Widgets Magazine

Reflections on funk, and punk

Emblazoned across the wall adjacent to the stage were trippy colors flowing back and forth between audience and performer. On the docket for the night were California-based funk bands Atta Kid and Thumpasaurus, hosted by Stanford’s own Jazz Consortium in the living room of 576 Alvarado. With an hour each, both bands took similar musical avenues to communicate their passion for the groove, yet each group utilized the audience and the venue’s surroundings in vastly different ways. In terms of sound, while Atta Kid more directly emulated James Brown and Motown-style funk, Thumpasaurus, for better or for worse, injected their own firebrand irreverence into funk’s emphasis on anticipation, percussivity and rhythmic complexity.

Many attendees, brought together by the Stanford Jazz Consortium mailing list, were well-versed in the genres of funk and jazz, and most came in knowing what to listen for. With regards to rhythmic anticipation, funk deals quite a bit in syncopation, tantalizing and challenging the listener’s ear, which expects a simple 4/4 “kick-snare-kick-snare” beat, common in rock and pop. As listeners’ bodies lurch back on the kick drum, many expect a snare to pick them back up a beat later. However, funk’s syncopated drumming style screw with this expectation, confusing the mind with snare hits that “feel” too late or early, — yet all the while it maintains contagious danceability.

However, the most recognizable trait of funk is the increased percussivity of every single instrument, layering new rhythms to fully saturate and enliven the song’s overall groove. Built around the drum’s swingy backbeat, each member of the band uses instruments usually meant to carry melodies or harmonies as a sort of pitched percussion instrument. Bass guitars utilize slaps and pops, which in different ways slam the bass’ strings against the fretboard, creating a percussive, almost snare-like, sound. Guitarists scratch their pick across muted strings and strike chords sharply, never letting a note ring for more than half of a second. Horns, especially the baritone and alto saxophones, add blaring emphasis at the end of a measure and help launch the band into the next one. All the while, the bass and keyboard members display rhythmic and harmonic flourishes to add an even deeper layer of groove.

With these traits in mind, the crowd welcomed the first to take the stage, Atta Kid, a relatively older band from the Bay Area. After a quick greeting to the crowd, the lights panned over to the six-piece, and they began their set. At the sound of keyboards first chord, each instrument, save for the horns, started to contribute equally to the dynamics of the songs, each sharing an equal portion of the groove.

On all their songs, Atta Kid started off with a riff;  some had a repeating melody, and all employed a  looping, syncopated rhythm. Atta Kid centered their sound around one of the centerpieces of funk: the groove. In other words, Atta Kid’s rhythm section – drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard – sought to create and maintain a driving rhythm, the drums offering a messy backbeat while the other rhythm instruments offered their own pitched staccato hits. These grooves almost always exhibited some form of swing, and their idiosyncratic rhythmic styles urged the crowd to tap their feet and nod along.

Towards the end of the show, Atta Kid began toying with the audience. They injected playful pauses into the final songs of their set, bringing the audience to a point of near discomfort before the drummer struck his snare and they resumed right where they left off. The group put the crowd through many bouts of mild musical anxiety and relief, and after one final swell of noise, they thanked the crowd and left.

In the intermission, tracks by the popular funk band Vulfpeck played over the speakers to keep the audience moving. As some in the front row tried to maintain the leftover energy from Atta Kid’s set by crazily dancing, five shadowy figures, all seemingly college-aged, carried equipment toward the stage. Eventually, the audience started to realize that they were the next band, Thumpasaurus, and subsequently cheered in recognition. After taking their time to set up, the guitarist/vocalist screamed into the microphone, “Are you ready, motherfuckers!” This show was going to be different.

