Learn the Number One Rule of Funk: Bootsy Collins Explains the Importance of “Keeping It on the One”

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.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Some of the Most Pow­er­ful Bass Gui­tar Solos Ever: Ged­dy Lee, Flea, Boot­sy Collins, John Dea­con & More

Visu­al­iz­ing the Bass Play­ing Style of Motown’s Icon­ic Bassist James Jamer­son: “Ain’t No Moun­tain High Enough,” “For Once in My Life” & More

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Jesse Souza says:

    “No less a mas­ter of funk than Prince”? I know a white boy wrote this arti­cle; Prince was too steeped in pop and rock to play authen­tic funk. Next time, cite JB (James Brown), he was the REAL funk god­fa­ther.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Well, if you’d read the whole thing, you’d see that JB is all over this post, but… shrug…

  • rashard zanders says:

    Prince deserves the props; Funka­teers can play what they like and it’s still Funk. Why should they be lim­it­ed.

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