21st Century Funk/Soul Revival

In the late 1990s, when R&B was thriving off the visionary futurism of producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes — and continuing the big-budget electronic-soul tradition of their own formative influences, like Jimmy Jam / Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley — it would have rightly been considered retrograde to demand a return to the old model of ’60s-style live-band soul as a supposedly necessary corrective. But while the early millennium’s take on pop’s perpetual anti-nostalgia discourse occasionally made attempts to damn unsynthesized Stax/Atlantic-style roots-funk as an example of reactionary purism, the truth (and soul) of the matter was far different.

The soul revival that hit its stride starting in the early 2000s wasn’t some kind of revisionist retro-nemia. In many cases, it was a long-overdue acknowledgement that there were people still not only interested but more than capable of playing the kind of music that a feverish reissue market and a generation of cratediggers had whetted appetites for. You can spend only so much time listening to the kind of funk and soul-derived beats that made the golden age of hip-hop so pivotal before happily succumbing to the curiosity of where those staggering horn charts and head-nod drum breaks all came from — and where you can get more. After all, if this was the kind of music that gave RZA and Kanye and Dilla such revelations, it would have to be more than worth engaging with and appreciating no matter when it came out.

While the Brooklyn of the time is remembered 20 years later as an incubator for hipster buffoonery and/or “indie sleaze” depending on how embarrassed you still are about trucker hats, it was also the biggest incubator of a soul revival movement that continues to outlast just about every other Rock Is Back trend-hop that it shared music press with. And it provided a completely different respect for analog-recording values and vintage aesthetics that had even less time for irony than it did for putting up an anti-pop bulwark. We’re talking about the kinds of musicians whose biggest creative differences tended to revolve around recording technique and chops, a version of exclusionary thinking that was driven not by backlash but by the desire to recreate something wonderful as faithfully as possible. 

By the end of the ’90s, the cream of relatively short-lived NYC-based Desco Records — local bands like The Sugarman 3, The Mighty Imperials, and the Daktaris — was laying a foundation of young funk enthusiasts that were more than happy to add veteran singers like Lee Fields and Sharon Jones into the fold. When the 2000 split between Desco co-founders Gabriel Roth and Philippe Lehman shuttered the label, they bypassed the usual “indie vs. commercial” side of the aesthetic struggle to land on a far more primal competition based on record-collector and DJ idiosyncrasies of taste. You want to do classic soul? Well, we’re more into the heavy psychedelic-funk side of things. OK, there were money and business issues behind that disagreement, too, but it all came out in the wash: from the split emerged two still-strong specialist labels that embodied the heart of the movement. 

Roth’s label Daptone Records became the hottest brand in soul revival, with the Dap-Kings — the band he led under the alias Bosco Mann, first brought to prominence by their stunning albums with Sharon Jones — quickly becoming a go-to group of players to the stars, whether those stars were Amy Winehouse or Joe Bataan. Meanwhile, Lehman would motivate a succession of labels, continued by producer/bandleader Leon Michels — Soul Fire, Truth & Soul, Big Crown Records — that emphasized the grimy, lo-fi-but-highly-skilled corner of funk that was tailor-made for people who got into the music through Wu-Tang Clan. And no hard feelings either way: the crossover between the artists on these two labels overcame any narcissism of small differences to embody a broader range of soul and funk influence — Latin boogaloo, Ethio-jazz, Nigerian Afrobeat — that highlighted just what an international language this music really was.

But if the soul revival movement didn’t necessarily start there — you could find like-minded revivalists on the West Coast, in Europe, basically anywhere a group of heads got their minds blown in ’91 by the James Brown Star Time box set or DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s soul 7”-collection mixes — it definitely didn’t stop there, either. This list is far from exhaustive, and generally focuses on the emerging artists who became known via the scene, rather than the icons like Dr. John or pop stars like Bruno Mars that they’d eventually collaborate with. But that just means this isn’t just music that people brought back on a whim or to be trendy — it’s just a reminder that, even in a world with no shortage of amazing pop futurists, the sounds of what people generally consider “the past” are still capable of blowing your mind in the here and now.

The Way I See It cover

If Raphael Saadiq’s contributions to R&B were cut off after 1/1/2000, we’d still have Tony! Toni! Toné!, a litany of excellent solo singles, and the co-creation of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” with D’Angelo to argue for his case as a top-tier soul controller. But after the self-released 2004 album Ray Ray gave him license to take a turn for the old-school, his 2008 major-label return The Way I See It re-established him at the forefront of the decade’s classic-soul creatives. Playing spot-the-influence with this album is a good enough time — waxing sitar-drenched Stylistic on the Thom Bell-rocking “Oh Girl,” filtering the beautiful sorrow of late ’60s Motown through New Orleans brass on “Big Easy,” embodying the sheer joy of pre-synth Stevie on “Staying in Love” before harmonizing with the man himself on “Never Give You Up” — but no mere pastiche artist could ever nail the Jamerson bass grooves and R&B-polymath vocals like Saadiq did here.

