Rough Trade Essential: Funk and Soul

Rough Trade Records

February 15th, 2024

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“It’s albums like this which gave artists a cornerstone with which to hone their talents and produce some of the most engaging and beautifully powerful music this world has ever known.”

Words by Matt Smith, Rough Trade Warehouse

Two hugely popular and enduring genres, the characteristics of funk and soul are rooted in African-American culture, drawing from early African-American music styles such as blues, gospel, jazz and doo-wop. Like a domino effect, funk emerged from soul, taking its yells, shouts, hollers, moans and humming to the dancefloor. In many ways the genres are yin and yang, sharing the same vocal styles but where soul music is often bodied by relaxed melodies, funk de-emphasises the melody, to focus on the rhythm.

Most distinctively, both genres are clearly built on a feeling – always passionate, sometimes romantic, a language of love from the smoothest of crooners with the most timeless of love songs.

“Parliament-Funkadelic” pose for a portrait in circa 1977. Photo by Michael Ochs.

Here to help us explain our true love affair with funk and soul music is Matt Smith from our Rough Trade Warehouse, tracing its American history, renowned record labels and subgenres – through a selection of Rough Trade Essential albums.

“A genre of music that speaks true to the heart, depicting the true feeling of love. A powerhouse of emotion and passion, but there is more to soul and funk music than just its association with romance. A vital tool in spreading a message both politically and socially during its prime, these genres spoke to a generation of African American youths who were seeking more from life and looking for a way to express their culture. From its first rousing during the 1960’s to the contemporary sound that has been adopted by many artists it still continues to provide a truly powerful message.”

Etta JamesAt Last! (1960)

Starting off the list with arguably one of the most iconic albums here, spanning generations as a staple in any collection. At Last! is the perfect introduction to the genre, the raw pure power and emotion that is unleashed by Etta James’ flawless beautiful delivery of her words offers a warm, fuzzy, comforting feeling. It’s an album that promotes that feeling of being in love and when you formulate that connection on a deeper, more spiritual level.  

Whilst Etta James’ lounge singer voice is the primary draw for many listeners, the album balances on a knife’s edge between blues and jazz which sets up the precedent of the anatomy of a soul album. With a primary base of doo-wop, jazz, blues and gospel, it’s albums like this which gave artists a cornerstone with which to hone their talents and produce some of the most engaging and beautifully powerful music this world has ever known. 

Dr JohnGris Gris (1968)

Dr John lived, breathed and ate New Orleans, he was the embodiment of the famed ‘birthplace’ of jazz. The city has a renowned relationship with the genre but has a strong grip in the realms of blues, funk, boogie-woogie and rock’n’roll with a strong musical community that is still held in high regard today. 

The uniqueness of Dr John’s sound is evident from the moment you press play, the opening track Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya creates a semblance of a voodoo shaman selling his wares to an unexpected visitor to the city. It’s an atmospheric boast of a local idea that anything can be fixed with a good Gumbo, the spiritual beliefs of its healing powers it is held to high praise, but it’s a well-known fact that if there is one thing New Orleans boasts more than any other, that is the food. 

Album artwork for Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul (1969) 

This is one of the more relaxed albums on this list, its orchestral arrangements and deep-felt emotion display clearly why this album is held to such a high regard within the worlds of funk and soul music. It’s an album that appeals to a variety of audiences as it takes the classic formula of the sound of Motown and instils a uniqueness in which Hayes rose to glory. 

It has the sense of being a film score rather than just a soul album; Walk on By is a prime example of this, a 12-minute track that unleashes the agony of seeing a previous love interest and they blatantly ignore you. This track takes a massive leap forward in the way that the music helps formulate a deeper meaning behind the narrative, the vocals bolster this message but the way the music builds and the instrumental parts creates a sense of healing. It has an orchestral section that you may find on an array of Motown tracks, which then fades to a hypnotic guitar solo with the bass and drums grooving behind. It’s a track that you have to experience for yourself. 

READ NOW: In Profile: Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul

Album artwork for Maggot Brain by Funkadelic

FunkadelicMaggot Brain (1971) 

The grandfather of funk, Maggot Brain was George Clinton’s brainchild, a focus enveloping around funk-rock. This is an album that really pushed the boundaries of Black music elevating it to greater heights. With an abundance of rock bands emerging in the late 60s/early 70s, it was crucial to stand out in original and creative ways. 

