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It wasn’t long ago that hair metal icons lamented grunge for stealing their paychecks. “When that Nirvana album [Nevermind] arrived, and Soundgarden, and the first Pearl Jam album, Alice In Chains... I thought, ‘This is awesome. This is heavy!'” Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider said last year. “And suddenly [grunge] became [this thing that] was killing other bands. But I thought it was great when it first came out.”
Many have since softened their stance (in the same interview, Dee Snider says his genre needed to be “knocked off its pedestal”), and yet, most people tend to agree with the first sentiment: that grunge was the major driver for hair metal's decline. They’re not wrong, but that opinion also disregards plenty of history and cultural influence that predicted the shift. Nevermind’s success was the watershed moment that cut through Aqua Net pageantry and power ballads, but another genre—albeit, one that is loose and invented—also contributed to the mass awakening that hair metal was contrived. I’m speaking, of course, of funk metal.
Funk metal: a four-letter word to many, a slap in the face and bass to hair metal. Or funk punk, funk rock, really, anything funk-y, self-aware, and a lot less serious than the sounds of the Sunset Strip. Before you poke holes in that hypothesis, if we can agree that anything from Soundgarden’s Sabbath-cum-post-punk dirge, Pearl Jam’s* classic rock crooning, and Nirvana’s compact take on punk-influenced rock are definitively grunge, we should be able to agree that Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, and Fishbone—fuck it, Primus too—hit into the funky-ass metal category that chipped away at hair metal’s hold on the charts.
*Have you seen any early Mookie Blaylock footage? Pearl Jam at their most funked out, Mr. Vedder can be seen wearing wacky hats and basketball jerseys… just sayin'.
Funk metal: a four-letter word to many, a slap in the face and bass to hair metal.
It would be impossible to try and identify “the first heavy funk artist or song,” so, instead, to dive into this history, we should tighten the lens and look at two of the most influential proto-punk icons: the Stooges and the Motor City Five. Stay with me. MC5 guitarist and co-founder Wayne Kramer has referenced the influence of James Brown, free jazz, and radical politics on the MC5 while their compatriots, the Stooges, were drawing from psychedelic rock, early blues, funk, as well as Sun Ra Arkestra. And both bands were clearly impacted by the R&B/soul of Fortune and Motown Records, both founded in Detroit.
Funk was also a darkhorse influence on American hardcore punk, inspiring bands like funk punk proginators the Big Boys, and yes, the Funky Monks from California, a.k.a., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but also the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers, and Saccharine Trust. The throughline is fairly simple: many U.S. bands were influenced by no wave outfits that fused punk and funk together, as well as U.K. post-punk bands (who were influenced by steel drum reggae and funk). And it’s not just those U.S. bands, either. We can go as broad as Talking Heads and Rick James (who claimed to have coined the “funk punk” term) or as niche as Pigbag, Rip Rig, and Panic, the latter three a massive influence on the Big Boys.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
One of the biggest and most surprising influences of the funk-y music that would one day eclipse hair metal was a band formed in Leeds, U.K. in 1976: Gang of Four. The band’s mix of confrontational dance beats, spiky guitar riffs, and smooth basslines, mapped out how angular instrumentation could be rhythmic, and a stripped-down core could sound orchestral. And they were massively important to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers hired Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill to produce their 1984 self-titled debut LP. He was less than thrilled. “One day, I got a glimpse of Gill's notebook, and next to the song ‘Police Helicopter,’ he'd written ‘Shit.’" RHCP’s singer Anthony Kiedis wrote in his 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue. "I was demolished that he had dismissed that as shit. ‘Police Helicopter’ was a jewel in our crown. It embodied the spirit of who we were, which was this kinetic, stabbing, angular, shocking assault force of sound and energy. Reading his notes probably sealed the deal in our minds that ‘Okay, now we're working with the enemy.’ It became very much him against us, especially [bassist] Flea and me. It became a real battle to make the record.”
Despite Gill’s disdain for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ brand of funky punk, they did alright for themselves, scoring their first Gold album five years later with Mother’s Milk (1989), and that was two years before 1991, a.k.a. “The Year Punk Broke.”
In this funk punk and metal story, there’s another Los Angeles band who are rarely regarded as groundbreaking, despite being undeniably influential. Formed in 1985, Jane’s Addiction were traversing the same venues as L.A.’s hair metal squadron, but unlike their contemporaries—who were appropriating the glam of the New York Dolls and Bowie in an attempt to draw more women to the gigs—Jane’s Addiction played with makeup and androgynous fashions for the sheer spectacle. As Guns N’ Roses was stomping out punk-influenced rock machismo, Jane’s Addiction were equally important on the L.A. scene, fusing psychedelia and fetish culture with heavy guitar rock. (Plus, the band’s frontperson Perry Farrell went on to found Lollapalooza in 1991, an art, music, and progressive politics festival that became the blueprint for the American music fests we imbibe in today; sans all the thought-provoking parts, and minus the psychedelics.) Farrell was also an early LGBTQ+ ally, making the band a stark contrast to… I dunno… the fucking hair metal of W.A.S.P. or Ratt.
