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Listening to Dayton Funk

Tilt Shift Photo of Acoustic Drum Set

Listening to the band Lakeside’s #1 R&B hit “Fantastic Voyage” in 1980, one can hear lead singer Mark Wood chant that he was taking you “To the land of funk!”  At the time, many of us fans figured it was a figurative allusion to the metaworld that funk bands in the 1970s were bent on producing.  For many black urban teenagers, the funk of the 1970s was not only a type of music with a heavy dance groove. It also represented a wild place in the imagination where unfettered dreams could be realized.

Here is a video of Lakeside performing “Fantastic Voyage”:

As it turns out, Wood could have also been referring to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio as The Land of Funk, a small midwestern city with an oversized reputation for chart-topping funk bands in the 1970s and 1980s.  From 1971 to 1985, eight separate bands and many more associated solo artists emerged from Dayton and produced dominant and often iconic hit R&B records — funk records. Now, decades later, we still hear these sounds because they are used as samples in iconic rap songs.

Funk music is commonly played by adept R&B musicians that combine or submit their individuality for the collective groove. Bass heavy and sneaky smart, funk bands typically included jazzy chord changes and bouncy horn riffs that punctuated relentless dance grooves.  They eschewed the disco beat in favor of tricky inflections that spoke to an African American sensibility while seeking universal popularity.  The Dayton bands played a full band form of ‘70s party music. The bands all featured multiple player horn sections, multiple vocalists, involved dance steps and choreography, and an infectious excitement. This music demanded that listeners move.

By 1976, The Ohio Players had combined jazz licks and street polish to produce 5 gold albums (three platinum) and two #1 pop hits, “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster.” Their performances featured close harmony, a horn section, and grooves made for dancing. They used their voices in ways that ranged from speaking to singing, much like hip hop groups do today. They wore Afros and flashy costumes covered with rhinestones.

Listen to The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”:

Slave began as a funk-rock outfit in 1977 with their biggest hit, “Slide,” hitting the pop top 20, featuring the lead guitar solos of Mark “Drac” Hicks. The band then morphed into dance-club standard bearers, with lead singer Steve Arrington driving “Watching You” and “Just A Touch of Love” in 1980.

The polished disco-funk group Heatwave formed in Germany but was comprised of Dayton-bred members. Heatwave enjoyed three gold albums (two platinum) and three top 5 R&B hits from 1976 to 1980. One of them was the memorable “Boogie Nights.”

Listen to Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights”:

Synth funk masters Zapp enjoyed 3 gold albums from 1980 to 1985. Their song “More Bounce to the Ounce” has been sampled many times in recent music. Other Dayton groups making funk music were Aurra, Sun, Faze-O, and the smooth funk band Dayton. Dayton-bred funk players also released numerous solo tracks.  Walter “Junie” Morrison, Steve Arrington, Roger Troutman, Shirley Murdock, Steve Washington and others all contributed to the scene.

One might think that so many acts from the same city must have something in common, but identifying that common ingredient is elusive.  For a city with a population that never exceeded 260,000 (and is only half of that today), the sonic impact has been far out of proportion to its size.  Only 50 miles up the road from Cincinnati,  Dayton was home to a Black professional class that did not have the typical disdain for those engaged in the “alternative” Black economies, of street hustling and the like.  When The Ohio Players emerged in the 1970s with their controversial album cover pictures of nude and semi-nude Black women, they captured national attention, and the idea of “Players” fit those street sensibilities. Musically, they cultivated a reputation as strong, accomplished players.  Hits like “Skin Tight,” “Fire,” “Sweet Sticky Thing,” “Love Rollercoaster,” and “Who’d She Coo?” betrayed a musicality that could not be ignored.  Youngsters in Dayton were supported by their families, and allowed to pursue their own brand of street funk, combining their formal music education in public schools with an unrestricted expression of the street life.  The combinations led to some lively shows at the local high school’s “Battle of the Bands.” The showmanship and musical standards in the Dayton Black community led to youngsters developing into fully formed professionals who hit the road ready to tour, to perform, to write, to record, and to become stars like The Players that inspired them.

it is ironic that all of the bands emerged on separate labels, (Ohio Players on Westbound, then Mercury; Lakeside on SOLAR, Heatwave on Epic, Slave on Cotillion, Zapp on Warner Bros, Sun on Capitol, etc.) There was no single mogul directing the operation: the bands each earned their national status themselves, and still kept their hometown ties.

Generations later, one can ask “what is it about Dayton Funk?” The question—like the music—is as fresh as ever, and the answers, as always, are in the groove!

Rickey Vincent

Dr. Rickey Vincent is a scholar, educator, radio host and author. He obtained his Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley in 2008, and lectures on black music history, black power and social movements, the cultural politics of Hip Hop, and issues of African American culture and globalization. Learn more…