METAL BREAKDOWN: The Funk-Metal phenomenon
by Simon Reynolds
it comes to the USA’s current birth explosion of funk-metal groups, all
paternity suits should be filed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers: a
“seminal” band in all senses of the word. Five years ago this Los
Angeles group’s Freaky Styley LP coined a sound, an attitude and an onstage dementia that has since inspired an entire genre.
there was Faith No More from Northern California, with their torrid,
overwrought fusion of metal, rap and funk, and their morbid fixation on
the darker side of life. Faith No More rapidly overtook the Chili
Peppers, and last year cracked the MTV mainstream with their Top Ten hit
“Epic”, an anthem-like encapsulation of their cartoon Nietzche
In 1990, the funk-metal floodgates opened.
Most of the time, the names tell you everything you need to know:
Psychofunkapus, Scatterbrain, Limbomaniacs, Mindfunk, Sprawl, Sweet
Lizard Illtet, Moneyspank, Electric Boys, Spin Doctors. All these bands
are loosely aligned to the P-funk creed originally formulated by George
Clinton and Bootsy Collins (“a creative nuisance… the recognition of
stupidity as a positive force”) as reactivated and reinterpreted by the
Chili Peppers with their combination of zany antics, horny-like-a-mutha
lyrics and elasticated funk-rock.
How is it that a
generation of metalheads reared on Black Sabbath, Led Zep and Aerosmith
have suddenly become turned on to Funkadelic, James Brown and Sly Stone?
One reason for the shift towards funk was a reaction against the
sterile impasse that metal had reached by the late Eighties. Heavy metal
had undergone a striking regeneration during the Eighties, reforming
its worst abuses and trimming off its flabby excesses. It even achieved a
degree of raised consciousness with the apocalyptic protest of groups
like Metallica and Anthrax.
But the thrash/speedmetal
boom rapidly hit a dead end. With its high-velocity blur and
self-flagellating S/M aesthetic, thrash was about as sexless and
ungroovy as rock music can get. Light years from rock’s R&B
roots, thrash was the ultimate Aryan sublimation of metal. It was almost
inevitable there would be a call for a reinfusion of ‘blackness’, a
return to syncopation. Even mainstream metal groups have been
lubricating their sound with a bit of funk fluency (Poison’s “Unskinny
Bop”, Extreme’s “Get the Funk out”).
Another factor was
the influence of rap: hip hop has set the agenda for US pop in much the
same way that house has completely overhauled British chart pop. In
particular, it was Def Jam’s rap/metal phase (Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL
Cool J) that opened a lot of headbangers’ ears. Also part of the
‘crosstown traffic’ of the late Eighties was the rise of black rock.
Groups like Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz and Fishbone, coming from the
opposite direction, have run head-first into the funk-metallers.
connects with another reason for the rise of funk-metal: musicians’
tendency to get bored easily. Mixing genres allows the muso to show off.
Once upon a time, it was the blues solo that provided the pretext for
exhibitionist feats of dexterity: with the funk-metallers, it’s slap
bass. In both cases, white musicians colonized a style that its black
originators had almost unanimously left for dead. Contemporary black
dance (house, swingbeat, rap) is technophile, happy to engage with
state-of-the-art equipment. Funk-metal generally displays a Luddite
techno-fear, following the Chili Peppers’ “organic anti-beatbox” creed,
which declares that audience pleasure is in direct ratio to the amount
of flailing energy expended by the band.
is at the core of funk-metal. In part this is a reaction against the
chaste, fleshless aura of most metal. Death metal, for instance, is
carnographic rather than pornographic. Its histrionic crescendos are
more nuclear detonations than orgasms. And partly it’s that George
Clinton’s lewd and lubricious bad-ass persona somehow seems a more
acceptable role model for the male libido than trad metal’s penile
But funk-metal comprehends a range of
contradictory attitudes to the body. On one hand, there’s the West
Coast’s health-and-efficiency ethos--muscle-bound athleticism and the
hardcore punk philosophy of straight-edge (no drink or drugs). Sweet
Lizard Illtet sing of positive energy, rail against “merry-go round
thrills” and aspire to the “honest bodily togetherness” of Afro-American
culture. Other groups aspire to the debauchery and excess of a
different West Coast culture. There’s the apocalyptic aura of decadence
entwined around Jane’s Addiction, whose art-rock inflected brand of
heavy metal brilliantly melds influences from funk, dub reggae and
Eastern music. Or there’s Moneyspank’s pagan/voodoo vibes and
sex-and-death lyrics. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career has included
body worshipping (they invariably perform with their shirts off to
showcase their muscled physiques) and desecrating their body-temples:
guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose, while singer Antwan aka
Anthony Kiedis cleaned up his act and exchanged over-indulgence for New
All funk-metal groups agree that
one form of self-abuse is still legitimate: moshing, stage-diving and
other forms of lemming-like behaviour are de rigeur. Funk-metal gigs
seethe with sweaty male bonding. This is the genre’s biggest
defect--it’s a boy’s own affair. Not one of the score or more funk-metal
bands includes a female musician. Admittedly, examples of outright
sexism are surprisingly rare (one exception being Limbomaniacs whose Stinky Grooves
LP includes songs like “Butt Funkin’” and “Porno”). But it’s also true
that the represensation of sex in funk-metal is totally
masculine--thrust-orientated, with no place for languor or tenderness.
In many ways, it’s an aggregation of the most phallocratic tendencies
in the white rock and black funk traditions: Rick James meets Robert
Still, funk-metal earns a Brownie point for its
anti-racist tendencies. Implicit in the musical miscegenation, these are
often explicitly articulated in lyrics and interviews. The Chili
Peppers even started a fashion for songs about the plight of the Native
American with their “American Ghost Dance”. That said, the
pro-integration sentiments don’t seem to have had much effect on the
racial composition of the audiences or indeed of the bands themselves,
who remain almost exclusively “white dopes on funk”.