And they were funky! The opening chords of “Stop,” one of the band’s most popular tracks, attests to the fact that there’s plenty of slap and skronk throughout their catalog. Unsurprising, as Jane’s Addiction once described their sound as Duke Ellington meets Bad Brains. (And let’s be real: Bad Brains’ 1986 LP I Against I is all funk, soul, and metal, along with their signature hardcore.)
Faith No More
A year prior to the release of I Against I, in 1985, Bay Area band Faith No More released We Care A Lot. The title track is a funk-rap hybrid of angst that predated and predicted the sound many Adidas tracksuit-wearing folks would channel in the late-’90s/early-2000s. (Nu-metal. That’s a nu-metal joke.) Featuring Chuck Mosley on vocals (who briefly fronted Bad Brains in the early-’90s), Faith No More’s 1987 follow-up, Introduce Yourself, featured an updated version of “We Care A Lot,” and in 1989, with the addition of Mike Patton on vocals and the release of their The Real Thing LP, Faith No More secured another hit: the funky rap-metal jaunt “Epic.” (It comes off more like satire than an homage to hip-hop, but still, it’s a big moment for slap bass and tongue-in-cheek irony.)
Faith No More weren’t the only funky Bay Area band. San Francisco is the home to many funky notables, including Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, Sheila E, and that guy who rips soulful solos with Rob Thomas, Carlos Santana. There’s also Lester Claypool, a musician once deemed “too good”—and probably too funky—for Metallica. You know him from Primus.
We have to mention Primus in the funk-y metal story because the band had an underground hit with their 1990 LP Frizzle Fry, followed by their major label debut, Sailing the Seas of Cheese in 1991, cementing their contributions to food-themed mirth and jester hat culture forever.
They’re also a jam band, and while that wasn’t exactly cool in punk circles, in the 2000s, the title has grown to become absolutely normal, tolerated, even championed. Respect to Claypool for being true—and for pioneering Oysterhead in 2000, his collaboration with Stewart Copeland of the Police and Trey Anastasio of Phish.
Mordred and Infectious Grooves
While they didn’t have a hit, San Francisco’s Mordred deserves to be mentioned in this history, if only for their 1989 single, “Every Day’s a Holiday.” It is so funkafied and the bassist is wearing a Bad Brains shirt. You see, for every band that aspired to be, like, the Cure in the ’80s and early ’90s, there were bands hoping to channel the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s true of the funk metal supergroup Infectious Grooves, too. Founded in 1989 and lead by Suicidal Tendencies frontman Mike Muir, the group features a funkafied Robert Trujillo (who was just funky enough for Metallica), and former Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins. That’s all we need to say on that.
Funk metal had a moment in the late ’80s, and no song better encapsulates that than Living Colour’s 1988 single “Cult of Personality,” because for anything to be culturally relevant, a New York City band has to answer L.A.’s call. I don’t make the rules, it’s just true. (And sure, NYC’s Anthrax has their own rap semi-satire, semi-hit “I’m the Man” in 1987, but it was “Cult of Personality” that put everyone on notice and hit No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.)
Cemented by a riff as heavy as anything Jimmy Page borrowed from the blues, Living Colour’s four Black virtuosos stated their purpose with a politically-charged song and video that was as radical as it was eye-catching. And they weren’t fucking around, as evidenced by guitarist Vernon Reid co-founding the BRC (The Black Rock Coalition) with legendary music critic Greg Tate, a New York-based artists' collective and nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the creative freedom and works of black musicians.
So how do we end a topic with no true beginning? I guess we’ll head back to the start with Nirvana’s Nevermind, released on September 24, 1991. I’m not one for conspiracies or numerology—they’re not only exhausting but also stupid—but a very funky album dropped on the same date: the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ magnum opus, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. (Fuck, there we go with the occult!) So maybe it wasn’t Nirvana that killed hair metal, maybe it was punk, grunge and funk metal that officially deaded the stuff, relegating Twisted Sister’s genre to county fairs and casinos for the decades to follow.
Listen, it’s clear to see that hair metal was bound to get less popular, people always want the “new thing,” even if it’s a lot like the old thing, and people want to fucking dance. No shade to Nirvana, or any other grunge band, but when the chips are down and the shots (with a dash of performance enhancers from that sketchy uncle) are flowing at any wedding reception in the USA, people want to “Give It Away” not “Come as (They) Are” because life, like a good riff, is heavy. We all want a funky release, even if we don’t live in California.