November 13, 2011

Dispatches from Funkytown #1: The Beginning

Minneapolis is Funkytown.

No, really.

When Minneapolis natives Lipps Inc. released Mouth to Mouth at the end of 1979, disco was on its last legs. In the years prior, punk had exploded and seeded new musical movements that would become everything from new wave and post punk to hardcore and hip hop, but 1979 saw more direct attacks on the genre.  Everywhere you turned, from rock radio’s “death to disco” frenzy to TV’s anti disco characters on WKRP in Cincinnati, disco was quickly losing steam.  Even professional sports got involved in July with the Chicago White Sox “Disco Demolition Night”, which took its name quite literally when it detonated a crate full of disco records sparking an on field riot.  In the week following “Disco Demolition Night” each of the disco albums that had been in the top ten of the U.S. charts fell from that lofty position, and it seemed that disco was indeed dead. A few months later, though, Mouth to Mouth would provide disco with one more day in the sun through its hit single “Funkytown”.

When “Funkytown” was released, the Twin Cities music scene was still in its infancy.  Bob Dylan didn’t want anything to do with the state of his birth.  The Trashmen had achieved national success with “Surfin’ Bird”, but that was way back in 1963.  Even the locally popular Suicide Commandos were wrapping up their four-year run.  Lipps Inc. took a look around and simply didn’t see much to keep them in Minneapolis.  It was this mindset that led Lipps Inc. to write about their desire to escape to the imaginary “Funkytown” where they could “keep movin’” and “keep groovin’.”  In a twist of fate, though, by the time “Funkytown” hit #1 in the U.S. on May 31, 1980, things had changed in Minneapolis.

In 1979, a night janitor/songwriter overheard the band Dogbreath rehearsing and liked what he heard.  Dogbreath soon became The Replacements.  On March 30, 1979, a college student and a couple of record store employees played their first show as Hüsker Dü.  On October 19, 1979, Prince released his soon to be platinum self-titled album.  Finally, on January 20, 1980, The Suburbs released their first full length album In Combo.  In short, the Twin Cities music scene had gone into hyperdrive.

Over the next few years Prince fully developed “The Minneapolis Sound”, which combined funk, rock, and pop and strongly influenced most ’80s dance-pop and R&B music.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, former members of the Time and the leading producers of the Minneapolis Sound, were bringing national and international acts to record in Minneapolis.  Most notably they produced Janet Jackson’s Control in Minneapolis, but even the Human League was coming to town in search of the Sound.  Clearly, Funkytown had been discovered and it was right under Lipps Inc.’s noses.

In the years since the 1979 local boom, the Twin Cities music scene has remained well respected.  Consistently producing popular rock/alternative bands, the area has proved surprisingly fertile for hip hop and rap acts, and recently has seen a rise in synth based experimentation.  Artists that have gone on to national success out of Minneapolis/St. Paul include Soul Asylum, The Jayhawks, Semisonic, Atmosphere, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, and Brother Ali.  Currently, the state is home base to well respected acts like Low, P.O.S., Peter Wolf Crier, Trampled By Turtles, Dessa, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Gayngs, and Solid Gold.  In “Dispatches from Funkytown” we will take a look at some of these artists as well as the history of the local scene, labels, venues, and everything else that keeps the current generation of Twin Cities musicians from dreaming of moving on to their version of funkytown.

Filed under Dispatches from Funkytown, Funk, R&B