Los Angeles’ boogie funk sovereign DaM-Funk is mining genre’ past for a way forward.
Damon Riddick doesn’ see himself as a ‘bridging artist’, nor a missing link between generations. His palette of vintage synths, drum machines and expanded, bass-driven, funk jams may seem of another time, but the man behind the DaM-Funk guise understands his work as anything but retrospective.
“People sometimes talk about my work as if it’s a throwback,” he offers, pausing as if for emphasis. “I like to consider it a continuation.”
Chatting from across town in his local neighbourhood of Leimert Park, bordering South Central LA, Riddick’ logic flies in the face of much of the hype and hyperbole surrounding his expansively proportioned and equally celebrated debut album, the five-LP Toeachizown – commissioned and released by Peanut Butter Wolf’ increasingly dynamic LA alt-hip hop imprint Stones Throw in late 2009.
While fans and pundits alike have hailed the record’ distinctly 80s, synth-washed sound, complex chord structures and earnest, romantic lyrical direction as a kind of celebratory reflection on early Prince or the post-disco RnB of the BB&Q Band and Change, Riddick himself – who is best known in his hometown for his weekly Funkmosphere night in Culver City – considers his output to follow a far more contemporary vein.
“My music has a certain kind of sound, sure, but it’s the extension of that sound,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is remind people that the sound never died. It just kind of went on hiatus, if you will.”
“Maybe some of the labels didn’ pay attention to it, or maybe it got hidden in G-funk or in some of the rap songs or samples or whatever, but some of us real funkstas, we’ve always been here, you know?” He continues. “So it’s sort of my way of saying that, you know, you can listen to other stuff like techno, trance or have hip hop thrown down your throat 24 hours a day, but there’ room for other types of urban music. That’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to open the door again.”
If there’ one aspect that marks today’ affable encounter, it’s the seriousness with which the quietly spoken Riddick takes his music. In fact, it’s the whole reason we’re chatting on the phone. After planning to convene at Stones Throw’ offices in Echo Park, Riddick rescheduled at the last minute to afford himself a couple of extra hours in the studio. It’s barely 11am and he’s already done hard time. “I always record – I never stop,” he says proudly. “I recorded a song this morning as a matter of fact.”
Indeed, Riddick is an anomaly in an era where his choice of instrumentation and aesthetic is all too often viewed with a sardonic smirk. Spend time with Toeachizown – or his Burgundy City/Galactic Fun 12″ – and you’ll find nothing in the way of irony. Often spanning six or seven minutes and littered with tumbling Oberheim DX kicks, snapping snares and Roland Juno Series synth washes (not to mention the odd lengthy keytar solo), Riddick’ deep funk excursions are no laughing matter.
“I like to make melodic, modern funk, man,” he urges. “I don’t do retro – I do modern funk. You see, modern funk never died with the people where I come from; it never stopped. We grew up on those kinds of groups making sophisticated funk. Teena Marie, you know what I’m saying? Like you could drink a glass of wine with this kind of funk, you know what I’m saying? It’s not that kind of funk that’s got that porno-style sound and wah-wah guitars. You know, James Brown, rest in peace – I always give him props – but I don’ do that kind of funk. I do that kind of melodic funk where you can still get dressed up and cruise down to the beach and chill in your ride, you know?”
“These days we have attention deficit disorder,” he continues. “Even I’ve fallen victim to these traits where, even if we haven’ had them diagnosed, the world around us passes down to us, you know, with the remote control and your computer and your iPhone. You go crazy if your computer doesn’ load up to the homepage fast enough,” he laughs.
“Everything’ just fast, fast, fast. For people coming up now, especially the kids, a two-minute track to them is pure genius. All they need is a two-minute beat and they think they’re geniuses. I like to listen to something that’s a bit longer than two minutes, you know. That’s just my taste. You don’ have to be into that, but I am man. I’m of that generation. I grew up on songs that were long, you know, listening to a lot of double albums and stuff like that.”
