By Rebecca Bulnes
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By Chuck Strouse
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Funk isn't just music. For some, like Dâm (pronounced dame) Funk, it's a way of life.
Born Damon Riddick, Dâm comes from the hood. He grew up in Pasadena during the 1980s crack epidemic, when gunshots and baseheads were part of everyday life. Today, the producer-DJ lives near Leimert Park in South Los Angeles, an area that used to be known as South Central, and he makes funk music. Not funk that's stuck in a time warp, but conscious future funk that channels his roots in late-'70s and mid-'80s boogie, modern soul, electro, rock, and heavy metal.
Ditching school to play keyboards and experiment with making music, Dâm was hipped early to the changing climate of popular culture as radio stations switched quickly from disco to pop, hair metal, and the like. "I figured out you just have to stay true to what you do," he explains. "I grew up during the new jack swing era but never tried to sound like those genres — just what's in my heart."
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Appropriately, his listening habits were eclectic. His shelves held Prince, Slave, and Zapp records stacked next to early Van Halen, Human League, and Rush. "When Prince was coming up, that was one of my major influences," he says. "I would come home, open up my windows, look at the mountains, and every Tuesday when the new record would come out, I would put it on the record player and escape."
Later, Dâm fell under the influence of the West Coast rap sound, known as g-funk or gangsta funk, that — unlike its East Coast counterpart — wasn't heavy on sampling. "The West Coast hip-hop scene actually involved musicians," he says, "which was cool because they allowed you to replay tracks." Other gangsta obsessions, however, never really appealed to him. "I take things from [the g-funk era] and bring it to another level," he continues. "Subtracting the gunplay, the stereotypical lowriders — subtracting the obvious. I don't want to have to talk about the obvious stuff, like dope-selling. Everybody is not living like that."
It's been two decades since Dâm got his start as a session player. He played keyboard for producer Leon Sylvers III of the prolific group the Sylvers and then worked with rappers such as Mack 10, MC Eiht, and WC. But not until last October did Dâm release his first solo album, a five-disc box set titled Toeachizown. Part fantasy, part future, and all funk, the Stones Throw Records release uses vintage drums, vocoders, and synths, sounding like it came from 1983. Stuttering bass lines and claps on "Mirrors" are met with the trunk thump of "Hood Pass Intact" and the cruising groove of "One Less Day."
"First, when it dropped, I heard naive comments that the record was too long or that the songs sound similar," he says. "But people realized, 'It does make sense and he did something different.' That's what I was trying to do."
Since last August, he has been on a global voyage, hitting five continents and countless festivals in spots such as Warsaw, Tel Aviv, and Australia. Reminiscing about recent gigs, he sees an overwhelming worldwide appreciation for modern funk but something lacking in his own back yard. "Other places are so hungry. But in America, the crowd is so into commercial music," he says. "They can't wrap their heads around something like the modern funk experience. The audience here is slow to get to it."
Meanwhile, between tour stops, Dâm has been busy in the studio. He has dropped free Internet downloads while also working on projects with L.A. vocalist Nite Jewel, '80s R&B/pop starlet Jody Watley, and one of his idols, Steve Arrington, formerly of boogie-funk group Slave. "Being a Gemini, I like both sides — analog and digital — but pushing to the future. That's what Toeachizown was all about," he says. "With Steve Arrington, I didn't want to duplicate what he did back in the day, but I still kept that Slave sound — still keeping it funk, but still keeping it now. I'm not trying to put him on some fad music, just new funk."
So whether he's ping-ponging around the globe, crisscrossing genres, or collaborating with '70s legends, Dâm lives for the funk, lets it flow, and sticks with his mantra of staying true to what you do. "It took me 20 years to make my first album, and cats think they can get on after six months of buying equipment in Guitar Center," he says. "I wish I had that hustle back in the day, but I thank God I took this route. I've seen cats rush, and now they're nowhere to be found."