The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Funk Music

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Funk Music

Author: Katie Kelley


Usually, we’d invite you to sit down and get comfortable before diving into one of our guides. But in the case of funk music, we sincerely hope you’re standing.

Funk music is guaranteed to get you dancing. But the beat isn’t the only part that’ll bring you to your feet.

Funk music’s unreplicable groove was founded in rich cultural history—inspiring people to come together, create, unite, and most importantly, celebrate despite hard times.

By the end of this guide to funk music, you’re not just going to know the definition of funk. You’ll be leaping out of your seat to share the power of funk music with everyone you know. (Warning: A spontaneous dance party is likely to ensue.)

What is Funk Music?

Funk is a popular music genre that emerged from the Black-American community in the 1960s from jazz, gospel, soul, Black rock, and R&B influences.

Funk music is faithful to the rhythm like its preceding genres, but it does one thing differently. Instead of swinging the rhythm, or emphasizing beats two and four, funk music focuses on beat one

If you didn’t major in Music Theory, the difference looks like this: 

  • Swinging beat: One two three four one two three four
  • Funk beat: One two three four one two three four 

  • This emphasis on “the one,” as it’s known, charged the music with a power that was unparalleled to anything else in the 60s—and people took notice.

    How Funk Gets its Groove

    The one isn’t the only noteworthy element of funk music. There are a few distinctions that formulate its undeniable groove. They may seem subtle, but once you hear them, you won’t unhear them—nor will you want to:

  • “The one” – An emphasized first beat in every measure draws inspiration from African tribal music, deviates from jazz’s playful swing, and propels the rhythm forward. Listen to any funk song, and you’ll realize your snaps will be grounded on the first beat.

  • Prominent, repeating bassline – Funk music is famous for its basslines. The bass gives funk that low, bellowing groove you feel in your stomach. Think “Thank You” by Sly and the Family Stone. Anyone can hear that bassline and name the lyrics to go with it. 

  • Syncopated rhythm – Beat one isn’t the only count getting attention. To keep things interesting, funk uses syncopation, or an emphasis on weaker beats, to mimic the body’s natural dance urges. Listen for it in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” by James Brown.

  • Supporting instruments – Guitars, synthesizers, horns, and drums are all very common in funk music, but they rarely take center stage. Instead, they help the prominent bassline and work together to feed the groove, like solar-powered panels sustaining a home.

  • The History of Funk Music

    Aside from its innovative musical tendencies, the groove of funk music is underpinned by a history unlike any other genre. The beat of funk took stride with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and helped motivate millions of people toward positive change. 

    In the U.S. in the 60s, racial oppression was at large and the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, with activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks at the helm of the fight against racial segregation and social injustice. 

    At the time, jazz and R&B were the most popular genres in the Black community. Then, one musician took the stage and changed the game forever: James Brown. 

    James Brown 

    James Brown is known as The Grandfather of Funk. He started in soul, but he invented funk music. His well-known song, “Cold Sweat,” released in 1967, is credited as the first-ever funk song. Brown was an innovator, a leader, and a meticulous master of music. 

    Once Brown introduced the concept of funk music, other artists followed. Arenas danced, charts topped, and the genre soared. Funk became synonymous with cool, setting the foundation of an entire cultural movement through the 1970s. 

    Celebrating Black Culture

    As funk music gained popularity, so did Brown’s reputation. During the Civil Rights Movement, Brown stood alongside leaders like MLK Jr. to fight for justice and use his influence to spark change.

    After the assassination of MLK Jr., the Black community—and the world—mourned the loss of a north star. The musician responded by producing the song “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” to reignite the community with hope, self-love, and empowerment. 

    This, along with numerous other examples, stamped funk music with the honorable emblem of positivity, joy, celebration, and hope in the face of oppression. Funk music invited everyone to the party, uniting people with a simple, yet abundantly powerful beat. 

    The Major Influences of Funk Music

    You simply can’t discuss funk music without mentioning James Brown. Brown laid the brickwork for other artists to build even more magic, including: 

  • James Brown – The Godfather of Funk wrote and performed the first-ever funk music and birthed a new genre. He designed the concept of “the one,” sold over 50 million records, topped over 70 charts, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1982. He is revered as a legend in music and black social justice.

  • Sly and the Family Stone – A monumental interracial band in the 1960s that drew from Brown’s influence. Sly Stone, another musician credited with many integral developments of the genre, invented slap the bass—a technique of tapping and plucking the bass to add rhythm—which is still used in funk music today.

