Last year, a few weeks before lockdown began, Gilles Peterson was watching the Brit awards when the American musician Tyler, the Creator won the international male solo artist award. In his acceptance speech, he said something deeply unexpected: “Shoutout to all the British funk of the 80s that I’ve tried to copy.”
Peterson was startled. He had been an aspiring teenage DJ during what has become known as the Britfunk era – a period from 1976 to 1982, when London spawned a succession of homegrown bands putting their raw spin on the sound of funk – and could vouch for its impact and importance. There’s a convincing argument that Britfunk was the UK’s first homegrown Black – or at least multiracial – musical genre: certainly, it’s neck and neck for the title with lovers rock.
Moreover, Peterson thinks it spawned modern UK club culture. “All the energies came together at the same time: DJs, bands, pirate radio, record shops selling white labels, clubs,” he says, calling from his London home. “It grew into rave and acid house, and acid house became a global phenomenon, which is still creating new variations. Britfunk is an incredibly important part of something that’s become normalised in terms of music.” But Peterson was used to Britfunk being forgotten: as he says, it wasn’t as if it attracted a lot of media attention even at the time. “It was a big scene, but it was lost on the media, at the time, which was controlling the radio and the newspapers, Melody Maker and NME. All that’s left is the records and a bit of grainy film on YouTube.”
And now, here was a huge 21st-century star at an award show on prime-time television, giving the scene some props. “For the first time, someone announced that he was inspired by Britfunk,” says Peterson. “I was like: ‘Fucking hell, they’ve got it.’”
Further inspired by hearing young underground DJs slipping old Britfunk tracks into their sets – “not the really obvious ones, the ones that weren’t quite as well-made, the ones that are really expensive on Discogs” – Peterson rang his old friend Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, best known as the driving force behind the acid jazz band Incognito, but once the guitarist in Britfunk pioneers Light of the World. “I said: ‘Mate: let’s make a Britfunk record.’”
Uniting as STR4TA, they made Aspects, a (largely instrumental) riot of slap bass, jazzy synthesiser and scratchy funk guitar that perfectly captures the genre’s essence: the sound of US jazz-funk given a distinctly British makeover; a little rougher and more urgent-sounding than its superslick US counterpart. It’s an album that could have come out in Britfunk’s heyday, when Light of the World, Hi-Tension, Beggar and Co and Central Line all appeared on Top of the Pops, and the biggest Britfunk hit of the lot, Freeez’s Southern Freeez, made the Top 10, sharing rarefied air with Ultravox, Adam and the Ants and Kim Wilde’s Kids in America.
Shining a spotlight on Britfunk feels overdue for such a groundbreaking scene. These days, Paul McLean tours with the Brit Funk Association, but in 1976 he co-founded Hi-Tension, the first Britfunk band to make any commercial headway: they scored two hit singles in 1978 with their eponymous theme song and British Hustle. When he meets young artists at festivals who want to know his story, “I say: ‘Right, this might sound horrible to you, but without Hi-Tension, Light of the World, Central Line, you guys wouldn’t be here.’ And they go: ‘Uh?’”
“I say to them: ‘Let’s just put it this way – imagine you’ve just got a hit, No 8 in the charts, you’ve been invited on to Top of the Pops once again, at a time when you don’t see faces like these on Top of the Pops, especially if they were British [he gestures to himself and his brother Patrick, Hi-Tension’s sax player, who’s sitting beside him on a Zoom call]. And then the floor manager comes into your dressing room, shuts the door behind him and goes: “Did you boys enjoy that? Yes? Good. Because we’re not letting any more of you on.”’ He didn’t actually say the word, but we knew what he meant.”
Patrick nods. “There were a lot of things that happened with Hi-Tension when we were told: ‘You’re not allowed to play here – you’re not allowed to do that.’ And we did it. So when I look at people who’ve come along afterwards – we took the beating. We’re not going to hold you to ransom for it, but give us the respect we’re due.”
It was a scene born out of London and the south-east’s vibrant mid-70s soul clubs – Crackers and the 100 Club on Oxford Street in London, Royalty in Southgate, Frenchies in Camberley, the Lacy Lady in Ilford and Canvey Island’s Goldmine. Racially and sexually mixed dancefloors were presided over by some of Britain’s first club DJs to become celebrities: Mark Roman, George Power, Greg Edwards, Steven “DJ Froggy” Howlett, Robbie Vincent and Chris Hill. Hill was perhaps the scene’s biggest and most controversial name, with a divisive penchant for onstage wackiness that doubtless contributed to the scene’s posthumous reputation as a hopelessly naff world of Ford Capris with fluffy dice dangling from their rear-view mirrors, Essex boys in white socks and novelty DJs. Certainly, the footage of him in the short 1978 film British Hustle – playing Swanee whistle over the records and encouraging dancers to form human pyramids – hasn’t dated terribly well. But Peterson is a staunch defender. “There are a few clips where he’s spraying people with shaving foam or wearing an American GI’s uniform, and everyone just makes fun of him, but musically, he was an amazing DJ, the British Larry Levan.”
“The clubs were a real mix of Black kids and white kids getting on in a surrounding that they all enjoyed, where they could be themselves,” says Maunick, wistfully. “For me, those soul clubs broke down the barriers like no other movement has. I came to this country from Mauritius when I was 10, and I saw the foolishness that was going down: me and my mum knocking on doors and not being able to get a place to stay. So when that movement came out, it was amazing to be beyond racial barriers, really uniting.”
