Dâm-Funk

Born in Pasadena, California, Dâm-Funk has become a shining light for funk music. Since releasing Toeachizown, his debut on Stones Throw Records, he has remained a figurehead for the modern funk sound. We caught up with Dâm just before the release of his latest album Invite the Light

Damon Riddick AKA Dâm-Funk’s latest album Invite the Light provides an uncompromising message of compassion and positivity. It is also an advancement in modern funk, a genre Riddick brought to the fore with his full-length debut Toeachizown – released in 2009.

You can be a gentleman but be the 'g' in gentleman

“A lot of people followed suit after Toeachizown dropped,” says the Pasadena-born musician. “It injected a different type of sound that wasn't out there, as far as being a little more soulful while coming from a street background.”

With Invite the Light, Riddick has both expanded on this sound and introduced a greater focus on lyrics.

“There’s more stories this time, as opposed to an album that’s only instrumentals,” he says. “That’s the difference that I wanted to bring to the table.”

It’s interesting to see this narrative side in your music.
Yeah the idea is to 'invite the light'. It's for people who've maybe been through something in their lives. They make a big splash – or do anything in life that's successful. And all of a sudden what happens after this stuff? They might go into a rabbit hole.

The test is to see how you deal with whatever happens to you in life. That's what the title is based on: invite the light instead of revelling in the darkness.

You described how there was some emulation going on after Toeachizown came out. I heard that before that happened you felt you were on your own?
I'm lucky that there's been a scene or community that feels confident about embracing this sound. As opposed to hiding with their shoulders hunched when people hear music that gets a bit too soulful.

When I came out and dropped those few records on Stones Throw, I was in the midst of a lot of experimentation. It was at a time when it seemed that the underground was only being looked at for experimenting without structure. It was given the intelligence tag by magazines because the music was made by these people. It was nerds making music for nerds. Call it what it is.

During that time in LA, when people like myself and others who were doing music that weren't necessarily like nerd music, they gave a nose up to anything funked up. They'd chuckle at a Dave Chappelle skit about Rick James. What we did was, knowing that we were also nerds as well – from our record collecting and digging skills – just stayed ourselves and held on strong.

Before I moved to LA I was in Pasadena and always told myself that I want to make sure that I continue doing funk-based music. And continue to experiment with all styles. My main mission was to give respect to funk and the artists that came before me. So that they won't just look like a 'cocaine's a hell of a drug' [Chappelle’s Prince skit] or the butt of some jerry curl jokes.

I'm not one of those dudes that's all about that darkness; I'm trying to walk towards the light

There are serious musicians out there and I wanted to treat their legacy the right away. That's why we have people like Junie Morrison [Ohio-born funk musician] on the album.

Talking about elders, you've got Leon Sylvers III and his son [Leon Sylvers IV] on this album. This isn't the first time you've got together in the studio is it?
No, we've done some stuff before that's not released. I have a song that I produced for Leon IV [‘There’s Nothing Better’] that's out there on Soundcloud. We're thinking about doing stuff for him down the road. But with Leon III, that was one of my first mentors. One that actually gave me my first professional job.

He was the first guy who believed in my music, as far as a writing a cheque perspective. I always stayed cool with him over the years. We talk, laugh, argue – all types of shit. He's like a real brother. Like a dude that pulls no punches. He definitely has helped. Even before I got into the game with Stones Throw, he'd tell me things about the industry to look out for; whose who in the game.

I was able to go with a label like Stones Throw based on the knowledge from people like Leon. It was about entering the game in more of an underground level first.

What age were you when you first met Leon?
I was like right out of high school. I don't remember the exact age. It was an impressionable time because I was already digging his music. I would already have a lot of the SOLAR [Sounds Of Los Angeles Records] records by like Dynasty or the early Sylvers' albums on MGM.

Like I say, it's all about game recognising game

He was a hero to a lot of people who I grew up with – a well-known cat in LA. A friend of mine's cousin ended up being involved with Leon – that's how I met him because he heard some of my music. We just stuck together and here we are. It's an honour to have him on the album.

Where was your first meeting with Leon?
In a studio. He had heard this little cassette tape I did and I came over to his home studio back in the day. It was the same studio in that Shalamar video for 'Over and Over'. I went over the one time and from then on we kept in touch. Then I started doing keyboard and session work with him.

Was SOLAR still going when you met him?
It was half-way decently going but he had already moved on to outside projects. He had a project called Double Action Theatre. And there was Atlantic Starr – things like that. He had started to leave SOLAR in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Being mentored through him led to a lot of things then?
Yeah, but mostly it was the west coast rap stuff. That snowballed into that. That's when I started working with people like Hoo-Bangin' Records. That whole situation was priority at the time.

That was through a guy named Binky Mac. He introduced me to Mack 10 and a few different people. I got to meet Cube. I kept getting invited to different things. So I'd end up playing on some Westside Connection stuff. It went on and on. There's so much that I can't even remember. The name I was under at that time was Dâm – or just Damon Riddick.

Dâm-Funk came a little later because I just realised, man this is what I represent. One of those studio nights I was driving home and I put on Steve Arrington's 'Nobody Can Be You But You' and it just changed me.

I'd rather die or ascend with integrity instead
of with a big bank account

I just realised, I gotta get out of this man. I'm not gonna sit up here doing session work for everyone – I've got something to say. That's when I became Dâm-Funk and went back to the way I used to do my cassette tapes in the bedroom.

