Past the Shoulder Synth: An Interview with Däm-Funk

Sam Ribakoff speaks with the Los Angeles funk legend.
By    May 31, 2019

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Popular music has no center. It’s just a nebulous void of swirling nostalgia, cliches, and sounds, that songwriters and producers reach their hands into to collage together a song, or an image, or a meme; but one of those sounds that’s eked it’s way towards the top of that void is boogie music. You can hear the sound, birthed from the commercial demise of disco music, the birth of house music, and stitched together from threads of R&B and synthesiser based funk, in Ariana Grande’s music, in Tyler the Creator, and of course, in Bruno Mars.

These artists of course took inspiration from Janet Jackson’s early work, and Madonna, and in Tyler’s case, the weirdo boogie of Gary Wilson, but over the last decade nobody has done more to bring boogie, and modern funk, to the forefront and spread its gospel more than Pasadena native Däm-Funk. With his two classic full length solo albums on Stones Throw Records, his numerous EPs and early demo releases, and Funkmosphere, his weekly boogie music club night in Los Angeles, Däm opened the world’s, or at least Los Angeles’, eyes up to the magic of funk and boogie music again. It gestured towards what Däm calls “modern funk,” a fluid term for the international community of electronic funk artists making music today, and the post Low End Theory beat music that edged towards the funkier, groovier, more melodic, side of things than the more experimental or electronic stuff.

As Funkmosphere’s grooves spread throughout the city, and Däm’s music bumped out of countless cars, and in the ears of A&R’s and “influencers,” artists began to co-opt his sound, born through Däm’s childhood in the 70’s and 80’s in Pasadena, where he lived through the transition from boogie, disco, and R&B music, to Egyptian Lover’s electro, to NWA’s gangter rap, to Battlecat, DJ Quik, and Dr. Dre’s G-Funk, to Jerkin musics rise and fall. Däm’s music reflects it all, but it’s not an act of nostalgic aesthetic worship, Däm’s music is a continuation and expansion of those sounds, something other artist who try to co-opt the sound don’t understand.

Through it all, Däm’s stayed true to his vision of ushering in funk music to the future with constant experimentation and positive vibes, which are nowhere more clearer than on 2015’s STFU, a short four track EP that sees Däm pushing funk into a hazy, sunsetting on a summer’s day, vibe. Incorporating elements of ambient music and loungey Balearic house music perfect for driving, Däm has recently put out a sequel to STFU, STFU II, which tries, and succeeds, in recapturing the feeling of the first EP, and yet again, pushing funk music in interesting new directions. I talked to Däm over the phone about his new EP STFU II, loving Prince, Run DMC, and Tom Petty, and not engaging with the Trump outrage machine. — Sam Ribakoff

Is there a concept behind your new EP, STFU?

Däm-Funk: This new project is called STFU II, and it’s a continuation of STFU, which came out in 2015. It’s just a sophisticated modern funk sound that I really hold close to my heart. My last couple of albums I was experimenting with some house and techno vibes, and even ambient stuff under a pseudonym called Garrett. These are vibes you can drive and mediate to, but on like a street funk side. STFU stands for shut the fuck up. It’s kind of self explanatory. I think it’s really what we need in light of all this cancel culture on Twitter and social media, and I’m just like man, shut the fuck up. You can take it as an alternative to chill with.

You try really hard to manifest positive energy on social media.

Däm-Funk: Yeah, I try. I liken it to like a house party or something. The party’s jumpin, but by the next morning there’s beer and pizza everywhere, and you don’t want to leave your house dirty like that. You want to clean up and have your house looking fresh. There’s people on there with stuff that makes them look silly, and I’m just like, ‘dude, clean up after yourself. Come on!’ You can’t do that now, the culture’s changed. Nowadays there’s just so much culture police and that’s why I think it’s perfect timing for STFU. Just let the music do the talking. Right now we gliding. That’s the message with STFU II.

A musical parallel to social media is Soundcloud, and you deleted your Soundcloud account awhile ago. Was that because it was too easy to trip up and post too much on Soundcloud?

Däm-Funk: I did that in 2017, and I think the Soundcloud is great, there was a time when me and my friends could make something at 9 and put it up by midnight and people would really be interested in it, but now it’s no big deal anymore. There’s so much music out there now. All those things just came crashing together. Overexposure and easy access, there was so much stuff coming out that I just wanted to take a step back and give my own music the respect that it deserves. Not taking myself to seriously, but I thought the music I was making meant something, and I didn’t want to throw it out there like that. It’s hard, because it’s like a girl you like, and you finally get her number, and then she just keeps calling, over and over and over. That’s kind of what was going on with Soundcloud, I was calling my audience too much. I just want this music to speak to people and be a part of their lives.

Can I ask what happened to Funkmosphere? That was an important part of a lot of people’s lives.

Däm-Funk: Funkmosphere lasted for 11 years, it was supposed to stop at ten years, that was the plan. We had a great time. I loved that small vibe, the big vibe that it got to was cool too. I originally wanted it to be like the club in Purple Rain. You know? Somewhere I can work out some of my band’s stuff with, but as time went on I never even got a chance to play there. There were just so many people that wanted to play and rock the stage. Me being mister nice guy, sometime to my detriment, but I think my karmic energy will eventually repay me, I just never got a chance to rock it, I just let other people rock it, other DJs, other bands, up and coming artists and people like that. After awhile I was just on tour so much that the other members of the crew, DJ Randy Watson, Eddy Funkster, Billy Goods, a great group of guys, I just wanted to give them all a break.

