by Josh Levi
Damon Riddick may be the coolest dude alive. Better known as Dam-Funk, Riddick is a walking embodiment of West Coast Relaxation, creating an electrifying brand of modern funk. Heavily inspired by the synth-based funk of the late '70s/early '80s, his music is full of interstellar synthesizers rife with analog warmth. Often referred to as the "Ambassador of Boogie Funk," Dam-Funk's musical vision and love for synth funk has reached beyond his home in L.A. and out into the world. Having caught the ear of Stones Throw Records' Peanut Butter Wolf, Dam-Funk released his 5LP Box Set Toeachizown in the fall of 2009. Truly a renaissance man, Riddick not only produces original music and remixes, but holds down a weekly residency called Funkmosphere at Carbon Bar and Lounge in Culver City. Exploring the world of electro boogie and g-funk, the night revolves around a slew of vinyl-crazed DJs staying true to their passion for music. Riddick was kind enough to speak with us about his current tour with his group, Master Blazter, production values, collaborations with Snoop Dogg & Nite Jewel and the funk within us all.
Josh Levi: You're about to embark on this tour with Master Blazter. Have you been to St. Louis before?
Dam-Funk: No. This will be my first time actually.
Do you have any expectations about this tour?
Yeah. Great expectations. I'm looking forward to checking out a lot of the US. It's great. There are so many other places. Europe, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Poland, all these other places, Scandinavia. But yeah, never have I ever toured the US like this, proper. We're going to be getting in our vehicle and just rolling like real bands do, instead of the flying like I usually do. It's going to be a great experience and I'm looking forward to visiting places like St. Louis and other areas of the US. You know, kind of just make shit happen and let people know about this modern funk sound.
Will this be a DJ set?
No, a live set. Three members: Me, Computer Jay on keyboards, synthesizer, and Atari player, and also J-1 on drums and triggers. It'll be like a threesome like Rush and the Police. Like that kind of vibe.
And you'll be holding up synths?
Exactly. Synthesizer, vocals and shoulder synth.
How did you and [Master Blazter] hook up together?
We hooked up by just being in the L.A. scene - Met J-1 at Funkmosphere, which is my club I do every Monday night which focuses on rare boogie and funk on wax. And he came in and got down with the vibe and we built up a rapport. And Computer Jay, I met at a house party up in the hills of L.A. with one of his cousins who was in People Under The Stairs, and we just all DJ'd at the same party and me and Computer Jay hooked up at that point. He did a remix for one of my songs called "Burgundy City" and "Galactic Fun," and I've just been in touch ever since and we decided to come together and do Master Blazter. But when it was time for me to go on tour and do things from my album, Toeachizown, I decided to fill out some things instead of just solo, and now we're here for another one and they've really obliged to join me on this run to expand and get used to the road and sharpen up our chops. So that's how we met up.
So you're still doing the Funkmosphere DJ night?
With your recognition over the past couple of years, have you seen the night change or a new crowd come in that maybe wasn't there before?
Oh yeah. Definitely been seeing some new faces. People from all over the world when they come to L.A. if they're really heavy, deep music connoisseur - they tend to come and see what Funkmosphere's all about. It's at a club called Carbon Bar and Lounge in Culver City. It's definitely like a little bit different than the usual east side and Hollywood parties in L.A. Ours is on the west side of L.A., closer to the beach and you know it's a different vibe, and gives people a chance to see what the west side of L.A. is about instead of the usual haunts that exist out in L.A. Yeah, man. It's been growing. It's packed every Monday night, but it's always a good night of music. We don't go for the cheap shots, the big hits, big hip-hop anthems. We just play all funk. All night long. Uncut.
Seems like you got a good thing going. It seems like a night with people who truly care about music and not an image.
Exactly. That's what we were going for. We didn't just want to play "Scenario" from A Tribe Called Quest. You know, those tracks that definitely get people up. We want to try different stuff and experiment, and let the antennas be raised. Not trying to hit those anthems that automatically make people go crazy. We just wanna go through rare tracks and even though if it's tracks we do play that are known, it's stuff that usually isn't played in L.A. clubs.
Like Zapp and Roger. Maybe some Dynasty?
Yup. That kind of stuff. Slave, even P Funk as well. Prince. But a lot of more obscure records that only got pressed up in a limited edition or just rare artists that only came out with one 12".
Is this a strictly vinyl night?
Yeah, strictly vinyl. I have a lot of love for Serato, and the last night of the month, just for out of town DJs, or even nights I want to premiere new songs I recorded in my house, and just hear our sounds on the sound system, and dance and get people's reaction. I do allow that to happen once a month, but for the most part 99% of Funkmosphere is all wax.
