Future Funk: walking corpse or rising phoenix?
“Please stop using the term ‘future funk’ which is not a real thing and you are embarrassing yourself when you say this. Do a little research and learn the history of disco house music and funk – Saint Pepsi on his Discord server.
This message was sent by Saint Pepsi, one of the founding fathers of future funk who now goes by the stage name Skylar Spence, on June 27, 2020. At the time, I couldn’t believe someone I admired so much would show a great disdain towards the genre and the music that made his career – still having no idea that artists like Tyler, the Creator and Radiohead disliked “Yonkers” and “Creep”, respectively. However, I quickly brushed this post off as a joke given that it quickly became a copypasta for the server, and Spence would go on to put down his most notable future funk album: “Hit Vibes.” My future funk haven was still intact, until 2022, when I read an article titled “The Fate of Future Funk” by Van Paugam, but I think I’m going too far. Future funk, for me, has been a huge part of my life, starting in high school and still going strong as I prepare to enter my senior year of college. This piece is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, probably ever since I wrote one of my first articles, “A Love Letter to Video Games,” for The UCSD Guardian. This piece can be considered my love letter to future funk as I try to explain my relationship with it, respond to articles like Paugam’s, and explain where I see future funk in the journey that crosses all genres of niche.
But what is future funk? Let’s start with what the future of funk is technically. Future funk is a subgenre of vaporwave that takes songs from the 70s and 80s, usually disco or Japanese urban pop, up their tempo and add drums and kicks. Usually future funk producers take what are called “butter notes”, the best parts of a song, and loop them for a two-minute duration, with some songs also pinning into the vocals of the sample. To accompany the music, the artist will pair the track with a GIF of an animated girl or 80s commercials, and if they’re in Japanese, even better. And that’s all. It’s technical future funk in its most simplistic form.
My enchantment with future funk started via vaporwave with Vektroid’s 2011 album, “Floral Shoppe” in 2016, so I was very late to the party. Vaporwave, like future funk, takes samples of 80s music, but slows them down to molasses speed. “Floral Shoppe” eventually became Saint Pepsi’s “Hit Vibes” album in 2013, picking up the tempo, and I’ve been hooked ever since. My first exposure to the album was the sixth track, “Around”. The start of the track gives the listener the impression of driving fast through a dark tunnel with a light at the end, with a muffled sampling of Phil Fearon’s “Wait Until Tonight (My Love)” at the start, which then s brightens and grows louder, mimicking the listener’s exit into the light. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, but more importantly, this song is what freedom and liberation sounded like. Even now, when the restraints of young age have been replaced by the financial and political constraints of an ever-decreasing world, this song still sounds like freedom, like 5 PM-on-a-summer-night-driving-in -a-convertible-with-the-wind-in-your-hair-type freedom.
Although I enjoy the majority of future funk tracks because of this sentiment, the simplicity of creating a future funk track ended up saturating the genre, which made people feel tired or disappointed with its future; one such person who felt both was Van Paugam. Paugam is a DJ who specializes in mixing the original samples used to create future funk: Japanese city pop of the 70s and 80s. In his August 2020 article, which came well after the first peak of future funk from the mid-2010s, he goes on to describe future funk as a “musical necromancy where the corpse of the original song is revived but the essence of what it was really missing, kind of like a dancey sonic zombie”; like a genre that would never be taken seriously; like a genre with a fanbase that wouldn’t accept change and “won’t accept [deviations] like a real future funk”; as a genre “never intended to be greater than the sum of its parts”. Having nearly two years of hindsight since the article, it’s safe to say that Paugam was wrong, as future funk has enjoyed a revival and has now reached one of its greatest crossroads of all time.
Yes, I have to concede to Paugam that future funk, at some point, became commonplace, despite my enjoyment. However, this was only an obstacle in the genre’s journey as in the span of two years some of the original founding fathers of future funk – Yung Bae, Night Tempo and Macross 82-99 – released a total of six albums, with each artist demonstrating a potential path for future funk. Let’s start with Macross 82-99. Her 2022 album “SAILORWAVE III” stays true to future funk roots, featuring Sailor Moon on the cover, so the anime girls can get ticked off. In the audio department, Macross 82-99 also stays true to the sound and feel of future funk: a happy ballad that loops the “butter notes” for the entire song and features vocals, usually repeating a chorus. Macross 82-99 represents the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and proves that the proven formula can produce a different sounding album. The album’s sound feels more like the listener is flying through Sailor Moon’s mystical transformation scene than a party or urban nightlife scene from her previous discography.
Moving to Night Tempo: In the span of two years, he’s released four albums that prove the range he has as a future funk artist. In his 2021 debut album “Concentration”, he shows that the formula of future funk can be used to deliver a more serene experience for listeners, sometimes bordering on lo-fi. Then, in albums like 2020’s “Funk to the Future” and 2021’s “Night Tempo presents the Showa Idol’s Groove”, he lines up with Macross 82-99, using samples from former Japanese idols to make music. catchy, but rather than using a repeating chorus, Night Tempo makes it their mission to keep most of the vocals present for their tracks. In his latest December 2021 album ‘Ladies in the City’, he takes an approach where he combines the track’s future funk-like beat with original lyrics, featuring previous generation 80s Japanese idols like Sayaka Yamamoto , to more recent idols like BONNIE PINK. This last approach is the most similar to Yung Bae’s last album in 2022.
In his latest album “Groove Continental: Side A,” Yung Bae recalls his disco sampling roots throughout the album. It features several horn-containing beats similar to those found on 70s disco records. However, unlike his previous discography, except for songs like “Bad Boy” and “Holding Your Hand” with bbno$ and Atlas, respectively, of older works, almost the entire album contains original lyrics and vocals. It’s the selection of features on the album that makes me think Yung Bae has taken future funk in a more pop and mainstream direction. The album benefits from the presence of artists like Sam Fischer, Pink Sweat$, Jon Batiste, AWOLNATION and Marc E. Bassy, all amassing millions of monthly listeners on Spotify. I think this is the crossroads where future funk is, the same crossroads that many niche genres have crossed.
Artists like Macross 82-99 are on the side of tapping into what made future funk a niche genre in the first place, while artists like Yung Bae seem intent on bringing the genre to a more mainstream audience, and Night Tempo ends up somewhere in between. This is something that I think a lot of niche subcultures are likely to go through. Take the example of anime, a key part of the roots of future funk. Anime was originally a niche subculture in the United States before gaining mainstream acceptance, and those who were there from the start often hold a grudge against those who begin to turn their attention to anime, driving a wedge between anime lovers. However, I don’t think future funk will ever go through this scenario. Although all artists take the genre in different directions, they all enjoy working with each other. Yung Bae held a concert in November 2021 where Night Tempo and Macross 82-99 opened the show for him, and the same is expected to happen again in September 2022. So, I think even if Yung Bae went fully mainstream, I doubts he will ever forget his future funk roots and continue to work alongside the other artists and support their vision for the future of future funk.
I think part of a comment from Paugam’s article sums up my feelings about future funk and where it’s headed:
“I know you [Paugam] probably won’t be reading this because you’re the writer, but if you’re…[or] if anyone’s out there…this music isn’t dead, it’s just changing like every other genre in the desert…don’t lose hope and keep funkin’!
Image courtesy of Macross 82-99 on Bandcamp.