Floating on Air: How Dam-Funk Made another Modern Funk Masterpiece

With a little help from Snoop, Ariel Pink, Q-Tip, and friends, Dam Funk releases modern funk stunner, "Invite the Light."
By    September 21, 2015


Peter Holslin is the GOAT of goat connoisseurs. 

…You must also realize that the upheaval suffered by the human race began to occur because of our insistence upon removing all elements of the funk
Once the movement of time was lost to us, we also lost our awareness of the funk, and ultimately our awareness of music itself
Those of us who use our real eyes hope that this message will reach you and signal a new beginning…

—Junie Morrison, “Junie’s Transmission”

Dam-Funk arrived on our planet at just the right time. A real G operating in a land of overstimulation and cheap appropriation, he holds it down while others trail off. His epic debut Toeachizown dropped in 2009, the same year as the summer of #chillwave. Like chillwavers Washed Out or Neon Indian, he was a bedroom studio dweller, mining the 1980s for inspiration with synthesizers and drum machines. But while they specialized in listless dance ballads, he went the opposite direction, his tunes almost startlingly sincere. This was no aloof college grad; he was a veteran studio session man. His funky tunes didn’t come with a hipster-friendly wink and nod. His drum machines could hurt you just as much as they could lay down a sweet caress. He meant every word on “Hood Pass Intact.”

The grand abundance of the Internet makes people like Dam (pronounced “dame”) a rare breed. Today creatives are incentivized to try things on, test things out, be voyeuristic to different cultures, freely pluck ideas from different eras. Digital access essentially lets us become dabblers. You can use BitTorrent to download Chamillionaire’s entire discography in five minutes, so why not? And why not do the same with Tupac and Steely Dan’s discographies too? In the United States at least, aesthetics and style aren’t as likely nowadays to be forged out of specific geographic circumstance or social context. Instead they come from a million different inspirations: borrowed, traded, “curated” and shown off. Chillwave did this with the detritus of ’80s pop culture – maudlin movie scores, game-show themes, Buns of Steel workout grooves. Yung Lean does this with Southern rap and Arizona iced tea. Katy Perry takes it to an even more absurd level: by embracing everything from Juicy J to Cleopatra to Pee Wee Herman to Piet Mondrian, she essentially becomes a walking, talking corporate brand, using her various songs and music videos and costumes to resonate with as large a number of people as possible.

The man born Damon Riddick doesn’t do that. He’s not mining the funk of Roger Troutman or Slave because he thinks squelchy bass-lines and pocket beats are funny or cool, or because that would fit his “brand.” He’s doing it as an honest and serious contributor. Funk is history and culture. It’s part of the black community. It’s part of the northwest Pasadena ’hood Dam knows intimately. It’s a living, breathing artistic movement that you might say is part of Dam on a molecular level – and he makes a crucial contribution to it on Invite the Light, his long-awaited follow up to Toeachizown.

Six years in the making, Invite the Light is an 80-minute, 20-track, funk epic. At once sexy, dark, weird, and sublime, it’s peppered with references to third eyes and positivity, and filled out with a diverse crew of collaborators – among them Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Leon Sylvers III and IV, Nite Jewel, and Ariel Pink. Funk has always had a cosmic makeup, transcending temporal and stylistic bounds, and that’s certainly the case with this album. Funk history is invoked right off the bat with the appearance of Ohio Players veteran Junie Morrison in opener “Junie’s Transmission.” Speaking via distant locale through a crackly radio broadcast, he makes a case for Invite the Light as not just a step forward in genre, but in human life itself.

Dam has been crafting the funk since his days at Blair High School in the ’80s, and Toeachizown – released when he was in his late 30s – was a loose, raw summation of his work thus far. But Dam really sharpens his swords for Invite the Light. The album retains the organic, bedroom atmosphere of previous releases, but everything feels carefully worked over. His machine beats are tilted just slightly off center, adding to the funky feel. His hooks and melodies are stronger, and he achieves remarkable tonal shifts with his analog synths. On “HowUGonFu*kAroundAndChooseABusta’?” he’s all gangster bravado with gnarly synth squelches and dry drum machine claps; later, though, he turns on the seduction with extended ventures into gliding rhythms, sculpted bass and silky-smooth chords (“O.B.E.,” “Glyde 2nyte,” “Virtuous Progression”). There are some fun moments – see the manic high-speed chase jam “Surveillance Escape” – but also solemn ones. In the haunting avant-garde slow jam “It Didn’t Have to End This Way,” you can almost visualize the light of the next world beaming down as Dam’s vocoder murmurs and billowing synths build towards an eerily calming climax.

Electronic music has evolved a lot over the years, and Dam’s L.A. peers like Flying Lotus have made enormous milestones. Invite the Light isn’t as showy or overtly mind-bending in the same way FlyLo’s work tends to be, but Dam does explore the furthest bounds of his analog hardware. Witness the way he creates a gentle bubbling effect on his synth during Snoop’s verse in “Just Ease Your Mind From All Negativity.” Or, better yet, how he takes off on a free-form bass-line in 9-minute-plus album closer “The Acceptance”; his fingers move across the keyboard, traversing extremes of pitch and texture in a gloriously soulful performance.

For all his trip-outs and sonic detours, Dam-Funk keeps an eye on the bigger picture. “Acting,” his song with Ariel Pink, might be interpreted by some critics as a throwaway weirdo jam, but it’s actually one of the more pointed songs on the album. In it the two L.A. musicians sound like they’re mid-mushroom trip, having fun on the mic over a melted groove of keyboards and flutes. Eventually though, Dam switches into a soulful croon to arrive at his point — “The world has got me acting… I don’t wanna act anymore.” In a way the song feels like a comment on the landscape of their city — as an entertainment industry hub, Los Angeles serves as a bastion for all kinds of fakers and imitators (including, of course, actual Hollywood actors), but it still has pockets where you’re free to be your weird self.

The message of “Acting” isn’t exactly new; interestingly enough, Kendrick Lamar delivers a similar point on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” from To Pimp a Butterfly. Still, the song says a lot about Dam’s outlook. In the United States, musicians, writers and other creatives operate in an environment where they risk being exploited and thrown under the bus at every turn. In the media economy, “content” comes fast and cheap, and there’s ever-increasing demands to meet clickbait quotas. Any freelancer can tell you this creates dangerous conditions for compromise and co-option, but Dam-Funk never takes the bait. He adheres to the laws of funk with an almost religious devotion. As a result, his work becomes unimpeachable, because you know exactly where he stands.

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