Sounding Out The City cover

Even before their Raekwon collabs and Wu-Tang cover albums, you could tell there was something hip-hop-informed in Leon Michels’ compositions: they sound like the natural culmination of obscurity-steeped sample-searching, rhythmic re-engineering, and polygenre source material that took a beathead’s eclecticism in the service of boom-bap into a live-band setting. And that’s not just in the sterling cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up on My Baby” (of Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” riff origin renown) that closes this debut. The group’s instrumentals have the vibe of a previously unthought-of album that only existed in a beatmaker’s wildest dreams, whether the order of the day is rampaging Pete Rock-ready horns (“Too Late to Turn Back”; “Creation”), greasy Meters-adjacent guitar strut (“Ocho Rios”), or smoke-touched late-night ruminations that would — and, thanks to Ghostface’s “Shakey Dog Starring Lolita,” actually did — fit right into an East Coast true crime rap (“Musings to Myself”).

Wildflowers cover

Despite their reissue roots, Now-Again also has a place for contemporary bands that loosely evoke the label’s hip-hop-educated, genre-adventurous rediscoveries. In some cases, those musicians usually wind up cross-pollinating — which, in the case of Connie Price & the Keystones (actually the pseudonymous project of multi-instrumentalist Dan Ubick), means one of the most ambitious cross-generational supergroup albums of the peak ’00s funk revival era. Members of veteran acts like Funk Inc. and L.A. Carnival mingle with revivalists from Poets of Rhythm, Orgone, and Breakestra to meet in the chronological middle, tourniquet-tight J.B.’s-style funk melding with the jazz, reggae, and psych influences that hip-hop producers added to the boom-bap mix in the ’90s.

Ritornano Quelli Di... cover

It might seem weird at first glance to throw in a group of Italian crime-film soundtrack aficionados into the same funk-revival movement that gave us the likes of the Dap-Kings and Antibalas. But make no mistake: nobody stays in the pocket while funking up poliziotteschi scores like this Milanese band does. Morricone at his meanest gets the vertigo-melody kick-drum-of-death treatment on “Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Può Sparare,” while their take on Riz Ortolani’s “Il Consigliori” sets to slinking somewhere between Budos Band skulk and Pink Floyd in Barbet Schroeder soundtrack-gig mode. And the originals rip, too: check for their signature-tune candidate “Eurocrime!”, a fuzzed-out, brass-blasting pedal-down beast of a chase theme that whips around its rhythmic hairpins like a rally-tuned Alfa Romeo.

A Funky Bad Time cover

In the process of burning himself out on the possibility of maintaining a career putting out sardonic rap records as a middle-ager — a subject addressed brilliantly (and hilariously) on 2013’s Peter Pan Syndrome — Jay Mumford committed one of the best “fuck it” moves any aging hip-hopper pulled in recent memory: building off a nearly lifelong education and affinity for funky drum breaks to sit behind the kit himself. The Du-Rites put him in tandem with recurring co-member and multi-instrumentalist Pablo Martin, and just four years after their debut hit record shelves, 2020’s knuckledusting, raw-but-tight A Funky Bad Time made it clear they were slinging some of the nastiest stuff around, doing more with just surly-sounding organ riffs, greasily humid guitar snarl, and rolling-thunder percussion than most small combos could hope to even approach.

Who Is This America? cover

The true strength of the Brooklyn-based corner of revivalist funk was in the global scope of its influences: James Brown’s Augusta and Isaac Hayes’ Memphis might’ve been the cradle of the sound, but it also thrived in the Nuyorican milieu of Eddie Palmieri, the Afro-Cuban jazz of Cándido Camero, and especially in Fela Kuti’s Lagos. Antibalas embodied this blend of styles so well they would eventually be the band behind a Broadway musical about Fela himself, but five years before that they used the Kalakuta Republic spirit to strike a funky salvo against the malfeasance of Iraq War-era America and the forces of colonialism. The note-perfect Afrobeat of national identity-crisis opener “Who Is This America Dem Speak of Today?,” the trial-slash-fracas world-wrecker roll call of “Indictment,” and the fury-ratcheting locomotion of call-and-response power struggle “Big Man” are the big immediate pleasures. And the 33-minute two-fer of dubbed-out jams to close it all out — the trunk-swinging slow-but-powerful majesty of “Elephant” and the contemplative (and sometimes comedically self-conscious) feminist-ally treatise “Sister” — erases any doubts as to whether they can hang as lively, conversational musicians.

