The Funk Factor

This month I would like to engage in some discourse on a matter casting significant weight on the scales of life, yet rarely mentioned in the halls of

This month I would like to engage in some discourse on a matter casting significant weight on the scales of life, yet rarely mentioned in the halls of academe. I refer, of course, to the various and nefarious phenomena called “Funk Factor.” What is Funk Factor, and how does one obtain it? Is it a desirable thing?

All right, I'll start there. Yes, Funk Factor is desirable, at least sometimes. It might as well be desirable, seeing as how it's unavoidable.

To get even more basic, what is Funk Factor? It is a variety of things with many shades of meaning, both positive and negative, occurring in a multiplicity of circumstances.

At its most obvious level, Funk Factor consists of a bass player and drummer steaming along on some lowdown thang and just slapping it in the pocket. But Funk Factor is also whacking the ends off of two audio cables and twisting the wires together because you suddenly need some bizarre cable that scares you to even think about, and you have no adapters that could be made to work.

Funk Factor is being in the middle of “Honky Tonk Women” at a biker and workingman's bar somewhere in New England in the dead of winter, when the local hookers, sick of freezing their patooties off, start marching into the club and doing free lap dances to raise the interest level of the clientele. Or having six speaker cabinets of which three or four are working at any given time. (“Oh, I thought that that one worked the last time I was recording guitar … sorry.”) Or opening the outlet cover to plug in your gear on the stage of an old, musty, shut-down dance hall, only to have a mouse suddenly scurry out and off into the shadows.

Clearly, Funk Factor is more desirable sometimes than other times. But like I said, we might as well make the best of it.

I worked at a studio with an SSL board. SSL gives you extra buttons in case you want custom functions, and this SSL had one custom function: a button marked “Funk.” This button finally gave us, the engineers, a response when a client would whine, “That's really nice, but it needs a bit more funk.” “Oh, sure,” you reply, “I'll just hit the Funk button up here, and things should get a little funkier.” Having that button definitely added Funk Factor; the Factor would have been much higher had it actually done anything.

The Funk Factor that came out of the button was put into it by the inspiration from which it sprang, the true source of funk in that situation. It seems fair to say right now — I might change my mind later — that that is generally the case. The interesting question that arises is “Whose inspiration?” In the case of the SSL, at least, the answer to that was clear.

Funk Factor can also be the source, rather than the result, of inspiration. Take the blues, for instance. It would go too far to call the plantation life that begat country Delta blues “Funk Factor,” but it might not be far off to say that the grit of post — World War II urban life was the Funk Factor that led to electric Chicago blues.

Other times Funk Factor seems something like a rude inside joke between you and the cosmos. The “Honky Tonk Women” incident is an example of that.

Having established these general principles, we can return to the unanswered question of how Funk Factor can be obtained, if you still want it after everything said up to this point. Surprisingly, Funk Factor can be successfully sought out, though it will just as often find you. How can you find it? The boho lifestyle is a longtime favorite and is usually successful to a greater or lesser degree.

Note that Funk Factor is entirely dependent on frame of reference. Gigantic quantities of Funk Factor can be overlooked by some twit with his nose in his face. (Hey, that sounds like what I want it to mean.) A person attuned to Funk Factor can spot it in a moment's interchange between two people on a bus.

Now you know. So keep framing your references, and you'll find Funk Factor Inspiration the next time you walk into some small studio with a bunch of nice condenser mics and no working phantom-power supply.