Peering Through The Front Door Of Funky House

TimFinney | May 19, 2008 12:00 pm

Bloggers may have a housebound reputation, but we do like to occasionally go out and shake what passes for our stuff. That’s why we have Idolator club guru Tim Finney to drag us onto the dancefloor for the purposes of exploring the worlds of house, techno, and beyond. In this installment, he digs into the UK genre known as “funky house,” which is a genre that’s still trying to define itself–and thrilling dancefloors in the process.

I like to think my taste in dance music is fairly ecumenical, but in truth no specific scene or sub-genre can come close to dislodging the special place in my heart reserved for the UK Garage (or 2-step garage) sound. The jittery fusion of house, R&B, dancehall, and drum & bass that ruled UK dancefloors at the turn of the millennium at times struck me as the very ideal of dance music: simultaneously pop and underground, restlessly mutational yet instantly identifiable, veering from intense physical roughness to charming singalong sweetness as if these two poles were ultimately indistinguishable.

When 2-step garage morphed into the darker, less hedonistic sounds of grime and dubstep about five years ago, it was a bit perplexing to learn that erstwhile fans still pining for good times party music had returned to the welcome embrace of house music proper. I mean, I love my house, but stepping off the rollercoaster ride of 2-step’s golden age, it was difficult not to wonder, “Is that all there is…?”

It’s both reassuring and exciting, then, to discover that the children of UK Garage have effectively come good, with two variations on the post-garage sound recently emerging as indefatiguable engines of excitement and innovation. In the North of the UK, there’s the bassline sound, built around stiff beats, turgid basslines, high-pitched female vocals and rudeboy MC chants. In London, the favoured sound is “funky house,” a confusing moniker that makes it hard to distinguish from the amorphous mush of overlapping house strains (tribal, filter disco, US garage, latin, electro-house) that has dominated commercial clubs for more than a decade. More specifically, “funky house” in this context takes its cues from the Afrobeat-influenced sound of New York’s Ibadan label, all multi-tiered tribal percussion, sweet female garage vocals, all leavened with the percussive lurch of Carribean soca music.

At first glance the Northern bassline scene would seem to have the edge on funky house: rougher and faster, its warped electronic textures give it a sickly, drug-affected sound that seems more in tune with the ethos of rave and less beholden to the classiness of American house. And bassline beat funky house to the charts with last year’s brilliant anthem “Heartbroken” by producer T2. But increasingly it feels like funky house is the scene to watch, its initially familiar indebtedness to US house concealing a secret thirst for mutation and experimentation.

In fact, the key to funky house’s appeal is how it casts further afield from the traditional preoccupations of garage or grime; bassline house makes sense as a descendant of speed garage and grime, but funky house’s combination reference points (tribal house, soca, the decidedly bourgeois “broken beat” scene) can seem rather staid on paper. In this risk lies the music’s reward: increasingly abandoning the basic 4X4 house template, funky house producers have been able to concoct a sound entirely distinct from its forebears, neither monolithically pummeling, nor nervous and fidgety, but somehow both and neither of these at the same time, all combined with a loose-limbed, well, funkiness that’s entirely its own. What this “funkiness” is precisely is hard to say, as the music hasn’t settled on a single rhythmic matrix yet, and still pursues various strategies to create its oddly unified vibe: kick-kick-snare soca beats, perversely syncopated rhythms stolen from broken beat, multi-tiered Latin percussion, and even blocky loops that resemble grime at its most organic.

If you’re keen for an official and physically manufactured intro, the default choice is Supa D’s new mix-CD Rinse 03, which is part of a series of compilations released by Rinse FM‘s regular DJs and the first to focus exclusively on funky house. It’s a fair enough overview, with a decent sprinkling of many of the scene’s best tracks to date, including DJ NG’s slick vocal anthem “Tell Me” and Geeneus’s brilliant partytime fix-up of Benga & Coki’s pasty dubstep crossover tune “Night.” But on the whole Rinse 03 is tilted towards the more polite end of funky house, and at times resembles a tepid, cautious tribute to the US sound that forms the scene’s original jumping-off point. “Look at us,” this UK-producer-only compilation seems to be saying, “we can do a great imitation of US producers.” Which is pleasant enough as it goes, but only occasionally does Supa D’s mix remember that the UK scene is mostly more interesting at the points where it diverges sharply from its US lineage.