It’s written over all of Riddick’ methodology. “I record from beginning to end, laying each track,â€ he explains. â€œI don’ need Fruity Loops, I don’ need these computer software in a box. I do it from the gut and that’s what I’m trying to show people. You can make music like this and it can still be relevant.”
“You don’ have to call it “old school’. It’s not dinosaur funk,” he laughs. “It’s just real.”
Riddick’ sound – let alone his penchant for oversized shades and perfectly straightened locks – is little surprise considering his upbringing. Growing up an only child in a neighbourhood ruled by the Bloods gang in Pasadena on the fringe of Los Angeles, Riddick spent his childhood playing in school bands, staying out of trouble by noodling his afternoons away in his bedroom. His grandfather was an army bandleader and multi-instrumentalist, while his father played the saxophone and keyboard.
By the time he had reached high school in the early 80s, Prince and modern funk bands like Zapp were ruling the airwaves. Suffice to say, it was then that he acquired his first synthesiser and began overdubbing cassette tapes with his own recordings. “I grew up with the funk, man,” he says. “I’m a generation X cat, you know, so I’m not unfamiliar with days of Prince and P-Funk and Zapp and One Way and Loose Ends and those kinds of groups.”
“I was hearing Loose Ends, even groups like Change, who were just like sophisticated funkstas, you know? The chords were great and the bass lines were poppin’. A lot of people say it’s disco, but you could interview Kevin Robertson right now, from BB&Q Band, and he’ll tell you it was funk. It was just more sophisticated, man, and I couldn’ get enough of that stuff.”
“I actually heard it on the radio, you know? It’s not like I’m trying to imagine what it was like back then. I actually experienced it and it was a very different time. Things were different in music and on the street. People didn’ shoot guns half as much; they actually had a real fistfight, you know? I came up around that kind of stuff. It wasn’ about like how it is now.”
After graduating high school, Riddick began to pick up session work with various LA studios. Celebrated producer Leon Sylvers III enlisted him to play keyboard sessions for New Jack Swing act Double Action Theatre amongst others on his Solar Records label. But it was only after being introduced to Binky Mack of gangsta rap duo AllFrumTha I that Riddick’ reputation really began to flourish, tracking sessions for countless members of the city’ burgeoning gangsta rap scene.
“I was doing a lot of session work with cats like MC-Eiht, Mack 10, Ice Cube and WC,â€ he recalls. â€œIt was strictly session work, but it was good, it was a good experience. They were very business minded and I got paid and I got credited on the albums and it was nothing but professionalism.”
“What happens is that a lot of people get those cats misconstrued and think that these cats were walking idiots with guns loaded in their pockets 24 hours a day. But it’s not even like that.”
That’s not to suggest it was an environment without its challenges.
“Don’t get me wrong, of course they were still real cats and they get down in a real way, but people still handle their business and I was able to handle my business around these cats because I grew up around these kind of things.
“Game recognises game and nobody took advantage of me. Some people couldn’ hang, but you have to know how to survive in any situation, whether it be the paradise of the Swiss Alps or the jungle of South Central LA. You’ve got to learn how to adapt to either situation. It was a good experience overall, but what happened is that I just got tired of doing session work. I had my own music and I wanted to do that. So I reconvened and thankfully everything worked out the way it did.”
The DaM-Funk nom-de-plume emerged at the start of 2000s. “Everybody calls me Dam, short for Damon. They don’ use the “e’ because here in America, “Dame’ means a lady,â€ he laughs. â€œWell I’m sure everywhere “Dame’ means a lady. But it was just one of those things where I was kind of a funk student and a funk digger. I was already tagging my name but then I just added the “Funk’ because nobody was reppin’ that shit, you know. So it just clicked man – I just started hittin’ my name up like “DaM-Funk’ and that was that.”
It wasn’ until close to the end of the decade that Riddick’ DaM-Funk persona began to enter the wider vernacular, firstly via his Funkmosphere parties, then through a remix of Baron Zen’ cover of the Gap Band’ Burn Rubber in 2007. The mix caught the ear of Peanut Butter Wolf, who urged Riddick to contribute to Stones Throw’ BBall Zombie War compilation for gaming company 2KSports. The brilliant Burgundy City 12″ surfaced to great acclaim in 2008, before Riddick set about tracking his full-length debut.
