We all want the funk, but do we even really know what it is? Most every style of music has its distinctive rhythmic properties, from waltzes to samba to the offbeat ska guitar of reggae. But what is it that primarily defines the music of James Brown and other funk greats—music we cannot seem to hear without moving some part of our bodies? If you don’t know the answer, don’t worry—not even the great Bootsy Collins understood the fundamental principle when he first backed the Godfather of Funk in the early 70s.
Though funk is purpose-built to make people get loose and has produced some of the freest spirits in popular music, it must be played a certain way, its high practitioners proclaim. No less a master of funk than Prince put it best, as Austin Kleon notes: “Funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules.” Collins learned the number one rule in Brown’s band, the sine qua non of all funk: You’ve got to keep it on the one. In other words, the bass has to hit the first beat of every bar.
Hit the one, Collins learned (and teaches us in the short lesson at the top) and you can blast into the wild pyrotechnics that made him famous. Miss the one, and no amount of fancy fretwork is going to impress James Brown, who told him, “you give me the one, you can do all those other things.” (See Collins tell the story in the video clip below.) Brown had an elaborate theory of “the one,” according to his biographer RJ Smith: “The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself,” he said, “the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat…. never on lowdownbeat.”
It’s the one, according to Brown, that gives funk its root and its fruit: a seismic, earthy pulse and sexy, uplifting optimism. “I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you without question there is no pride in it.” Unlike his mentor, Bootsy doesn’t shade the blues when talking about the one. But he does have a message to deliver and it’s this: once you get the “basic funk formula, you can do anything you want to do with it.” Booty’s been bringing the funk since it began and took it places James Brown would never tread in Parliament/Funkadelic. Who better to carry the message to would-be funkateers out there?
In order to reach as many as possible, Collins decided to found a school, “Funk U.,” in 2010. Still going strong, the program has featured such guest online lecturers as Flea, Les Claypool, and Victor Wooten. The lessons of Funk U. are about music, he says, but they’re also about something else: about the deep truths he learned from James Brown. “You need the discipline and you also need to know that you can experiment, and you can open up and let your creative juices flow.” All that from the simple rhythmic beauty of keeping it on the one.