If you remember, the flyer always had my name on it, so it sort of became like, “oh, that’s just where Dӓm is. He’s going to be there every Thursday,” and I’m like “uh, not true!” Sometimes you gotta realize when the party’s over and sweep up all the trash and get your keys and go to work, that’s kind of what I did. I think I contributed what I had to do. The scene got so competitive, and I was like “I’m just here to share music.” This whole thing started out with just passing out free CDs. Because what was going on here in L.A. was there was no kind of funk sounds in the clubs. That was my whole mission, was to have a place where you could listen to this music all night. So mission was accomplished. People had fun and then started their own clubs, and I was like “I don’t have to do this for another ten years, let some of the younger cats take over.” I’m proud of it, it was a great time.

I was trying to show people you could mix different styles, like a Mr. Fingers style funk, and not just The Bar-Keys type of funk all night. My goal was to get funk from the stereotype it was known as, you know, past the shoulder synth. People are starting to get it a little bit. It’s all about showing another side of funk. That’s why I do things like Garrett, that’s why I work with Ariel Pink and Christine and the Queens. You dig what I’m saying? I want to show the side of me as a black man that grew up around a lot of different things, like Rush. I went to Kiss concerts, I listened to KROQ. I listened to KGLH. I listened to KDAY. Our whole mission was to show that. I was listening to Tom Petty the other day, his song “Free Fallin,” and his voice is cracking and everything, and I love Tom Petty, but I’m just like “Yo, he gets the opportunity to be Tom Petty. Why are we expected to sound like Luther or Whitney? Why can’t I be Däm Funk and just be me and do what I do? I don’t have to be the stereotypical funkster with platform shoes on and a wig on, that’s not the kind of funkster I am. That’s what Funkmosphere was, a different level of funk. I hope that people are picking it up and embracing and experimenting with funk, and all different types of music. I support it. I support the young, I support the old, I support the timeless.

Yeah, I mean, one of your heroes, Prince, played funk, punk, rock, pop, R&B…

Däm-Funk: Exactly. I was influenced by Prince to be free. To be able to pick up a Frank Zappa record and dig it, and also have a Run DMC and Eric B. and Rakim records in the same record collection.

Do you see your music as like recontextualizing funk and electro for younger people, or is it something totally different?

Däm-Funk: It possibly could. We just passed the 10 year mark of Toeachizown, and a lot has happened in those 10 years. A lot of experimentation in funk music, a lot of nostalgia came for different eras, and a lot of different era. When I look around I do see a lot of my influence rubbed off on a lot of younger artists.

Yeah, I think one of your most popular tracks when you look yourself up on streaming sites is that Christine and the Queens [“Girlfriend”] song. When you started out making music that song would have sounded retro and whatever, but now it sounds very much of the moment and contemporary. Did you think that this sound you were cultivating would be so popular? And obviously, a big part of that is Bruno Mars.

Däm-Funk: Well the sound was bubbling in a lot of cities, especially here in Los Angeles at different clubs, and that sound was a lot darker, but what Bruno Mars did was make it a little brighter for the masses, and hopefully that will bring people to discover some of that darker sound. A lot of the production you see going on now, like what Mac Miller was doing, has a lot of that four on the four boogie vibe. But yeah, Christine is a great artist. Me and her and her team vibed of a lot of music. They really liked the Nite-Funk album that I did. She’s really into P-Funk and the 7 Days of Funk records too. I like to deal with people I can really connect with, and she’s cool. She came up with a lot of that song, I just came in to do some flourishes and solos, but a lot of it was her. I worked on other songs on that record too that people maybe don’t realize. But yeah, a lot of stuff has happened since I started. I just want to inspire people, I don’t want to be a downer. Even though I can get down and talk about some real stuff, I’m definitely not a cornball on social media. I try to be more responsible about what I say and not fly off the handle, especially when it comes to all this Trump stuff.

I think a lot of journalists can learn from that. Sometimes you just don’t have to tweet about every Trump thing.

Däm-Funk: Exactly. Don’t lose yourself over one tweet. Till the culture shifts again, I think we’re going through something right now. We’re just getting our footing and readjusting to a lot of things and a lot of new technology. We have to come up with new standards and operations on life right now. That’s where we’re at right now.

Do you think we’re even going to be able to make it to that point to be able to properly adjust?

Däm-Funk: Good point. It’s just back and forth back and forth. You have Vietnam and then you have disco times. It goes back and forth. I’ve always believed that good will prevail though. I always have hope. We’re kind of like in a movie, kinda like in the middle of the movie, you can see the third quarter coming, and in my head I really think that in this particular movie, we’ll be able to dust ourselves off and see it as experimentation and grow from it, and we’ll just have to see what part three and four holds. I want to keep going, I don’t want it to end like this, stupid, where we don’t learn or grown from anything. I think we’re going to learn some stuff and grow in the next couple of years. On the music stuff though I’m still going to try to keep people up and not try to be negative. I’m just trying to uplift people to a real level. I’m still trying to keep the fantasy in there. Fantasies helped us get by as kids to the next day. I just don’t want to be out here making my people look bad, or all people look bad.

A lot of people look at funk and all kinds of dance music as apolitical, but obviously there’s socially and politically conscious tracks in techno and disco music, and obviously the music itself is political because of the identities of a lot of the people who made them, but would you ever make a political song?

Däm-Funk: When it comes to politics I think that if you really dig deep into my catalogue you’ll find some things, like “Surveillance Escape” from Invite the Light, and that deals with things going on right now. I definitely reach into that bag, but I don’t want to come off like “I’m mister rage against the machine guy!” Because I’m not that guy. I love that band, but I just do mine in a different way. You just have to peep game. I’m more into deeper thought than that. I don’t want to say I’m a conspiracy theorist, but I like to think deeper. Forgot the ballot box, let’s get a little deeper. That’s the kind of stuff I sprinkle in my music. Heads know what I’m talking about.

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