electro-Funk was anything goes! The diversity of records released during this period was what made it so magical, you never knew what was coming next. The tempo of these tracks ranged from under 100 beats-per-minute to over 130, covering an entire rhythmic spectrum along the way. There was no set template for this new Dance direction, it just went wherever it went and took you grooving along with it. It was all about stretching the boundaries that had begun to stifle black music, and its influences lay not only with German Technopop wizards Kraftwerk, the acknowledged forefathers of pure Electro, plus British Futurist acts like the Human League and Gary Numan, but also with a number of pioneering black musicians. Major artists like Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, legendary producer Norman Whitfield and, of course, George Clinton and his P Funk brigade, would all play their part in shaping this new sound via their innovative use of electronic instruments during the 70’s (and as early as the late 60’s in Miles Davis’s case). Once the next generation of black musicians finally got their hands on the available technology it was bound to lead to a musical revolution as they ripped up the rule book with their twisted Funk.
Before Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s
seminal Electro classic, ‘Planet Rock’ (Tommy Boy) exploded
on the scene in May 82, there had already been a handful of releases in
the previous months that would help define this new genre. D Train’s
‘You’re The One For Me’ (Prelude), which was massive
during late 81, would set the tone, paving the way for ‘Time’
by Stone (West End),
As the first British DJ to fully embrace this new wave of black music, I came in for a lot of personal criticism. Having already become an established name on the Jazz-Funk scene, I was seen as a heretic for playing these ‘soulless’ records, especially those that were regarded as the more ‘blatant’ ones (for example, the dreaded ‘Planet Rock’ and the rest of the Tommy Boys stuff, Warp 9 ‘Nunk’ (Prism), Extra T’s ‘ET Boogie’ (Sunnyview), Man Parrish ‘Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)’ (Importe/12), and Italian Zanza 12”, ‘Dirty Talk’ by Klein & MBO). I generally opted for the Dub or instrumental versions, mixing them in alongside the more orthodox Funk, Soul and Jazz-Funk releases of the time at my weekly residencies, Legend in Manchester and Wigan Pier, where the scene first took root. These venues, both state-of-the-art US styled clubs, would become central to the movement throughout the 82-84 period, attracting people from all over the country. The music would also gain further exposure via my regular mixes for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio (beginning in May 82), and in August 83 I’d introduce Electro to a new audience, when I became the first Dance resident at the now world-famous Hacienda club.
Electro-Funk’s legacy is huge. It announced the computer age and seduced a generation with its drum machines, synthesizers and its sequencers, its rap, cut and scratch, its breaking and popping, its Dub mixes, its bonus beats and its innovative use of samples. Made to be mixed it inspired a new breed of British DJ’s to cut the chat and match the beats. Now legendary names like Grandmaster Flash, Tee Scott, Tony Humphries, Larry Levan, Francois Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez and Double Dee & Steinski became role-models for tuned-in DJ’s and would-be remixers, whilst pioneers of the new digital sampling technology, including New York producer Arthur Baker and his collaborator John Robie, British producer Trevor Horn (via ‘Buffalo Gals’) and, of course, the Herbie Hancock / Bill Laswell combination, with their Grammy winning ‘Rockit’ (Columbia), not only revolutionized black music but instigated a whole new approach to popular music in general.
Electro-Funk was the channel that finally brought the Hip-Hop movement, and all its various creative components, firmly into the UK mainstream, helping to spread its message throughout Europe and beyond. To all intents and purposes Electro-Funk pre-dates Hip-Hop in a British context, the term not coming into common use here until much later. We were more or less clueless when it came to Hip-Hop until late 82, when Charisma Records in the UK unleashed Malcolm McLaren & The World’s Famous Supreme Team’s ‘Buffalo Gals’ video, which came as something of a culture-shock to say least, bringing the full-force of NYC street-culture out of The Bronx and into our living rooms, and inspiring a carnival of breakdancing in cities and towns throughout Britain during the summer of 83. Eventually we’d learn of its origins with Kool DJ Herc, spinning his famous ‘merry-go-round’ of breaks for the b boys. Before this, most people had presumed that the break in breakdancing referred to the damage you might do to your bones if you got the move wrong!
Although the media gradually latched onto this ‘new dance craze’, the scene that surrounded it wouldn’t receive any serious attention here in the UK until 1984. This followed the runaway success of the Street Sounds ‘Electro’ compilations (Volume 1 released in October 83), which would take the music to a much wider audience, and result in The Face announcing ‘Electro – The Beat That Won’t Be Beaten’ across its entire front page in May 84, a full two years on from the US release of ‘Planet Rock’. This substantial delay in recognition went a long way towards obscuring Electro-Funk’s essential role in kick-staring the 80’s Dance boom, with many UK club historians bypassing the pivotal early 80’s period and mistakenly citing Detroit Techno as the trigger. Even the track that gave birth to Techno, the Juan Atkins / Rick Davies 12” ‘Clear’ by Cybotron (Fantasy), was regarded as an Electro classic here in 83, way before the Techno scene began to take shape, and would feature on the first Street Sounds ‘Crucial Electro’ compilation the following year. Little mention is ever made of the fact that its remixer, Jose ‘Animal’ Diaz, was immersed in NY Electro, with previous mix credits including ‘We Are The Jonzun Crew’ for Tommy Boy, and ‘Hip Hop Be Bop (Don’t Stop)’, which gained a new lease of life following his much sought-after limited edition mix for Disconet (the DJ Only format affiliated to Sugarscoop).
Electro’s star burnt very brightly, initially on the underground and eventually with the club masses. In 1984 the London scene took off in a big way, both in the clubs and on the radio, with the emergence of DJ’s like Herbie from Mastermind (who mixed the Street Sounds albums), Paul Anderson, Tim Westwood and Mike Allen confirming a radical shift in power on the capital’s black music scene. With the substantial weight of London behind it, the Electro movement quickly went overground enticing an ever-increasing number of switched-on white kids in its on-going search for the perfect beat. With a significant proportion of the British youth, regardless of colour, now grounded in Hip-Hop culture, the new UK Dance era was well and truly under way and it wouldn’t be long before musicians and DJ’s here began to create their own hybrid styles, most notably in Bristol where Electro was fused with the Reggae vibes of Dub and Lovers Rock, to bring about a unique flavour that would later be known as Trip-Hop. By the end of the decade cities like Manchester and London had become major players on the now global Dance scene, with the UK a veritable hotbed of creativity both in the clubs and the recording studios.
Electro-Funk was the prototype, and Hip-Hop, Techno, House, Jungle, Trip-Hop, Drum & Bass, UK Garage, plus countless other Dance derivatives, all owe their debts to its undoubted influence. Without it’s inspiration, it’s unlikely that British acts such as Coldcut, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Soul To Soul, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, William Orbit, Goldie, the Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Fatboy Slim, to name but a few, would have emerged. When all’s said and done, Electro-Funk (or Electro or whatever people choose to call it) was the catalyst, the mutant strain that bridged the British Jazz-Funk underground to the Acid-House mainstream, Until this fact is fully recognized the UK Dance jigsaw will remain incomplete and confused, with countless clubbers, twenty years on, having no idea of the true roots of the music they’re dancing to.
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ESSENTIAL BEATS 82/83
D TRAIN you’re the one for me (US Prelude)
The above is a list of 100 of the biggest tunes played at Legend in Manchester and Wigan Pier during 1982 and 1983. The tracks are listed in chronological order (the first 3 entries arriving on import in late 81).
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