“I was just recording a lot of joints – like a lot of joints, man – and there were way more tracks than could fit on a record,â€ he laughs. â€œWe just couldn’ narrow them down. That’s why we came up with – and we laughed when we did it – the whole five-album box set. A lot of people cut out songs and edit them down, but we didn’ want to do that. We kind of just wanted to do something special.”
Toeachizown is epic to say the least. Bouncing between maximal beat attacks and opaque synth atmospheres, rich, complex chord structures and impeccably smooth, syrupy bass lines, the record extends and abstracts what might otherwise be straight grooves into sprawling, intergalactic boogie-funk jams. The snaking bass lines, snapping beats and fluttering synths of tracks like ‘Brookside Park’, ‘Mirrors’ and ‘The Sky is Ours’ stretch compact breaks into transcendent instrumental drifts, where cuts like ‘Searchin’ 4 Funk’ Future’ shatter shimmering atmospheres with kinetic bass hooks and stinging high-hats. It offers the perfect foil for Riddick’ Prince-like falsetto, which he moulds into various romantic odes to his wife, music and the funk gods themselves.
“It was kind of like a puzzle you know,” he recalls. “But it just made sense, you know. Almost everything lined up the right way in terms of the music and the situation. Just in meeting Wolf and him believing in my music and just recording these songs and what they meant and the way they flowed putting together the record. I mean, anyone can put together a record, but it doesn’ mean it’s going to sound right. It’s like “Why’d this guy put this song after that track?”
“But Toeachizown is done so strategically, you know, so it’s almost like a long ride. Each track was placed purposefully. I didn’ just turn in a bunch of tracks and let people pick the sequence or whatever. I actually meticulously placed the songs where I wanted them and that’s why the five-record box set is the way it is.”
For Riddick, the key to the record is the human touch. “It feels real and that’s the way I’m trying to record,” he says. “Even if I do choose to use some of the more modern recording technologies, I’m still going to give it a human feel. So if I do get some new equipment, I’ll still approach it like a human as opposed to letting the technology dictate me.”
“I want to dictate the technology, you understand what I’m saying? That’s why that album sounds the way it does. I didn’ let the technology overtake me; I stood on top of the technology and looked at it in the face, like “I’m running this, you’re not going to run me’.”
But while something of a purist, it’s not to suggest the Riddick’ views on music are all puritanical. Indeed, he’ outwardly approving of a new generation of beat-makers led by the likes of Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke, whose skittering, schizophrenic song structures seem to run counter to DaM-Funk’ fluid sound.
“I respect everybody’ approach,â€ he offers simply. â€œI go back to the title of the album, you know: Toeachizown. I don’ know if that phrase is common in Australia, but the way I see it, it just means that everyone is entitled to their own way of living. So it’s like, kudos to Hudson Mohawke and kudos to these other cats. What they’re doing is really amazing to me. There’ room for everybody to do their own approach, because it would be wack if everybody was sounding alike. And trust me, there are plenty of cats sounding alike right now. I’m glad that there are a few of us out here who aren’ sounding alike. It’s a breath of fresh air, you know.”
In fact, Riddick is enthusiastic about beat-based music’ current state of play. â€œI think it’s pretty cool and I’m really glad that these cats are starting to experiment with different sounds urban-wise. Not just indie-rock or what have you, but some urban sounds are starting to be a lot more experimental.”
Indeed, we might just be closer to funk’ future than we realised. The man known as DaM-Funk thinks so. “Man, as these major labels break down and run for cover and don’ know what to do next, it’s opening up doors for these artists to come out of the underground and rise up and start to get their music out there and travel and share it with different people,” he urges.
“I mean, just the fact that I’ve been to Israel and some of these places man, that the funk genre can go back to these places I mean, some of the guys I came up with, they didn’t even get to make it out of the city.”
“So it’s just a new world, man. It’s just good to be a part of it.”
Toeachizown is out through Stones Throw/Fuse