The Mezzanine wasn’t packed to capacity Saturday night, but there was a point about a quarter into Dam-Funk’s set when things started to get electric on the dance floor. I was in a sort of self-imposed paralysis, but looking around, it seemed as if I was surrounded by about half a dozen people, each just completely going for it. Woman in a sundress, shaking it back and forth without spilling the second half of her drink; A couple of businessmen out for a night during a layover; Short brunette busting out some fly girl moves not seen since In Living Color; Some jaw-some kid with ass length blonde hair and a complete tie-died outfit (with matching head-band), popping, locking, sliding, swerving, and whatever, all in a way that screamed drugs; A skinny guy with a flat-top and glasses, dancing with two girls and doing the robot. The fucking robot.
Everyone was getting down to the best of their ability; they were getting down to the combined forced of Master Blazter: L.A. musicians Dam-Funk, Computer Jay, and J-1. I had told my friends that we were going to a funk show, which was true in one sense, but totally misleading. Sure, the show was part of the SF Funk Fest, but for a lot of people, the term funk conjures up images of a bygone era of music, now performed by revivalists. Early in, Dam-Funk (his music’s greatest defender) got on the mic to clear this up, saying that what they were playing wasn’t “retro funk” – pronouncing retro like his wanted to spit – it was “modern funk.”
Whatever it is (some call it boogie funk), it’s got a heavy electronic sound, built on Dam-Funk’s Roland keyboards and shoulder synth (he also doesn’t like to hear people call that a keytar), Computer Jay’s beat work, and J-1’s breaks on the drum kit. A little bit of George Clinton/Sun Ra styled spaciness, mixed with some West Coast G rap cool, with some Prince style stage presence, there’s a lot of references to pick up, but the end product seems slightly futuristic. Not the reincarnation of Stevie Wonder in the year 2077, but like 14 months into the future, when all known musical genres have completed melded.
As a group, Master Blazter can jam out on a track, building it up beyond what the audience thinks it can take and holding it there, but knows when to shift and refocus attention, leading to some fairly memorable solos: Dam-Funk taking over on the drums for a super-syncopated session. Or, Computer Jay letting go of his giant console and coaxing a big, bouncy beat out of a little tiny controller with the playfulness of a child with a Gameboy. And, of course, Dam-Funk bringing his keyt – shoulder synth down into the crowd, letting the mob join in and smack the keys. The fact that the last one didn’t devolve into noise is a testament to how well the rest of the group grounded the beat.
The only lull in the evening came right before the encore moment. I don’t know if somebody actually said anything to him to occasion it, or if it was just a standard part of the show (I’m leaning this way,) but Dam-Funk went into a fairly long interlude mid-track about being called “nigga.” The beat seemed to hang on endless symbol crashes as Dam Funk asked “What makes me different from (insert black figure)?” MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby. (I started to nervously laugh when he got to Cosby, the intensity ratcheting up out of nowhere, along with the many possible absurd answers to that rhetorical question.) This was mixed with declarations that this wasn’t just a “coon show.”* Maybe part of getting people to take his music as more than just dance music involves provocation, but in an interesting twist, and showing that he wasn’t just covering Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” Dam-Funk said at one point he was speaking to the black guys in the audience “I’m not your nigga, I’m your brother.” If he wanted to challenge people, he did, as the atmosphere definitely changed, and a few tired couples seemed to take it as a cue to leave.
The energy down, it wasn’t enough to totally derail the night. Mainly because even when the DJ (possibly just picking up clues from the crowd) started playing records, J-1 came to the front of the stage and – with some throat slicing motions – signaled both “cut that shit off” and “this shows not over.” Dam-Funk returned to the stage (and smaller crowd) for an encore, which included the single “Hood Pass Intact.” Among Dam-Funk’s catchiest, straightforward songs, it’s a celebration of keeping it real, and a good option for introducing people to his music. Typically one of the easiest songs to get into, on Saturday night it was also the hardest to get to.
*Google “Dam Funk Antoine Dodson” for more on this topic.
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