Mockingbird cover

Here’s a fun little miracle: a covers album that purported to test the limits of what kinds of music could be reworked into soul revivalism, and then revealed that those limits didn’t even exist. Can “Black Hole Sun” be moody, spacious, delicately yet intensely sung psychedelic soul? Whew, can it. What about “Karma Police”? Oh, that’s easy. Yeah, but “Ride the Lightning”? It was made for it. Kendra Morris shines as a sly-voiced singer-songwriter paying iconoclastic, genre-agnostic homage to a half century’s worth of pop canon from Bowie to Timberlake. Whether the source material’s an “of course”-level gimme (“Miss You” retrofitted for a pre-disco Mayfield milieu) or a confounding transformation (“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” as a borderline-menacing funky death trip), it knocks the dust off even the most familiar pop and rock standards.

The Budos Band II cover

Sometimes cross-cultural pollination means a band of heshers get the idea to assembe a killer horn section and start cutting a knuckles-out instrumental melange of Ethio-jazz and Latin funk. Just about any Budos album is a great place to start if you haven’t heard them before, but the pugilistic brass riffs and unshakable grooves of tracks like “Chicago Falcon,” “Ride or Die,” and “Scorpion” have this sophomore-album in case you didn’t hear us the first time ferocity. They even make “My Girl” sound like a sinister omen.

Homenaje cover

A side project of Austin Latin-funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma, Brownout didn’t take long to become a big hitter of a band in their own right. Their version of primarily instrumental, horn-rich jamming out has been equally conversant with both classic metal and hip-hop, borne out by the fantastic tribute records they’d cut later on for both Black Sabbath and Public Enemy. But their debut’s self-penned jams precede and outdo any cover-artist bonafides. For all their forays into dub-worthy echo-chamber dynamics and cross-generational funky psychedelia, they’re great because they’re strongly rooted in the kind of ’70s-steeped Latin funk that dives deep past the obligatory Santana nods to the likes of Malo, El Chicano, Mandrill, and every other speaker-rattler rightly beloved by the Lowrider magazine contingent.

Victim of Love cover

While the late-breaking career of Sharon Jones was the highest-profile example of the 2000s classic-soul revival giving a much-deserved chance to a longtime star-in-the-making, the (re-)emergence of labelmate Charles Bradley in that same scene isn’t far behind. And tempting as it is to single out his almost supernatural ability to completely repossess someone else’s song — try hearing Black Sabbath’s “Changes” or Nirvana’s “Stay Away” the same way after hearing his weathered but powerful voice howl through them — it’s predecessor albums like Victim of Love that really prove his worth as a master of classic soul. Menahan Street Band’s Staxlantic vibe gives Jupiter-level gravity to a singer who inhabits loneliness, frustration, and desire every bit as powerfully as other 40s-born soul legends who peaked 45 years before he did.

Give the People What They Want cover

It’s difficult to pinpoint where Sharon Jones peaked — she released so many phenomenal records with the Dap-Kings that it all just felt like a sustained, powerful welcome presence — but it’s not hard to pick a good candidate for when she sounded her most resilient. Released shortly after her first bout with the cancer that would eventually take her life in 2016, she sings with the gusto of a woman who slammed a door right in the Reaper’s face like he was an unwanted salesman, with every bit of defiance in her voice made poignantly vibrant by her survivor’s drive. And even if her pushback against the cruel authorities, wrong-doing lovers, and misdirected karma of the world on songs like “Retreat!”, “Stranger to My Happiness,” and “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” weren’t direct responses to her brush with mortality, they’re all the better from being sung by a voice that declares I’m still here, so what do you think you can even do to me?

Back to Black cover

Nowadays it can be hard to not just listen to but really hear this breakthrough album from the millennial hip-hop-informed answer to Dusty Springfield. After all, “Rehab,” Amy Winehouse’s big-break irreverent uptempo ode to relapsing because you don’t know how else to deal with heartbreak, hasn’t been much fun since she joined the 27 Club. But would be a shame bordering on a disservice to her memory if you can’t also hear the sheer life in Back to Black, whether it’s in how “You Know I’m No Good” boils the term “guilty pleasure” to its purest essence (with a legendary Ghostface assist in the bonus-track version), “Me and Mr. Jones” reworks the old Billy Paul milieu to hash it out with a man later revealed to be Nas, or how absolutely massive a heart punch love-lost ballads like “Love Is A Losing Game” and uptempo cuts like “Tears Dry on their Own” will deliver. The Mark Ronson/Salaam Remi-produced and Dap-Kings-backed soul style nails the timelessness of a retrofuture that should’ve panned out much differently.