It's been roughly four years since your initial remix of Baron Zen's "Burn Rubber," and that kind of launched you into the public arena outside of L.A. After all this time, how does it feel to get this recognition after having been in the game so long?
It's appreciated. The vision was not to really make myself happy with recognition. It was mainly to bring light and respect to this type of funk, because the only funk that was getting respected was the kind of funk like James Brown, or that style of old 45s from the '70s and late '60s. And those elitist scenes existed when the early 80s funk and very very very late '70s funk was ridiculed and kind of written off as like "Aww that's that synthesizer jheri curl stuff" so what I wanted to do was make sure that this style was respected along the way, and not looked down on, to those circles of record collectors. I've always been making original music before I crate digged. It was just a good feeling to know especially outside the US, the open arms that received, it's just very appreciated, it's just that the US is very very very very slow to catch on to things that are different, and unique and out there, you know. Where it's a challenge for people to get into music, so hopefully from this tour and some of the records that have been released, the American audiences can kind of say, "Okay, there's more than Kanye and Lil Wayne." There's a little bit more out there.
So between your session work with west coast rappers and Ice Cube in the late '80s/early '90s to your current works now, what is your drive behind that? What has kept you going on all these years?
The drive is to uplift the funk and to make sure that people are getting more beautiful chords in the music, where street music can be more dissonant chords, or negative vibes. I just want to inject different chords, different sounds, different keyboards. Use things from the past and new. That's what kept me driving to make sure that this sound was a part of the dinner plate if you will, the people's choice out there, and that's what kept me going - I said "Man, if the people at this club Funkmoshpere like it, and the head of Stones Throw Records digs it, then its like why not try to keep on rolling." And even before I hooked up with Stones Throw, it's just the music I love, and it's just always something that made me happy. And it's not just funk. It's the message and the dig down of other groups who were truthful like Zappa and Rush. Groups like that that probably created music in other genres. It's always identifying with groups that were real. So have you been DJing house parties since the '90s?
No. It started in the 2000s. It started as a fluke if you will. I met a friend of mine named Billy Goods, who was doing a night at Carbon Bar as well and he saw what I was getting. I was digging for D-Train and Prelude Records stuff at this real old record store called Record Surplus, and he was like "Man, you like that kind of stuff? I'd love to hear that kind of stuff at my night" and I was like [laughs] "Yeah, sure." Sure enough, I did end up going down and he had the night poppin', and they were playing more like Boogaloo funk, more like the chicken scratch guitar type stuff, and "Get on the Good Foot" type stuff. But once he allowed me to guest and drop some of the synthesizer driven funk and even like a little bit of Kraftwerk and things like that, and it really just popped off, and from that point, I started DJing around the mid-00s so it was more of a late bloom with me DJing but I've always had turntables and DJ'd back in the day in my room, so when it came time to express those tools that I was blessed with, I wasn't naïve to know how to mix tracks together you know, kind of make things blend like that.
What were you listening to in 1991?
'91. I was listening to a lot of funk. I was listening to Todd Rundgren. I was listening to Prefab Sprouts. I was listening to even a lot of early/mid house like Larry Heard and Mr. Fingers. New York house, and Chicago and Detroit stuff. You know I was buying a lot of those 12"s, but I was into a lot of electronic music and still into funk at the same time, and as well as other genres.
So that hasn't changed much? Your taste is still kind of the same? You appreciate all kinds of music and that's definitely appreciated.
I just try to keep it going. I never really changed. It just took me twenty years to get my first album out, and I never really changed the way I get down.
You recently you jammed with Snoop at the HVW8/Adidas 'Dogg House' Reception. How was that?
It was great. I've always admired Snoop's whole steez, his business sense, his style, his flow in rapping, and his music he would choose to rap on top of. He definitely has the funk, and were both born in the same year, so we kind of had this long unmeeting connection.
Had you met him before?
I met him briefly before, in a crowded studio, with me, Mack 10, and all these guys doing session work. Him and his crew came in. We were all over in a studio where they used to record a lot of the Death Row stuff at and I was doing a session one night, and in walks Snoop, and he was cool, you know. I never tried to run up, bust through the crowd and shake someone's hand. I just played the background and waited my turn, and when we finally met on a real level, it was through creating, and that's the way I like meeting fellow artists: through the creative process. Not having somebody try and slide my demo to him and all that type of shit.
