Dam-Funk: Galaxy Quest
- Words: Jesse Serwer
Channeling the past, L.A.’s Dam-Funk brings funk back to the future.
“I definitely am a true believer that there are things we’re not privy to but are happening all around us,” Damon Riddick, the one-man-band and DJ better known as Dam-Funk (pronounced DAME-funk), tells me over the phone from L.A. “And sometimes you can just catch it in your peripheral vision.” In the context of our conversation, Dam is talking about a UFO sighting that inspired “Brookside Park,” a sprawling opus that’s central to his upcoming debut LP, Toeachizown. But he could easily be referring to the way he’s pulled obscure aspects of the early 1980s—namely those fleeting, forgotten moments when funk and R&B were boldly reaching for the cosmos—into his orbit. “I’d compare it to old UHF TV, stuff like Midnight Special that you’d catch late at night when you weren’t supposed to be up,” Dam says of his aesthetic. “Or on Saturday morning before the cartoons would start, you might catch a local independent music show. That kinda vibe.”
If you’re old enough to remember seeking out music and culture in the pre-cable era, his comment needs no explanation. If not, Toeachizown tracks like “Brookside Park” are capable of transporting you there. With its vocoder- scrambled alien vocals and chugging analog synths, the track is the audio equivalent of a faint, eerie memory—be it of an inexplicably frightening low-budget video or an unexplainable childhood dream.
“I’m fortunate to be a California kid,” Dam explains. “I grew up riding around in the mountains, always looking up. That’s how I’d catch certain things that would happen out of the ordinary. Brookside is a park by where I grew up in Pasadena, where everything would go down on a Sunday. When I was a teenager, I saw something go across the sky—an orange type of orb. But it was quiet. Everybody there mentioned it but nobody really talked about it again. I just never forgot. [‘Brookside Park’] has the vibe of the music that was going on at the time. I wanted to make something where you could imagine being there.”
Nights in Black Satin
Musically, Dam-Funk is often associated with so-called boogie—essentially mid-tempo, post-disco synth-funk best exemplified by early ’80s Prelude Records releases like D-Train’s “You’re the One For Me.” Thanks to Funkmosphere, Dam-Funk’s weekly L.A. party, as well as various internet-distributed DJ mixes, Dam has been hailed as the “ambassador” of the style.
“The sound of boogie is basically post-disco,” Dam says. “It’s not disco like the Bee Gees, not quite P-Funk, but right in between, with synthesizers and thumping basslines and melodic chords. The beat was mostly on the one and two, which made it easier for skating. Boogie slows down a little, to that tempo where you can, like, ride to it.”
The term, which has spread as demand for the records has grown on eBay, was actually coined by U.K. deejays Norman Jay and Dez Parkes. “They were turning people on to the sound in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Dam informs. “When Soul II Soul, Lisa Stansfield, and all the U.K. street soul came out, they were listening to Prelude Records and groups like Change.”
While Dam says he embraces the “ambassador of boogie” title, he points out that others bestowed it upon him and prefers to identify his sound as “modern funk.”
Indeed, Toeachizown’s more complex tracks—like the woozy “Brookside Park” or “Mobbin’ Through Busters,” with its Dilla-esque offbeat drum pattern—might not work on the floor at Funkmosphere. “When I play selector, I’m sharing my influences,” Dam says. “But I’m not trying to duplicate D-Train on my records. I’m just staying true to the funk.”
Now in his late ’30s, Dam is of the same generation as G-funk architects like DJ Quik and Ice Cube, and the sound of P-Funk resonated deeply with him as well. “George [Clinton]’s ideology always had a science-fiction element,” he says. “All my life, I’ve had experiences that kind of connected me to things like that.”
Instead of jumping headfirst into rap next, Dam took a detour into metal. “Funk is in my blood, but my first concert was KISS and Mötley Crüe. I had gigantic Iron Maiden posters on my wall. If the cover looked interesting, I’d buy it. I never forgot about the funk, I just needed to look harder. I started getting into the weird Prince knockoffs that came out on independent labels. I’d ride my bike looking for record stores with my Walkman on, listening to the entire Hemispheres album by Rush. I’d come home and just go on a journey, man… with my wax.”
In high school, Dam, who had learned to play drums and keys as a kid, bought his first LinnDrum drum machine and began crafting homemade recordings using the pause-tape method. A chance meeting with Leon Sylvers, the former leader of ’70s funk family The Sylvers and a producer of key early ’80s electro-funk records by Shalamar and The Whispers, led to session gigs—including an aborted early ’90s Milli Vanilli comeback project.