For a decidedly more exciting take on this music, one has to turn to other radio DJs, such as Rinse FM’s Crazi Cousinz or Deja FM’s Marcus Nasty. Nasty’s shows in particular are astonishing, matching a seamless web of the scene’s most inventive productions to the constant chatter of MCs. If bassline house’s rigid beats and turgid basslines inevitably lead to a similarly blocky, angry chant MC style, the loose uptempo vibe of funky coaxes a more gracious and urbane flow, serenely floating on top of the tracks with a fleet-footed percussive dexterity, adding another level of rhythmic complexity to the already multi-tiered grooves.

Crazi Cousinz’s shows are more haphazard, but the group have the advantage of being the scene’s hottest producers, and they fill their shows with a treasure trove of their own tracks. No one better exemplifies the sheer range of this music, spanning the spectrum from rough to refined. The raucous instrumental “Top Up” is a gimmick track, its bouncy groove pivoting around a computerized voice encouraging listeners to top up their phone credit. Conversely, the group’s remix of Kyla’s “Do You Mind” is an effete but lethal vocal track, its rippling soca percussion rubbing up against jazzy piano cadences and infantile R&B vocals to create a delicious tension.

Somewhere in between is “Bongo Jam”, a goofy anthem whose vague allusions to Afrobeat are made comically explicit by its irresistible singalong chant, “Sometimes I wake up early in the morning to play my con-con-congo.” If there’s a better dance track this year I’ve yet to hear it.

Releases from producers such as Apple or Footloose reach towards a fusion of instrumental grime and tribal house drums, all juddering syncopated beats and crude horn fanfares. Imagine Swizz Beatz circa 1999 crafting homages to Masters At Work and you’re about there, with all the loveable ungainliness such a scenario implies. The mind-boggling tribal thuds of Apple’s “Mr Bean” and “Bean Get Well Soon” are so twisted and syncopated they make most 2-step and grime appear tame. How, then, can this music be considered “funky house”?

But this contradictory quality is crucial: often what thrills most is how moments of unsettling strangeness suddenly burst through a hitherto comfortable, familiar stylistic template, like when the warm soca-house groove of Geeneus’ “Yellow Tail” is interrupted by shouts of “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” and blasts of discordant synth chords. These sudden glimpses of the future may well end up being more exciting than the final destination. Like speed garage giving birth to 2-step garage in late 1997, or garage giving way to grime in 2002, right now “funky house” is a music of possibility and potentiality.

In an odd way, it’s the relative conservatism of the music’s starting premises that allow this to happen. House always seems so timeless and perfected that it’s easy to assume it’s also creatively exhausted; and admittedly the specific appeals of this brand of “funky house” are clustered around the style’s gross distortions of its original house template. But, as with speed garage in 1997 or so, it’s precisely that obvious, unthreatening universality that is key here: the phrase “funky house” acts a reset button, opening up a musical space that is shorn of the biases, pretensions and presumptions that inevitably grow up around any established genre and narrow its field of possibility. Few people expect anything in particular of funky house, beyond vague notions of good times and female-friendly singalong tunes; it’s even lost the veneer of glamour it might have once had. Freed from the weight of expectation, producers can get away with a great deal more.

Later on, we’ll be able to look back and discern a narrative, to signpost almost precisely the moments when the goalposts were shifted and the paradigm transformed. But right now all such narrative flourishes are up for grabs, and the resulting sense of uncertainty is as satisfying as it is disarming for a critic like me. Critics like to look into the rearview mirror and think they see the future; what distinguishes UK funky house from any other style currently going is not merely that this story hasn’t been written, but that it’s moving so fast and so multi-directionally that such attempts at prophecy seem feeble even before they hit the page. To be able to accurately predict the future is fun, but to be in the thick of it, to hear the future emerging so unexpectedly that it confounds your predictions… there’s quite seriously nothing better.

UK Funky House Top Ten: Crazi Cousinz – Bongo Jam Apple – Mr Bean Seany B – Stomper Kyla – Do You Mind (Crazi Cousinz Remix) Sticky – How Very Dare You Geeneus – Yellow Tail Footloose – Hurry Up DJ NG ft. MC Versatile & Baby Katy – Tell Me DJ Naughty – Quicktime Benga & Coki – Night (Geeneus Remix)