As your music has reached, beyond L.A., beyond America, and into the world, where is the most interesting place you've had a positive reaction to your music?
I'd have to say Poland. That was one of our best shows, and I was actually fortunate to do that with a live band. That was one of my favorite gigs with the band wise. It was just very exciting. The crowd was pumped. They had my record, holding it up in the air. I didn't even know they got distribution out there, or maybe they ordered it online, but it was just a treat to see people that far away into this guy that came from Pasadena, California. Everybody thought I would never do anything as far as release true pop music. Everybody was always asking me to try something else, maybe [you] might want to get into a different career, but I would always do my day job, and different things I was doing. Just always stay true to the music, and that was one of my favorite gigs. There was an awakening just to show that man, anybody can do what they really want. It sounds corny and cliché when people say it, but if you are really determined and not stepping on people's toes while you're trying to get there, you know, you really can do something that you dream about.
As far as my DJing part, (I have like three prongs: the live show, DJ show, and a mixture of DJ and live performance), that favorite gig had to be in Tel Aviv, Israeli. I mean the place was just jumping. You could feel it in your chest, and the sound system is incredible. People were fantastic, and they just really know how to party out there in Tel Aviv.
You often talk about your preference for analog equipment. Do you remember the first synthesizer you acquired?
Yeah. It was a Juno-1 from Roland, and I still use that on my recordings to this day, and I got that maybe around '89. It's just a fantastic keyboard and it's very nice. Some people when they see it might think "What is this?" but you know with every keyboard, instead of jumping on all this new stuff that they pound on you each year at Guitar Center, if you just sat with the keyboard in front of you and learned it inside out, you can pull out a lot of magical things. I would have to say the Roland Juno-1 is my favorite keyboard, as far as analog. It even beats the Moog for me.
In your earlier work, you recorded straight to cassette. Now with your access to different studios, has this changed your production at all?
Yeah. I learned my chops by doing it that way, recording from cassette to cassette. You know, you gotta play live all the way through without stopping. So from years of doing that, I'm able to record and mix all at the same time. I would have the keyboard at a certain level, and the drum machine at a certain level and then play all the way through without messing up, or if it was messed up, I would leave those things in there just for the charm, with the rawness, and gradually now I'm multi-tracking through Pro Tools. skipped Logic and all of those type of formats, Fruity Loops, and went straight to Pro Tools, and so far the Pro Tools experience is great. That's what I'm doing, still recording live all the way through, but it allows me to separate the tracks. The digital situation mixed with the analog is my preference. I like both. I close my eyes and ears now to digital. I embrace both formats now for recording and platforms. I think it enhances the experience and I can learn from both.
You did a song with Ramona Gonzales from Nite Jewel? You two seem to have a very similar aesthetic. How did you two hook up?
Well we both dug each other's music back in the heyday of Myspace. And she had befriended me and I befriended her. And for months, I kind of realized this was an interesting icon in her photo, and I started realizing who she was, and it was just in the back of my mind. Then I walked into a San Francisco record store called Groove Merchant, and one of my friends, said "Hey, man. Have you heard this thing? It just came in. I don't know if you'd like it or not." He was kind of non-chalant about it and he put it on and I was like "What the fuck is this? This is incredible, man. What are you talking about I'm not gonna like this? This is the shit!" It was a track called "What Did He Say," and at that point I put two and two together, and went "Wait a minute, man. This is Nite Jewel!" It's like the same person that hit me up, and she let me know she liked my stuff and I thought it was a group, which she slightly is, because she works with Cole who is her husband now. But we just hooked up from there, and admired each other's music, and built up a friendship first. And then we started collaborating, and now were doing a quiet project called Nite Funk now, which we're just taking our time to record. Her new album, that she just recorded now, about to turn in is very nice, and I'm looking forward to her getting some more accolades and more exposure from her new album. Everybody's moving away from the whole lo-fi thing now. Some people are doing it, but her new album is not lo-fi at all. I'm proud of her to see that she's stepping it up and walking away from that cliché, kinda faddish thing as well. If you have the equipment, why not just record something that sounds good. Her new album is going to be great, and I'm looking forward to completing the Nite Funk project. We've got about ten songs in the can right now.
In your music, your affinity with the cosmos is very apparent. If there was one album or song that you would use to communicate with beings from another world, what would it be?
I would let them hear a song called, "Your Someone Special" from an artist named Mr. Fingers - eight minutes. Oh yeah, it's one of my favorites. I would love to let them hear that. I just think that was a great piece of music, and it has analog and digital characters in it. It's just a timeless piece of music to me, very beautiful.