The music in the clubs was strictly American soul, jazz and funk, but the British bands were fuelled by a DIY, enthusiasm-over-ability attitude they shared with London’s other burgeoning musical scene of the era, punk. “I’d been listening to Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, funk bands like Slave,” says Maunick. “But when we came to do it, we had no knowledge – I was making music for the first time in my life. You’re hearing punk, the energy of that, and although you love a funk riff, you’re not getting that kind of slick funk sound – you’re somewhere between that and a guy that’s just thrashing a guitar.”
Rocca, who graduated from working in record shops and delivering jazz-funk imports in a van to fronting Freeez, agrees. “My brother was a punk rocker, so I went with him to the Marquee, and it was fantastic. I saw people there who were at the dance clubs I went to. It was similar – the Britfunkers were young kids who found this foreign music that inspired us, picked up guitars and drumsticks.”
This rawness set the new bands apart. There had been British funk before – Cymande, the Average White Band, Gonzalez, the Real Thing and Heatwave – but the Britfunk bands were marked out by, well, their Britishness. Hi-Tension declined to sing in fake American accents. “A lot of players on the Britfunk scene have Caribbean backgrounds,” says McLean. “That had a lot of influence on it: a looser rhythm, hints of reggae in the sound.”
Occasionally more unexpected influences crept in. “Our songs had a lot of chants – ‘Hi-Tension! That’s what we are!’” says Patrick with a smile. “And that came from being Black British, growing up in this country and absorbing everything that was going on, all the pop stuff back in the day: Slade, Gary Glitter. You were never really sure what was coming out in your sound.”
The bands’ commercial expectations were low, but they found themselves accepted, playing clubs alongside DJs rather than the traditional gig circuit. The growing popularity of the underground soul scene – 12,000 people turned up to a 1980 all-dayer at Knebworth, at which Light of the World performed – meant that bands secured record deals despite a lack of media interest. Beyond a handful of pirate stations, Vincent’s Radio London show was the solitary radio outlet; the BBC attempted to launch a British version of Soul Train called, alas, Black Current, but it never made it beyond a pilot featuring Hi-Tension. Yet as Peterson puts it, “without any of the structure and the support behind it, this music still managed to get to the charts”.
Light of the World scored a string of minor hits before splitting in two: Maunick formed Incognito, other members Beggar and Co, who ended up performing their debut single, Somebody Help Me Out, on the same edition of Top of the Pops as Freeez. Thanks to Southern Freeez, Rocca had unexpectedly found himself a pop star, despite the fact that he had chosen to sign to Beggars Banquet, a punk/new wave label that “had no idea of what was going on”, and that Freeez’s new lead singer, Ingrid Mansfield Allman, was moonlighting from her day job as an east London social worker.
Despite its commercial success, not everyone was delighted by the rise of Britfunk. Rocca remembers being locked in the Royalty club by police: the National Front had turned up outside to attack the multiracial crowd. When Light of the World toured, Maunick says, they regularly discovered “this wasn’t really an accepted thing”.
“We went up to the Lake District early on, and they tore our motors apart when we were inside playing the gig. There was nothing left of our vehicles when we came out. We went to Margate and the locals were like: ‘What’s this? Black people mixing with white people?’ They stoned the building. Every piece of glass got put through with a rock. But this movement had some spunk: we went out there and tore into them. There were pitched battles, fist fights, to protect what we had. We were proud of who we were. We weren’t going to put up with it.”
In the end, however, it was a shift in musical eras that brought about the end of Britfunk. The career of Freeez is the perfect illustration of these changing tastes. In the wake of Southern Freeez’s success, Rocca decamped to New York where he encountered the nascent hip-hop scene: “Rappers, scratch DJs – we heard Planet Rock, and it was completely different, in the same way that Wicky Wacky by the Fatback Band sounded completely different to me when I was at school.” Freeez’s next big hit, IOU, in 1983, was a collaboration with Arthur Baker, who had produced Planet Rock, and sounded like work of an entirely different artist: “It didn’t involve jazz-funk at all, it was all about electro.”
But Britfunk continued to exercise an influence over British pop. A succession of artists with roots in the scene, who made more pop-facing music, became stars, Linx and Imagination among them. Beggar and Co became the horn section of choice for British pop acts. Spandau Ballet had long been Britfunk devotees – in the group’s early days, Maunick remembers, they would “come and sit in the corner of Light of the World’s rehearsal room and ask us to show them how to play bass and saxophone”. Next they were tapping Beggar and Co to provide the superb brass arrangement on Chant Number 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On). In the wake of its success, Beggar and Co’s members went on to work with everyone from Wham! to Psychic TV.
And perhaps its impact was wider than merely musical. “When we play with the Brit Funk Association, people come up to us and the first words out of their mouths are: ‘You don’t know what you did for me,’” says McLean. “They say: ‘Because of you I’ve got my own business as a mechanic,’ or ‘I’ve got my own hair salon.’”
“You go: ‘I’m sorry? What?’ They say: ‘The bare nuts you guys had by just going for it, by singing: “That’s what we are – superstars.” I just felt that if them boys from north-west London can go up there and do that, I want to do it.’”
Aspects by STR4TA is out now on Brownswood Recordings