“I went to Reno with them and we had a ball,” Dam recalls. “But eventually Leon was like, ‘Man, I’m not fucking with these people,’ so we left. It was a learning experience but I’m glad I didn’t do anything with Milli Vanilli. I still have old crazy cassettes of me jamming in the studio and here comes [deceased Milli Vanilli member] Rob [Pilatus] running in like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’”
Dam would get more session work playing keys on late-’90s gangsta rap recordings by artists like MC Eiht and Westside Connection. “One thing about the G-Funk era was the producers would actually get cats like myself to replicate the sounds. I never had problems with those cats. But, coming home one night, I decided I didn’t need to [deal] with 25 dudes blowing bud continuously while only two people are working the music.”
Dam says he started the Funkmosphere night, initially called 1983, out of necessity. Despite L.A.’s deep electro-funk roots, he says he couldn’t hear the music anywhere unless it was being sampled through gangster rap.
“In the early 2000s, you didn’t hear anything like D-Train or Slave in a club,” Dam says. “I started DJing to share my record collection with people. We started with Luther, Slave, Prince. But now we’ve gone into discovering new 45s nobody’s ever heard that some teacher made in Mississippi in ’84 and pressed up on his own. My goal is to give the karmic energy back to the artist who might be a teacher now, or still chugging away in a basement. That’s why I say the artist and the label name on the microphone when I DJ.”
Dam might have remained a mere folk hero had he not found a brother-in-arms in Stones Throw’s Peanut Butter Wolf. After bonding over their love for boogie, Wolf asked him to remix a cover of The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber” by enigmatic Stones Throw affiliate Baron Zen in 2007. The relationship became official last year with the release of the “Burgundy City” b/w “Galactic Fun” 12-inch and Rhythm Trax Vol. 4, the most recent installment of Stones Throw’s instrumental EP series.
In true auteur fashion, Dam was the only contributor on Toeachizown, from the singing on down. Working exclusively with historically accurate analog devices like the Roland Alpha Juno 1 synth and Oberheim, LinnDrum and Electro-Harmonix drum machines, Dam constructed his tracks through an unusually laborious process.
“Dam has a really old-school way of recording,” says Peanut Butter Wolf. “He records drums to a CD, then plays the CD back and adds a bassline, then plays that CD and adds the next instrument. He has to mix the song down every time and, if he messes up, he has to start from scratch. [It’s] really difficult. But if it ain’t broke…”
It’s an often dirty-sounding approach, one that mimics the hum of a patch cord being plugged in. It’s all part of the ride, Dam claims.
“The album is like going up a mountain—you’re on top and then you head back down,” he says. “Or you’re blasting off into a space ride, then you land. We all go through peaks and valleys. Hopefully, when you drop the needle or play the iTunes file, it’ll make your heart jiggle a little with emotions. Maybe sad or happy or right in between. But it’s all based in the funk.”
Dam-Funk isn’t the only contemporary artist putting a new spin on ’80s funk. Here’s a look at some of his kindred spirits.
Welcome, the 2008 debut LP by Dam’s Stones Throw labelmate James “Pants” Singleton, was an homage to outsider-y regional records by an actual outsider from the musical hinterland of Spokane, WA. Working with tools like a circa ’83 Roland JX-3P synth, Pants conjured classic boogie when he wanted to (“I Choose You” and his cover of Skyy’s “Let’s Celebrate”) while also making a few excursions into deviant punk funk and spaced-out disco.
Sa-Ra Creative Partners
This Kanye-affiliated production trio (and sometime band) might have made its name working with rappers like Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli but their sound is firmly rooted in cosmic funk influences like Kleer and Newcleus. The funkiest thing about them, though, might be group member Taz Arnold’s fashion sense, which takes a few pages from Prince’s playbook.
Chin Chin doesn’t quite enter boogie territory on its recent LP, The Flashing, The Fancing, but Def Jux’s first non hip-hop act is the only act on the Brooklyn soul revivalist scene (Dap Kings, Menahan Street Band, El Michels Affair) whose sound takes a detour through the ’80s. They might also be the first new band in two decades to elicit comparisons to Kool and the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire.
Chromeo’s irreverent and cheeky take on electro-funk might strike some as parodic, but the Montreal-NYC duo is sincere in its tribute to Cameo, Zapp, and Timex Social Club, says Dam-Funk. “I give Chromeo their due because they have good songwriting, and they are keepin’ ’em dancing,” Dam says. “Pee Thug is real talented with vocoder techniques and Dave is a really deep cat. They definitely love the funk.”
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