By Aaron AllenThe Seattle Medium
Whether you are a fan of historical or contemporary music, when the term funk or funky is associated with a song, you can trust that the song is the one that will leave a legacy. It’s a song that can be played at any event and get everyone, young and old, to hit the dance floor.
The term “funk” or “funky” has its origins in the music studio. In the era of funk music, bands were in the studio or rehearsing for hours, sometimes days without taking a break or leaving the studio. As the saying goes, you know, maybe they were a little funky, but the song that was produced at that time was even funkier.
During 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 the challenges, success and legacy.
Over 52 years, the pair have created and performed some of the most memorable, melodic and funky music in generations. The kind of sound you can pull from your collection, blow the dust off and after 30, 40, 50 years it will still rock the party and get people out of their seats.
“There are musical compositions that possess longevity,” says Pilate. “There’s a reason Lionel Richie’s ‘Endless Love’ is still the number one wedding song [40 to 50 years after it was produced].”
With Bruno Mars’ remake of the band’s classic hit “Love Train”, the timeless piece landed on the Billboard charts. A historic triumph that the group does not take for granted.
“It’s important to us,” says Pilate. “We as Con funk shun there is a little club or collection of songs over forty years old that have been covered and come back to number one. There’s only a small handful of songs that have accomplished that, and we’re very lucky for a part of that group now.
Over the past 40 years, music has undergone a dramatic transformation. With the influence of HipHop, sampling and looping along with 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 contemporary artists and music lovers, the traditions of live bands, acoustic music, band setups, heavy bass sounds, dirty drum solos, pounding percussion, melody, harmony and screaming horn sections, are something that lacks the appreciation they deserve because most contemporary artists don’t work with their own band.
Established in Vallejo, California, Pilate and Cooper where young teenage music producers seek to elevate their talents to new and different heights when they started the band, and their collective journey through the realm of music.
“Con Funk Shun’s origins are a long story and with a lot of moving parts,” says Pilate. “We got together in a band called ‘Project Soul,’ which was a high school creation playing talent shows and after play dances until it morphed from there into a situation that started to be lucrative.”
Cooper couldn’t help but be ironic as he recalled how he and Pilate met and came together as a group.
“The reunion 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 well,” Cooper continued, as he and Pilate burst out laughing.
According to Pilate, Project Soul quickly grew in popularity and caught the attention of record labels and promoters as emerging talent emerged.
“We had a manager and the whole nine yards, and we had the opportunity to support a band called ‘Soul Children’ in Memphis,” Pilate explains. “We took that opportunity, went to Memphis, and a number of things happened that put us in a position to start recording.”
“Years later, after some success, we had to change the 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 didn’t want to be associated with. The name Con Funk Shun derives from a song written by a band called ‘Night Riders’ and years later, when it came time to change the name, we chose the name of this song.
Successfully navigating the music industry comes with its own set of challenges. Both Cooper and Pilate say the most important thing to staying relevant in the industry is staying the course.
“The biggest challenge in this industry is sticking with it,” says Cooper. “I’m sticking with that because there was so much struggle. At first it was fun, it was really fun. Then it started to get serious and so we made certain decisions to put ourselves in this situation of making money and found out that we were getting into what they call “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 change many bands over the years, including the Beatles, Jackson 5 and others, especially as bands have become more successful.
“Felton can tell you that songwriting is fun to do,” says Cooper. “He had a studio, I had a studio, we were really the only two people with studios, so Felton and I wrote it all. Then you have the challenge of “hey guys, you write all the music, get all the release, we gotta get a piece of it” and the band members start asking for fifty percent although maybe they don’t have- not be put to work.
Pilate agreed and said it is this aspect of business that can make the artistic and group process difficult and sometimes problematic.
“I’ve decided not to do anything anymore, enough is enough, I won’t sit here all night writing song after song and composing all this music while other people relax and get half of what I have done,” says Pilate. “Over a period of years, things like that can be difficult and lead to the loss of a group.”
Through all the challenges and changes in the industry, Con Funk Shun has stood the test of time. They continue to perform timeless funk and R&B masterpieces and remain a favorite among true die-hard R&B fans. But the band’s popularity seems endless when it comes to people who just love listening to good funky music.