From the instance you hit play on the title track Maggot Brain, you already gain a sense of what is going to happen in the next 36 minutes and 53 seconds. A guitar-led track that encases an atmospheric guitar intro that swells and retreats, enticing you further into the realms of the groove. This track is definitely an experiment in what sounds could be created and it’s a phenomenal way in which to start the album. You’re then hit with a celebration from Can You Get To That and Hit It and Quit It taking a more casual approach to how love works each track utilising the influences of the music that birthed from Black culture: jazz, gospel and R&B. Clinton’s approach to music and his experience creating hit songs lent their hand to ensure that Funkadelic are a powerhouse unlike any other.

Album artwork for What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On? (1971)

Held in the highest regard Marvin Gaye’s triumphant eleventh album stormed through the US charts on its release during a pivotal year in the world of music. Unequivocally recognisable as a Motown classic it was an album that shifted the ethos of the label and how powerful music is for spreading a message. 

It wasn’t just the music and talent that oozes from this record that ensured its mark on history was firmly stamped. The theme that formed its foundations was a political commentary on the state of the US during the Vietnam War and living as an African American in a society where opportunities were none nonexistent. With poverty being rife and police violence an everyday occurrence, it speaks as much truth today as it did back in 1971. This was an album that was almost never released by Motown, coming under close scrutiny from label boss Berry Gordy, who was cautious of releasing music with a politically driven pulse. Despite this, Gaye pushed for it to be released and to this day it has been an album that speaks a deep and true message to the American people.

Al Green Let’s Stay Together (1972)

Tennessee may have the capital of country music nestled in Nashville, but its smaller brother Memphis was a beating heart in the emergence of soul music. With the king of cool at the helm it was no surprise the success that the embellished Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r sustained during his soul career. Hi Records was established in 1957 and was at the centre of curating and releasing a Southern soul sound that was second to none, compared to its competitors in the Northern States. Working closely with Sun Records who gifted the world with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash (to name a few) there is an injection of this into the music of artists releasing via Hi Records.

This is an album that redefines ‘soul’. With the guiding light of Southern soul’s go-to producer Willie Mitchell taking the reins on this album; it strapped on its boots and added a refreshing sound that re-purposed the stereotypical pop sound of Motown and Stax and gave it the Southern tinge, to provide a further depth to the music of love.

On Exclusive Rough Trade Essential Edition vinyl.

Syl JohnsonDiamond in the Rough (1974)

An album that feels as if it were created for fans of every aspect of soul music, providing an impeccable blend of the titans of the North (Motown) and clashing in perfect equilibrium with the giants of the South (Hi Records). It has an overarching slickness that was well-known with the Motown artists, providing the highest quality in pop music. However, the Southern influence oozes its way through each track as it swings and grooves, developing a deeper sound. It provides a fresh and invigorating sound to a genre that generated an abundance of artists. 

The second album on the list in which Willie Mitchell was the key behind the soaring success of the album. His vision creates a wonderfully balanced sound of popular soul music that is ever enhanced with the vocals of Syl Johnson. With a release date of 1974, it is no wonder that this album takes inspiration from both camps.

Millie JacksonCaught Up (1974)

The reverberating shock of deep soul is one which can be felt even to this day, cocooning and maturing contemporary soul over a number of decades. Deep soul takes a deeper dive into love and loss in the ever-confusing endeavour of romance. 

Caught Up brings together a story of three individuals caught in the trap of a love triangle, a carefully curated concept album that has the premise of a confession tape or a journal entry. The music bolsters the imbalance of the situation, the swelling string sections, the bouncing and spring to the penetrating bass line pulsing from track to track, establishing itself as a pivotal role in telling the story. 

On I’m Through Trying To Prove My Love To You’ the focus on Jackson’s vocals show the shift in the narrative of the story, the pain and anguish that is projected, which has a subtle comfort and relief in which Jackson has accepted the facts of the matter.

Album artwork for Mothership Connection by Parliament

Parliament Mothership Connection (1975)

The sister band to Funkadelic, Parliament set the precedent for what it means to be funk rather than the funk-rock of its sibling. Noted as being the pioneers of the funk genre, uprooting the base identity and propelling it into the stars with Mothership Connection.