As they launched into the track “Dance Like It’s Your Life,” Thumpasaurus immediately applied a Parliament-Funkadelic-esque groove, employing a relatively simplistic and heavily electronic rhythm that permeated throughout most of the song. Both bands featured funk’s generic instrumental setup: horns, guitar, bass, drums, keys and sometimes vocals.  But in contrast to his counterpart from Atta Kid, the bassist from Thumpasaurus flowed back and forth between rhythm and lead, sometimes taking center stage to perform a bass solo.

As the band continued, the groove was noticeably less mathematical and complex than Atta Kid’s James Brown-esque stylings, yet it was arguably more danceable and hard-hitting. The sheer weight of the electronic keyboard and baritone sax produced an irresistible groove. The drums ditched messy backbeats for simplicity. Although basic, the beat centered around a swingy kick – open hihat – snare – open hihat pattern, almost forcing the bodies in the crowd to bounce, slumping on the kick and the snare and perking up at the sound of an open hi-hat. As the song continued into its chorus, all the members would shout “Dance like it’s your life!” at the end of each measure and in the first beat of the measure that followed. However, halfway through the chorus, the drums switched into a syncopated rhythm. At the end of each measure, all the members would shout “Dance like it’s your…” and while the crowd expected “life” to immediately follow in the next beat, the drum waited a half-beat and resumed on the first upbeat, backed up by a powerful keyboard flourish, almost toying with the audience’s anticipation of where the song was headed.

A louder and more interactive stage presence than the part-time singer from Atta Kid, the lead singer/rhythm guitarist from Thumpasaurus riled the crowd up again with another playful insult as the projection on the wall left of the audience sparked up to show a live feed of the performance through trippy filters of the band performing. The next song “You Are So Pretty” proved the most jarring departure from standard funk. Beginning with the keyboards repeating a three-note riff in a synth tone resembling an overdriven electric guitar, “You Are So Pretty” nearly took on a rock quality, with a combination of straight drums, electric guitar, synth and bass. But as the song launched into its verse, the vocalist approached the microphone, and for the first time sang solo — or, rather, chirped. While jarring at first, the lead singer’s staccato falsetto eventually melted into the groove of the song.

Whether it was a conscious musical choice or one brought on by the youth of the band, the Thumpasaurus’s performance style exhibited a sort of postmodern irony and a certain level of punk attitude. Towards the end of the set, the singer lost his voice, and notified the audience through song. Most singers would have attempted to hide this blemish any way they could, but he utilized his ailing voice to add strain to his scatting. At the center of the groove, the drummer, face hidden behind shaded Lennon glasses and shoulder-length hair, paused at the end of a measure, grinding the entire group to a halt. As he stood up and raised his drumstick to the air, the drummer turned his face to the audience and lightly mocked them with a grin, waiting for the crowd’s cheers begging him to resume to reach a crescendo.

Despite their similarities, each band made vastly different uses of the space and created an environment that catered to their own interpretations of funk and the groove. While Atta Kid was more reserved and respectful of the audience, generally sticking to their roots in James Brown style old-school funk, Thumpasaurus stomped on stage with an idiosyncratic Parliament-Funkadelic vibe, jokingly insulting the audience and adding a refreshing punk energy to the mix. As audience members poured out of the house, many argued over whose show was best. The diverse performances produced a divide among the concert-goers between those who valued the tradition of “old school” funk and those who saw a future in this new brand of punk funk.

As a proxy battle for the future of funk, the friendly sonic clash between Atta Kid and Thumpasaurus served as a reminder of the genre’s ever-changing sound. Where Atta Kid relied on nostalgia and respect for the classic roots of old school funk, Thumpasaurus sought to partially subvert this formality and add a punk attitude. Only time will tell if one of them will go extinct.

 

Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Dylan Grosz

Dylan is a freshman with an interest in CS and mathematics. He very much enjoys playing guitar, listening to music, and reading Pitchfork and The Onion. As a writer for the Stanford Daily, Dylan hopes to offer his voice as a vessel for others to navigate the vast, stormy seas of life. He will also usually do so in an overly dramatic metaphor.