  • George Clinton – An out-of-the-box funk pioneer who grew to fame in the 1970s by pushing the limits of funk music. He invited creative freedom to the stage, allowing funk musicians to improvise and invent a sound all their own. He created funkadelic, a mixture of psychedelic rock and funk, and transformed shows into theater.

  • Earth, Wind, and Fire – If George Clinton’s funk was experimental and niche, then Earth, Wind & Fire’s was refined, polished, and palatable. They used their strong musicianship to carry funk to a broader, more mainstream audience—but kept the legacy of theatrical performances that George Clinton began. 

  • The Evolution of Funk Music

    We could sit (or stand) for hours around a record player and weave through some of the best funk albums of all time. (And if you plan on doing that, can we come?) 

    Until then, here’s a look from a 10,000-foot view of the evolution of funk music through the decades:

  • The 1960s – Funk music was born here. It was a statement in the movement toward social justice for Black Americans. James Brown and other funk pioneers urged millions to “get up offa that thang” and get into the groove. 

  • The 1970s – Funk music thrived here. The genre became synonymous with cool. It stood for freedom of expression, especially in the Black community, but everywhere else as well. Funk was influencing fashion, movies, culture, and all things swagger. 

  • The 1980s – Funk took a backseat here as disco came to rise. So what is the difference between funk vs disco? Disco was less obscure for some people, adopting a beat known as “four to the floor,” or all four beats emphasized in a measure. However, funk certainly inspired many other traits of disco.

  • The 1990s – Funk was a proud dad here to hip hop. Hip hop brought back the interesting rhythmic syncopation, emphasized beats, and Black pride that fell to the wayside during the disco era. Many experts believe that without funk, there would be no hip hop.

  • The 2000s – Funk became an active grandfather to rock, contemporary R&B, hip hop, and a band of other young genres. Its influence was known, respected, and regularly celebrated as a critical foundation for dance-inspiring modern music. 

  • Funk Music Today

    Today, funk music is immortally alive and well. It’s resurged in recent years in its purest form, and bits and pieces of its DNA run deep through popular music worldwide. 

    Funk’s Influence on Other Genres

    A few genres carried over especially discernable notes from funk music. Listen closely to your favorite dance-party hit, and you just might find your feet tapping to that famous one beat or your arms waving syncopated shapes in the air like they just don’t care. Specifically, you’ll hear it echoing in genres like: 

  • Disco – Make no mistake: funk gave disco the main stage in the 80s, but it also lent disco a lot of its rhythmic flair. As these genres brushed elbows on the timeline, many funk bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, and Cool & The Gang crossed over from funk to disco to design a brand new fusion sound. 

  • Hip hop – Call it funk’s revival. Listening to hip hop, you’re bound to hear that sharp, unapologetic confidence that made funk famous. Hip hop combined the tech sounds from disco with the classic bass slaps and rhythmic intricacies of funk and built something cool, refreshing, and timeless.

  • Rock – Funk and rock crossed paths often in the 70s, 80s, and still today. The Rolling Stones were known to borrow a few notes from funk music to give their sound an unexpected bite. Today, bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers deem themselves funk rock, an amalgamated genre of chill, groove, and spice. 

  • Pop – Perhaps the most prominent sighting of funk’s influence on pop music is when Prince lit the stage. Prince grew up with funk music, so in his early days, he used it heavily. He later went on to blur all genre lines, from rock to pop to disco. But one thing is clear: the funk made it all dance.

  • Get in the Funk Groove with Victrola

    Whether you’re looking for classic funk sounds of the 1960s, yearning for the sweet fusions of funk rock, or chasing after the shiny new funk of today, we’ve got you covered, sealed, and shipped at Victrola. 

    Enter our record store and hear James Brown in a pristine live recording in Dallas in 1968. Open your mind to George Clinton’s far-out world in Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. Catch a train to Grovetown with Dumpstaphunk’s latest release, Where Do We Go From Here.

    We got the funk—and you’ve got to have it. 


    Britannica. Funk

    Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Godfather of Soul.

    MasterClass. Funk Music Guide: Understanding Funk Music

    MasterClass. All About Disco: Inside the History and Influence of Disco Music

    Inside Pulse. The Importance Of Funk Music For Art And Pop Culture.


    Funk N'Finity. The Story of Funk One Nation under a Groove.