Keep Reachin' Up cover

Go figure: one of the great underappreciated singers of the 2000s funk/soul revival’s early wave was an American ex-pat Brooklyn native cutting records in Helsinki. Nicole Willis’s turn in the mid ’90s acid jazz ensemble Repercussions sent her off into an unpredictable run of slept-on psychedelic R&B throwbacks, with Keep Reachin’ Up, the first record she cut with the Soul Investigators in this anything-old-can-sound-new-again mode, as a stunning (re)arrival. The Curtom-funk pump-up of “Feeling Free,” the cognac-hazed, langourous string flourishes of early ’60s breakup vibe “No One’s Gonna Love You,” and the sophisticated strut of Pam Grier flick-worthy “Blues Downtown” make fine accompaniment for her voice’s ability to soar, punch, coo, and seethe with the best of them.

My World cover

A North Carolinian with an enthusiasm for James Brown and a gritty, booming voice that made those comparisons more than credible, Lee Fields’ already-excellent run in the 2000s hit a real stride with his first album for Truth & Soul. This is where his voice started showing off his best nuances — not just belting and screaming like the Godfather of Soul on the social-protest title cut and the starstruck come-ons of “Ladies,” but recalling the raspy warmth of Bobby Womack’s lover-man classics on “Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do).” In the absence of a voice that resonant, the Expressions — another Murderer’s Row of session powerhouses under the guidance of Leon Michels — more than hold their own on ebullient instrumentals like “Last Ride” and “Expressions Theme."

Make the Road by Walking cover

Even without the co-sign of being sample-flipped for a Jay-Z banger (the title cut provided the prizefighter horns for “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)”), Menahan Street Band embodied everything good about 2000s Brooklyn funk. The most obvious reason is that they’re literally an all-star outfit, featuring the cream of Antibalas, Budos Band, El Michels Affair, and the Dap-Kings, a sort of funk-revival super session to end them all. They’re at their best when they’re triumphantly pugilistic — not for nothing do they absolutely scorch the climactic Rocky score moment “Going the Distance” — but even their mellower side (the Sunday sun-kissed “Home Again!”; the funky reggae of “Montego Sunset”) has the power to punch above its weight class and win by TKO.

Naturally cover

If anyone was still cynically skeptical about the prospects of a 2000s act that was far closer in sound and spirit to Marva Whitney than Whitney Houston, the second full-length by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings was made to give those people a sophomore thump. Where do you want to start? The anxious pacing-in-a-tight-room shuffle of leadoff cut “How Do I Let A Good Man Down?”, the most magnanimous breakup song of the last 20 years? The happenstance reunion of the Otis-and-Carla-style Lee Fields duet ballad “Stranded in Your Love”? An ambling but rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” that can best be described as Stax Socialism? Whatever the case, at this point we’re talking about the best soul singer in America and one of the few bands who could do her justice, so just pick a track blindly and get stunned no matter what.

Dap-Dippin' With Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings cover

If you want to pick someone to elevate from obscurity to stardom, good luck finding a better story than Sharon Jones. A gospel-hewn powerhouse of a singer who’d been trying to break into the business since the ’70s, Jones spent her middle-aged years working as a Rikers correction officer because she kept getting written off by the industry — most notoriously, by a Sony exec who saw her as “too fat, too black, too short, and too old” to make it big in an MTV world. But somehow, talent won out: a mid ’90s session with fellow undersung veteran Lee Fields eventually led to this debut on big-things-to-come indie Daptone, featuring Brooklyn’s next-best thing to the J.B.’s backing Jones on stunning originals (blazing “Got a Thing on My Mind”; steamy “Make It Good to Me”) and the best “what if Janet and Jam/Lewis did their thing in ’66” cover of “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” conceivable.

In The Raw cover

While the foundations for the live-band funk revival of the ’00s were largely being laid down in New York, a couple siblings from Munich made their own contributions to the movement — one that clicked so well with their Brooklyn cohort that any dissection of its European provenance is pretty much moot. The brothers in question (Max on drums, Jan on guitar) were joined here by jazz-steeped fellow German Till Sahm on keys and future Daptone scene-cultivator Gabriel Roth (in “Bosco Mann” mode) on bass for this blistering set of small-combo funk. It’s an internationalist take that treats Afrobeat percussion, Ethio-jazz melodies, and canyon-echo dub production as an integral given, and makes even their chops-hewn tightness feel loose-limbed and headswimming.