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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.