10 Essential Synth-Funk tracks

Treble staff
Essential Synth-funk tracks

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, no genre was immune from the invasion of the synthesizer. New technologies pushed players in all genres to adapt, whether they played rock ‘n’ roll or even heavy metal (Judas Priest is still getting crap for Turbo). And though it meant some awkward transitions for some artists, it led to some radical and ultimately revelatory developments in others. Funk was one of those, as artists like Parliament and Prince adopted a synth-friendly approach that took an already righteous sound and took it deeper into the future. Synthesizers turned out to be a natural complement to funk, the fat analog sounds of Moogs and Korgs adding more bounce to the bassline, and a lighter complement to the beats. And with modern synth-funk maestro Dam-Funk about to release his second double-album of keytar-driven funk, it seemed only right to highlight some of the best tracks of the genre. Get down and dirty to these 10 essential synth-funk tracks.


Leon Haywood essential synth-funk tracksLeon Haywood – “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You
(1975; 20th Century/Get on Down)

Real talk? This song needs a copyright date of 1992. Samples from it and a synth line based on part of its instrumental melody form the skeleton of “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” the track from The Chronic that lifted Dr. Dre’s solo rap career into the stratosphere and helped affix Death Row Records and the G-funk sound to music history forever and ever, hallelujah. The 1975 original is a loverman anthem that on first listen is cut from the same cloth as the orchestral funk of Isaac Hayes and Barry White. Just below the surface, however, are organ parts and squelchy processed bass that would in short order help form the core of synth-funk. – AB


essential synth-funk tracks ParliamentParliament – “Flash Light
(1978; Casablanca)

Synth-funk is a pretty specific genre, but even within this microcosm of bouncing beats and rubberband basslines, there are even smaller microcosms. Although it’s hard to think of the many planets in George Clinton’s funk galaxy as being small, P-Funk represented an entire world unto itself, where grooves extended for miles, verses and choruses were entirely obliterated in favor of layers and layers of dense instrumentation and vocals, with various refrains and shout-outs happening in one giant space-age orgy of good times. “Flash Light” is the best and biggest song to emerge from Parliament’s unidentified funk object, with Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins guiding the ship with their head-spinning laser grooves. This is how you rock a party on Neptune. – JT


Prince Dirty MindPrince – “Head”
(1980; Warner Bros.)

Funk is, by nature, a sexually charged genre. It’s a style of music that’s defined by its physicality—its ability to liberate one’s body from his or her puritanical hangups. Your hips move, you get a little sweaty, and perhaps you’ll find yourself getting a bit closer and more intimate with the person next to you. And in the case of Dirty Mind highlight “Head,” performing cunnilingus. To an engaged woman. Right before she walks down the aisle. Indeed, it is raunchy, and more than a little wrong, but damned if it doesn’t feel right, in large part due to the persistent groove that carries the song, and the pervasive synthesizer hooks, which reach a climax during the solo and then achieve a kind of post-coital glow when vibing out right at the end. There’s no guarantee that synth-funk of this kind will, in fact, lead to sexual escapades of such an illicit nature. But it couldn’t hurt, right? – JT


essential synth-funk tracks Grace JonesGrace Jones – “Pull Up to the Bumper
(1981; Island)

Grace Jones’ 1981 album Nightclubbing isn’t a funk album, exactly—it’s more of a reggae-heavy new wave album, its arrangements performed by a team of musicians anchored by legendary Jamaican duo Sly & Robbie. But its breakout single, “Pull Up to the Bumper,” is club funk as high art, both sparkling in its pristine production and highly corporeal in its sexual metaphors. Compared to a song like “Head,” “Pull Up to the Bumper” isn’t all that filthy, but it did set off some radio station censors in its day, and in all fairness, Jones’ lyric is not at all subtle: “Pull up to my bumper baby / In your long black limousine / Pull up to my bumper baby / Drive it in between.” It’s auto-erotica in the Marc Bolan sense of the word, sweaty and intoxicating in peculiar, abstract forms. It’s also one of her most enduring songs, thanks to a perennially fresh rhythmic pulse, and a bouncy, rubbery synthesizer sound that rolls like tires on concrete. – JT


essential synth-funk tracks George ClintonGeorge Clinton – “Atomic Dog
(1982; Capitol)

It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that “Atomic Dog” during a period of chemical-addled excess: It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, at least not by any non-funk logic. There’s some kind of parable about a dog chasing its tail, or a cat, or something, amid what seems like a gospel choir and a low chant of “Bow wow wow, yippee-yo, yippee-yay,” which Snoop dutifully borrowed in 1993. (G-funk is a direct descendent of P-funk, after all.) But none of that really matters when you hear the bassline, the ethereal synth sheen, and all that sweet, sweet funk(zilla). It’s a party—it doesn’t have to make sense. – JT


essential synth-funk tracks Gap BandThe Gap Band – “You Dropped a Bomb on Me
(1982; Total Experience)

Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band have enjoyed some recent attention, however indirectly, thanks in part to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ incorporation of motifs from “Oops Upside Your Head” into “Uptown Funk.” As the Gap Band eased into the ’80s, however, so did their technology, with big, beefy synthesizers taking over where fat basslines once were. The synths at the heart of “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” are the main attraction, vibing and pulsing while Wilson pursues an extended metaphor for being turned on by a fine female. Watching the video, with its psychedelic war images and camouflage garb, it’s easy to be reminded of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” (and the BPMs are pretty close, actually), which was released the same year. Not that the Clash weren’t funky in their own way, but this track has a little bit more bounce to the ounce. – JT


essential synth-funk tracks RockitHerbie Hancock – “Rockit
(1983; Columbia)

What didn’t this track have going for it back in the day? It sowed early seeds of electronica’s mass appeal. It was a rare crossover pop hit from the jazz world. It was heavy-rotation high weirdness from video directors Godley & Creme during MTV’s infancy. And, with the help of DJ GrandMixer D.ST, it introduced the turntable as a legitimate musical instrument. But above and beyond all of these qualities, Hancock, D.ST, and members of post-disco band Material infused this track with never-heard-before grooves. Hancock’s synth leads (the honking main melody and his crystalline solos), his ensemble’s rhythms, and new elements from scratched breaks to processed voices essentially created the future of the funk. – AB


essential synth-funk tracks CameoCameo – “Word Up!
(1986; Polygram)

Most synth-funk came into being simply by the natural course of the passage of time and the adoption of new technology—most of these artists were already making good to great funk music before they discovered synthesizers. In the case of New York City’s Cameo, however, it resulted in their biggest hit. “Word Up!” is maybe the last great funk song of the ’80s, hitting hard with slap bass and an almost industrial beat. More robotic and mechanized than Cameo’s earlier disco-funk, it’s about as good an example of any as to what 1986 sounded like. There are squealing saxophones, synthesizers everywhere, and even a brief nick of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly theme. It would be a mistake to overlook the video, however, in which LeVar Burton is a detective seeking to arrest the band for, I dunno, being too funky? Well if it’s a crime to jam like this, then maybe it’s better to be an outlaw. But the only actual crime, as far as “Word Up!” is concerned, is Korn’s ill-advised cover version. – JT


Ginuwine - "Pony"Ginuwine – “Pony
(1996; 550 Music)

Piggybacking off of West Coast G-funk and incorporating DIY production as the allure and cost-effectiveness of sampling was falling away, Ginuwine and his producer Timbaland struck gold on this dirty-minded lead single from debut album Ginuwine…The Bachelor. It’s built up from cartoonish boings and pings, vocodered yeahs in caricature, and over-the-top metaphors for sex; The Art of Noise are apparently hiding in there, too. There’s no obvious organic sound or handcrafted instrument to pick out as this track shuffles its way into your pants—“synth” for synthesizer, “synth” for synthetic. – AB


essential synth-funk tracks Dam-FunkDām-Funk – “10 West
(2009; Stones Throw)

A top 10 like this forces us to touch on many influences and proper performers only tangentially, if at all. Ensembles like Zapp & Roger, studios and collectives like Funky Nassau, pioneers like Steve Arrington, and stables led by the likes of Prince, George Clinton, and Rick James could push us to a top 50 if we were supremely undisciplined. To solve the problem, we present Los Angeles musician, DJ, and producer Damon Riddick. The reigning and undisputed king of the keytar, Dām-Funk released a series of throwback-feel EPs in 2009 that were compiled into the double album Toeachizown, their density belying his status as a one-man band. Any track on Toeachizown could be a good starting point, really; a cut like “10 West” latches onto a 1980s aesthetic recalling everything from “Sexual Healing” to “Trapped” to “I’ll Be Good.” Combined with a long string of other singles and EPs, and collaborators including MC Eiht and Snoop Dogg, it’s clear that Dām-Funk speaks many synth-funk dialects with his goddamn hands. – AB

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View Comments (4)
  • How can you have a list of essential synth funk without the synth funk national anthem?……. .. .Zapp’s “more bounce to the ounce”!!! (RIP Roger) A track that was wayyyyy ahead of it’s time & will rock forever(ridiculous). Prince’s (RIP) “1999” song should be in place of “Head”. Head a funk track with a synth solo in it, 1999 was a Synth driven masterpiece, that whole album is an essential Synth Funk/MLPS sound.

    • Well he did mention the phrase MBTTO showing he has heard of it… but I agree with you, 1999 should be here in place of Head. I never heard any Prince on the radio before ‘Controversy’.

      Word Up = last great funk song, good call. Music went to crap right after that and lost all spontaneity as if taken over by sinister forces.

      Some more obscure hardcore funk from one hit wonders

      • Leon Haywood – “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You”

        is not synth funk………………….there are no synthesizers on the song

        ..Pony by Ginuwine is not top 10 funk material and neither is Head

  • Thanks for the list! I’ve been digging into some playlists on spotify and really loving this synth funk sound. I’m wondering, what artists are either still making stuff in this sound, or have possibly evolved in into something more modern but with its roots intact?

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