The mastermind of the two bands; George Clinton was heavily involved in Motown and doo-wop which gave him the arsenal to produce sounds that would get people moving. From the opening track ‘P-Funk’ it’s clear that this is a celebration, a groove that slowly progresses, Parliament prefers to explode into big hooks that just keep jamming and creating perfect party anthems. Providing the essentials that make a great funk album the slinky-bouncy bass playing its prominent role, the brass section stabbing over the top. 

Their concept of space came to light around the end of the Space Race as it was regularly reported on, with the album dropping in 1975 it would be a couple of years before George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) would take over popular culture worldwide. It’s been referred to as sending Black culture of the time into space, having provided social commentary in both groups, it was time for this to be taken higher. 

Album artwork for Baduizm by Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu Baduizm (1997) 

A debut that set a precedent for how explosive an impact the revolutionised soul that Erykah Badu shared with the world would have. Emerging late in the 90s in the US (whilst the Britpop chart war was blazing away) neo-soul is a carefully curated chemical concoction that swims blissfully between bucolic breakbeat infused with hip hop; built on the core fundamentals of soul: spilling your heart out and embellishing the true meaning of love. It’s bolstered by a drifting sensibility of jazz skimming along the top, both the sound created and the power of Badu’s voice. 

The stratospheric acclaim to the genre impressed a time stamp on a decade that saw an exponential shift in music culture as a whole, with the emergence of hip-hop and a new era of technology which enabled people to access music unlike ever before. This sound still reverberates throughout music today and paved the way for modern sou, developing into a chart-dominating sound in the early 00s. 

Album artwork for No Time For Dreaming by Charles Bradley

Charles BradleyNo Time For Dreaming (2011)

Daptone Records, the label that Charles Bradley called home, provided a contemporary alternative to the classic soul sound, “a retro sound” (which has been heavily disputed by many of the bands on the roster) been the torchbearer for many outstanding contemporary soul acts. Known as ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Bradley came out soaring with his debut No Time For Dreaming (on Daptone) at the striking age of 62. Backed by the enchanting soul-funk indulgence of the Menahan Street Band this album is slick with the essence of originality with a classic soul sound in a modern era. 

This wasn’t his first experience in music, having built a career as a James Brown impersonator, which bolsters his passion and unique delivery of his words. Not seeing success until late in his life Charles Bradley quickly became a must-see act after this initial intrepid look into personal experiences. Everything was laid out bare to witness in the creation of this album with cleverly crafted insight into his life of poverty, neglect and violence. It carries through a message similar to many albums listed here. 

Other Mentions…

The impact of great American soul music can still be felt today. Here are a few other must-hear voices who have influenced or been influenced by its classic artistry.

Ann PeeblesI Can’t Stand The Rain  
A classic album of dark, bouncy, and beautiful Southern soul orginally released on Memphis-based Hi Records label in 1974. Available on Rough Trade Essential Edition exclusive vinyl.

Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
The first hip-hop works to win the Album of the Year Grammy Award. Lauryn Hill‘s rap masterpiece is also considered a neo-soul album, her raw lyrics and mesmorising stage presence establishing her a bona fide nineties soul icon.

Various – Summer of Soul
17 carefully selected live renditions of jazz, blues, R&B, Latin, and soul classics performed over the course of The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 as chronicled by Questlove‘s directorial debut documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). 

Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call
This is a contemporary masterpiece, the perfect blend of traditional soul with a full injection of a new fresh sound. Combining the impeccable voices of Durand Jones and Aaron Frazer, the band convey a message of modern-day society and how this impacts the search for love.

Aaron FrazerIntroducing…Aaron Frazer 
The debut solo album from the Indications drummer provides a sleek neo-soul, blues, Americana hybrid which gives his unique soft vocals the perfect cradle to soothe the soul.

Black PumasBlack Pumas 
Texas has soul, the psychedelic soul group saw famed success as its blend of southern-infused psychedelia of guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada and the punctuating vocals of Eric Burton provides a new era of southern soul.

Vulfpeck – Vollmilch 
Already gathering cult status, Vulfpeck’s 2012 EP promotes their incredible talent to produce fun and vibrant instrumental tracks that are slapped with their own uniqueness.

Lauryn Hill: Lady Soul
Lauryn Hill performing at Brixton Academy, London, on May 2nd, 1999. Photo by Chris Lopez.


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