The year's biggest hit so far, Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk!" may be more accurately titled "Ode to 1970s and 1980s Funk." From the instrumentation to the lyrics to Bruno Mars' vocals, the track pays tribute to groundbreaking artists and songs from the height of the funk era. This week's DeepSoul takes you on a guided tour of "Uptown Funk!" pointing out areas of interest and their origins.
00:00-00:16 (Introduction): The scratchy guitar riff, robotic-sounding bass line, and hard-hitting beat recall Zapp & Roger's 1980 hit "More Bounce to the Ounce." An offshoot of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire, Zapp was headed by Bootsy Collins protege Roger Troutman. His vocoder-enhanced vocal, along with the group's fat, funky grooves, propelled a still-futuristic sounding track that sounds as if it could have been recorded in 2015 rather than 1980. When hip hop exploded in the mid-1980s, artists rediscovered this underrated group, resulting in their bass lines and beats being sampled in an astounding number of rap classics.
0:17-1:06: Mars' raspy delivery and triumphant cry of "don't believe me, just watch" reflect James Browns' towering influence on R&B and funk. Too many of the Godfather of Soul's songs could be cited here, but 1970's "Super Bad" predates "Uptown Funk!" in terms of braggadocio, vocal delivery, and catchphrases. Brown convincingly brags that he embodies the song title, that "I wanna kiss myself!" Most people cite Trinidad James' 2013 single "All Gold Everything" as the origin of the "Uptown Funk" hook "don't believe me, just watch," but Brown's cry of "watch me!" predates both. An oft-sampled line from "Super Bad," the words have reappeared in various forms in countless soul and hip hop tracks. Finally, Mars' scratchy vocals imitate Brown's signature rhythmic delivery; like Brown, Mars accents the beat with "heys" and "ohs" like his predecessor.
1:07-1:23: Listen for the keyboards during the chorus. The sustained chord, which slightly mimics and organ, is a trademark of classic cuts by the Time (and, by extension, producer Prince). Their 1984 smash "Jungle Love" contains these sustained keyboard chords, adding a touch of funk to lead singer Morris Day's sexy yet playful vocals. This sound also became a signature of new jack swing, which former Time members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis pioneered. While "Jungle Love" was featured in the film Purple Rain, the song appears only on the Time's LP Ice Cream Castles.
2:21-2:47: The blaring, staccato horns derive straight from 1970s powerhouse Earth, Wind, & Fire, a groundbreaking group that combines jazz, R&B, funk, and rock to create some of the decade's most distinctive singles. Formed by the triumvirate Maurice White, brother Verdine White, and Philip Bailey, the band incorporated uplifting lyrics into music that stimulated the mind as well as enticed people to the dance floor. Their 1976 album Spirit produced the oft-sampled hit "Getaway," a symphony of blasting horns and intricate percussion that is recalled in the chorus to "Uptown Funk!"
2:55-3:12: Does Mars' rhythmic chant of "uptown funk you up" sound familiar? The pattern recalls the Gap Band's "I Don't Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops)," better known as "Oops Upside Your Head." The Parliament/Funkadelic-influenced track peaked at number four on the R&B Singles chart in 1980, also earning club play with its infectious dance beat. Lead singer Charlie Wilson's signature giggle and the catchy refrain became an instant earworm (along with its risqué recounting of nursery rhymes),gaining even more popularity during the hip hop era. Mars' chant imitates the rhythm pattern of the phrase "oops upside your head," paying tribute to one of the 1970s and 1980s best funk acts.
3:13-3:24: Here Mars expands on the previous chant, rapping "Jump on it / If you sexy than flaunt it / If you freaky than own it." At this point, "Uptown Funk!" transforms from a salute to funk to an homage to early hip hop. The group Newcleus released the electro classic "Jam on It" in 1983, which became a top ten R&B and a must-have single for breakdancers. Due to its unusual chipmunk-reminiscent refrain, the track also became known as the "Wikki Wikki Song." Compare Mars' lines to these "Jam on It" lyrics and rhythmic delivery courtesy of Newcleus rapper Cozmo D:
Jam on it
Jam on and on, on and on it
And if you're feelin' like you wanna dance all night
Then go on ahead and flaunt it
3:26-3:28: The slap bass line salutes 1970s and 1980s funk records. While acts such as Graham Central Station pioneered the slap bass, another key group is the Brothers Johnson. Brothers George (guitar and vocals) and Louis (bass and vocals) earned the respect of Quincy Jones, with the producer tapping them to perform on his own albums as well as those of other artists (most notably Michael Jackson's Off the Wall). One of the Brothers Johnson's' biggest hits, 1980's "Stomp!" features a slap bass solo demonstrates why Louis Johnson was one of the most respected funk bassists of the 1970s. The popping, speed-defying lines are mimicked in "Uptown Funk!" particularly toward the end of the track.
3:57-4:24: As Mars, Ronson, and the band repeat the title phase toward the conclusion, two words are interwoven throughout the chant: "say what?" The catchwords first emerged in the funk world through "I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)," the disco-era smash by New Jersey group Instant Funk. Released in 1979, DJ Larry Levan's remix topped the R&B singles charts and cracked the Billboard Top 20. Along with its popping bass line and sexually charged lyrics--underscored by seductive female moans--the song became famous for its chanted refrain:
I got my mind made up
Come on, you can get it
Get it girl, anytime (say what?)
Tonight is fine
This Kool & the Gang-influenced act may be remembered for this one hit, but "I Got My Mind Made Up" perfectly summarizes the hedonism of the disco era. "Uptown Funk's!" cry of "say what?" firmly places the hit in the 1970s funk sound.
Not only is Ronson and Mars' hit irresistibly catchy, it encourages listeners to revisit classic artists and pioneering tracks. Dig deeper into "Uptown Funk!" and rediscover truly timeless funk and R&B.
On a personal note, I am thrilled to be returning from my hiatus. Over the last couple of months I finished writing my first book, and I look forward to sharing more details as I learn more about its release date. Thank you for your ongoing patience--it's great to be back!