By Aaron AllenThe Seattle Medium
Whether you are a historical or a contemporary music fan, when the term funk or funky is associated with a song you can believe that the song is one that will leave a legacy. It is a song that can be played at any event and force everyone, both young and old, to make their way to the dance floor.
The term “funk” or “funky” finds its origins in the music studio. During the era of funk music, bands would be in the studio or rehearsal for hours, sometimes days without taking a break or leaving the studio. As the saying goes, you know, they may have been a little “funky” but the song that was produced in that moment was even more “funky”.
Through the 1970s, as this new genre of music was being created, one of the most influential funk bands of that era would come to be known as Con Funk Shun. The group’s founders, Felton Pilate and Michael Cooper, recently sat down with the Seattle Medium to talk about challenges, success and legacy.
Over the span of 52 years, the two men have created and performed some of the most memorable, melodic and funky music in generations. The type of sound that you can pull from your collection, blow the dust off and after 30, 40, 50 years it will still rock the party and get folks out of their seats.
“There are music compositions that possess longevity,” says Pilate. “There is a reason why Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” is still the number one wedding song [40 to 50 years after it was produced].”
With the remake of the group’s classic hit “Love Train” by Bruno Mars, the timeless piece has found itself on the Billboard charts once again. A historical triumph that the group does not take for granted.
“This is significant for us,” says Pilate. “We as Con funk shun, there is a small club or collection of songs that are older than forty years old that got covered and made it back to number one. There is just a small handful of songs that have accomplished that, and we are very blessed to a part of that group now.”
Over the last 40 years, music has gone through a dramatic transformation. With the influence of HipHop, sampling and looping as well as the diminished stature of traditional rhythm and blues, there are generations of music lovers who have missed out on the sounds of funk and R&B bands like Con Funk Shun. For many new artists and contemporary music lovers, the traditions of live bands, acoustic music, band configurations, the sounds of heavy bass licks, dirty drum solos, pounding percussions, melody, harmony and hollering horn sections, are something that lack the appreciation that they deserve because most contemporary artists don’t work with their own band.
Established out of Vallejo, California, Pilate and Cooper where young teenage music producers looking to take their talents to new and different heights when they started the band, and their collective journey through the field of music.
“The origins of Con Funk Shun is a long story and with a lot of moving parts,” says Pilate. “We came together in a band called ‘Project Soul’, which was a high school creation playing talent shows and after game dances until it morphed from there into a situation which started to be lucrative.”
Cooper couldn’t help but be tongue and cheek as he remembered how he and Pilate met and came together as the group.
“The coming together as ‘Project Soul’ was when [Felton and I] met,” says Cooper.
“He was the resident genius, Felton was what we needed to show us how to play it right,” Cooper continued, as both he and Pilate burst into laughter.
According to Pilate, Project Soul quickly grew in popularity and caught the eye of record labels and promoters as and up and coming talent.
“We got a manager and the whole nine yards, and we got the opportunity to back up a group called ‘Soul Children’ in Memphis,” says Pilate. “We took that opportunity, went to Memphis, and a number of things happened that put us in the position to start recording.”
“Years later, after some success, we had to change our name because they didn’t think the name ‘Project Soul’ would sell records,” Pilate continued. “At the time the word “soul” was something the record company did not want to be associated with. The name Con Funk Shun derived from a song written by a group called “Night Riders” and years later, when it came time to change our name, we chose the name of that song.”
Successfully navigating the music industry has its own set of challenges. Both Cooper and Pilate say that the most important thing when it comes to remaining relevant in the industry is staying the course.
“The biggest challenge in this industry is sticking with it,” says Cooper. “Sticking with it because there were so many struggles. At first it was fun, it was really fun. Then it started getting serious and so we made certain decisions to put us in that money making situation and found that we were entering in what they call the ‘the music business.’”
Another challenge in the industry that can change the dynamics and trajectory of bands is publishing, and who will write and compose the songs. You can look back in history and see how this dynamic can changed many bands over the years, including the Beatles, the Jackson 5 and others, especially as the bands became more successful.
“Felton can tell you songwriting is fun to do,” says Cooper. “He had a studio, I had a studio, we were really the only two people who had studios, so, Felton and myself wrote everything. Then you get the challenge of ‘hey you guys are writing all the music, getting all the publishing, we need to get a piece of that’ and so band members begin asking for fifty percent although they may not have put the work in.”
Pilate agreed and said that it is this aspect of business that can make the artistic and group process challenging and sometimes problematic.
“I decided no more, enough is enough, I won’t sit here up all-night writing song after song and coming up with all this music while others chill and get half of what I did,” says Pilate. “Over a period of years things like that can be challenging and the undoing of a band.”
Through all of the challenges and changes in the industry, Con Funk Shun has endured the test of time. They continue to perform timeless funk and R&B masterpieces and remain a favorite amongst true die-hard fans of R&B. But the group’s popularity seems endless when it comes to people who just love to hear good, funky music.