The 10 Essential Funk Rock Albums

Living Colour perform live on stage at Pinkpop festival in Landgraaf, Netherlands on May 20 1991
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It used to be so simple. The 70s brought three new music genres: metal, funk and hip-hop (or ‘rap’, in old money), and the three genres co-existed peacefully. By the time the 80s came along, though, bands from those genres had reached out to each other, and attempted to fuse the key elements of rock/metal, the slap-bass of funk and the rap vocals of hip-hop, with pinches of reggae, dub, ska and world music stirred into the pot.

The 80s funk rock scene was initially hailed as the future of rock – but any scene as fertile and freaky-looking as funk-rock could only burn brightly and briefly. Only a handful were able to turn their chaotic sound into long-term success, and only then by abandoning the slap-bass-plus-riff style and expanding into other areas.

The rest were destined for a short but respectable career that would be over by the mid-90s. But damn, it was fun while it lasted.

BAD BRAINS - I Against I (SST, 1986)

Bad Brains invented a fearsome combination of reggae, funk, punk and metal, knocking out a blistering attack that seemed to cover all bases with no apparent effort. Although the band were fuelled by inner tensions (singer HR experienced drug problems later in his career), they managed to have a relatively long career before imploding in the 90s, and this album was their finest hour. While Sacred Love was a red-herring step into soulful tenderness, dub-laced freakouts such as I Against I and House Of Suffering were both crushingly heavy and ferociously funky. Few bands could equal Bad Brains when they were on form.

LIVING COLOUR - Vivid (Epic, 1988)

Unfairly but inevitably attracting initial attention because all the members were black – still a rarity in rock/metal – Living Colour were, and remain, phenomenal musicians who landed in the funk rock arena by default, simply because their talents were too big for every other idiom. Led by guitarist Vernon Reid, a jazz player, funk giant and shredder, and fronted by Corey Glover, Living Colour made an immediate splash with their debut album Vivid. Part of this was due to their fluorescent trousers, but the rest was down to massive songs such as Cult Of Personality and the pop anthem Glamour Boys.

DAN REED NETWORK - Dan Reed Network (Mercury, 1988)

Funk rock was once deemed the genre most likely to take over, especially after Faith No More toured with metal behemoths Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. And when the Dan Reed Network supported The Rolling Stones, more than a few observers hailed them as funk rock’s biggest new hope.

Instead, Dan and his Network had disappeared into obscurity before the end of the decade. Nonetheless, 1988’s riff-mongous self-titled album saw Reed on top form: songs such as Baby Don’t Fade, Tamin’ The Wild Nights and the big hit Ritual were career high points. Righteous.

FISHBONE - Truth And Soul (Columbia, 1988)

Adding a dose of ska – not the weak, No Doubt-alike variety that plagues us today, but the real, skanking stuff – to the funk rock formula, LA’s Fishbone were too eccentric to have much commercial success. They did, however, have songs to die for as well as a killer live show. Their second album, Truth And Soul, was the slickest thing they ever did, with the barking vocals of saxophone-toting frontman Angelo Moore peaking on an insane cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead. Experiments with acoustic guitars and layers of funk bass gave the record depth, but it remains a largely undiscovered curio.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS - Mother’s Milk (EMI, 1989)

A key stepping stone in the Chilis’ evolution from traumatised underground punks to global phenomenon, Mother’s Milk saw the Hollywood band start afresh with a new line-up. Singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary had brought in guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith to replace the deceased Hillel Slovak and departed Jack Irons, and the results were electric. A blur of popped bass strings (the intro of Nobody Weird Like Me) and Frusciante’s expert chicken-scratch riffing (Punk Rock Classic), the album was the sound of a band hitting its stride.

24⁄7 SPYZ - Harder Than You (Relativity, 1989)

Compared by one journalistic wit to Boyz II Men singing vocals for Sabbath, New Yorkers 247 Spyz were once tipped for the top. But although they released a couple of deftly funky Faith No More-like albums they never achieved their potential. Like the debut albums of most of the bands in this list, 24/7’s Harder Than You was a great chunk of melodic riff-mongering with more than a nod towards the rap-metal movement. The fact their guitarist nicknamed himself Jimi Hazel (after Jimi Hendrix and Parliament’s Eddie Hazel) speaks volumes, as does the album’s fuel injected cover of Kool & The Gang’s Jungle Boogie.

URBAN DANCE SQUAD - Mental Floss For The Globe (Triple X, 1989)

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Holland’s Urban Dance Squad. no one else has either. A funkrap-metalcore troupe who beat Rage Against The Machine to the rap-core plate by three years, UDS inspired a small but ecstatic following with their brew of beats, riffs and bass-slapping. This was never better than on their debut album, Mental Floss For The Globe. Deeper Shade Of Soul received some MTV airplay, but great songs such as Piece Of Rock and Fast Lane (with its video peppered with rock start cameos) were neglected.

FAITH NO MORE - The Real Thing (Slash/Warner Bros, 1989)

A joyous blast of expertly melodic anarchy, Faith No More’s second UK album (their first with the vocalist Mike Patton) encompassed trad-metal riffs (Surprise! You’re Dead!), sinister easy listening (Edge Of The World), instrumental esoterica (Woodpecker From Mars) and a lot more besides. But it was the irksomely massive chart single Epic – a funky rap storm that you could sing along to – that was the album’s lasting legacy.

Catapulted into mainstream acceptance, FNM would soon tire of people assuming they were ‘only’ funk rockers, and their next album, Angel Dust, took a much darker turn.

PRIMUS - Suck On This (Caroline, 1989)

While jesters Primus have edged into jazz, ambient, prog and avant-garde territory over the years, bandleader Les Claypool’s elaborate bass style – and his insistence on laying down funk bass lines on their songs – means they’ve always lingered near the funk rock fence, even if that term is now dead.

Back in Claypool’s frat-boy days, titles like Suck On This were deemed the height of wit and a cameo in Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey was a dream come true. John The Fisherman and Harold Of The Rocks are pure 80s-era Primus, while Tommy The Cat (later re-recorded with Tom Waits) is a classic.

TACKHEAD - Friendly As A Hand Grenade (TVT, 1989)

Evidence that the funk metal genre was a movement created by bassists for bassists can be heard on Tackhead’s driving, multi-layered second album. Doug Wimbish, who had an illustrious CV while bassist for the Sugar Hill hip-hop label, pushes the music along with a funky storm of licks. Free South Africa gets polemical, and Stealing was six minutes of stripped-down funk experimentation. Wimbish later worked with UK dance maestro Gary Clail, and replaced Muzz Skillings in Living Colour, leaving the Tackhead project as a memento of simpler times.

For more Funk Rock and the real story behind Faith No More’s irresistible rise, then click on the link below.

Faith No More: The Real Story

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is a British author. The best-known of his 25 books to date is the bestselling Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, first published in 2004 and appearing in nine languages since then. McIver's other works include biographies of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Ice Cube and Queens Of The Stone Age. His writing also appears in newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Rolling Stone, and he is a regular guest on music-related BBC and commercial radio.