I moved around and was doing some day jobs driving cars and trucks, things like that. Then eventually MySpace came along and I started putting my songs up there. That's when I got the attention of Peanut Butter Wolf [founder of Stones Throw]. He heard a few things and the rest is history.

You picked up all of Leon's knowledge and experience and then you transitioned into g-funk with Mack 10. During your development stage you had two really rich sources.
It was fun, it was cool. They really treated me well too. They get a bad rep, a lot of these g-funk cats. A lot of these people who experimented with quote, un-quote 'gangster rap'. They took care of me as far as business – everybody was paid.

Like I say, it's all about game recognising game. If you demand respect in a humble manner, you will get respect. If you don't take care of yourself in these musical situations, you will be disrespected.

Even with the culture now, with everybody collaborating, a pm might pop up in your mail and be like, let's do a song. I've got people on Twitter who literally leave messages like, let's work. I'm like, what? I don't know you. I don't want to say it like that but it's like man, it ain't that easy.

Things have to be organic; you’ve got to know how you’re gonna get paid. People are out here hoeing, and you can't do that. That's when people don't respect you. When you’re just collabin' like that with no direction. That's the kind of stuff you have to watch out for. You've got to respect yourself, respect your art.

Things have to change; we have to start
respecting each other

That's why it took me so long to get to where I am. It didn't happen overnight. It still ain't really happened. I'm out here, and nobody really knows me that much.

I appreciate the people who do – like yourself and your magazine – and the people who come to my shows. At the end of the day, I'd rather die or ascend with integrity instead of with a big bank account. I just want my legacy to be remembered and help other people, so they know that there was somebody that stayed true.

In a past interview, when you were speaking about beauty, you perfectly summarised what you do. You said, I make music that the hardest dude and most beautiful lady can get into at the same time.
I'm glad that you recognised that. It's for us, the fact that you noticed that quote, there's a lot of people like us man. We're not only brainiacs, we still relate to going to a bar with our friends. We can relate to walking a lady up to her door and kissing her hand and not having to smash that. You can be a gentleman but be the 'g' in gentleman.

You can mix it up and I don't think people grasp that enough. When you do take that approach, people see it. They sniff it. It rubs off. As opposed to being the guy who comes up and says, wassup my nigger? It's like dude, don't come up to me saying what's up my nigger.

Say what's up my brother? What's up my buddy? Things have to change; we have to start respecting each other. Would that same brother walk up to Malcolm X and say, what's up my nigger? Hell nah. What makes me different than Malcolm X?

I don't mean to go there but I'm just tired of the dumb shit. That's why I'm really about this album and that Wolf gave me the creative control to put out something like this. Nobody's better than anybody else. It's time to start respecting. Just be a g.

We was growing up in the same neighbourhoods but our lives wasn't all bad

When people say they’re a g, let's really be a g. Instead of all this, playing and hoping – with a nudge and a wink – that nobody calls you on it.

Like, what could I get away with at this concert with 10,000 white people in the audience and one black dude at the show and he up here doing 'nigger' all night?

You understand what I'm saying? It's uncomfortable man. Nobody wants to admit it but it is. It's time for people to start checking themselves.

What about a conversation where everything's allowed [all racial slurs]? If everything isn't allowed, let's stop disrespecting ourselves and acting like, it's ok, it's the new world, everybody says it.

Free speech doesn't mean that you have to say whatever comes to your mind.
Exactly man. Things are happening right now and it's not going to end overnight. But to bring it back to your question about the beauty, I'm also a person that grew up in a neighbourhood where it was the hood.

Both my parents went to work. My dad was a working man. He showed me how to get up in the morning and get something happening. He never let me stay in bed. I always had to get out – even if it was to just go to the park or something.

That type of upbringing, to have somebody in your life that knows you are in an area that could be dangerous but doesn’t have to be that bad – the beauty comes from those experiences.

Like when my mum and dad would take me – I'm an only child – for a Sunday drive. Just to get out of Pasadena, and drive to Beverly Hills and look at the houses. Or go to eat in Hollywood. My dad would fly a kite with me at the park or we'd do a model rocket. That's the type of environment that I come from.

The type of music I make, is like a smile with a tear

I'm sick of these motherfuckers on these songs talking about all this bullshit they've been through. All this hard life, only thing I know, the CNN of the streets [gangster rap] – man get the fuck out of here with that shit. People have a good life out here man. We was growing up in the same neighbourhoods but our lives wasn't all bad.

The beauty of my music comes from that. I'm not gonna fake the funk and try and make some hard-ass music all day long. There’s nothing wrong with beauty.

There's a quote from the Dalai Lama, compassion is the radicalism of our time.
Ed, we know the truth man. Everybody knows. When they stop and have a moment of quiet. We all know the truth. But it's hard and I get it. I'm not immune to it. I have some stuff on the record where I probably say fuck the most times in any song in the 2014/2015 music season. But there's a time and place for everything. We're all influenced by what's going on right now. You can't be Mr Positive all day long.

But why not try to inject something that makes things a bit cooler? Who wants to live in a war-filled world all the time? It's the ying and the yang thing. Like I love metal – there's a time and a place for my Iron Maiden Powerslave album. I just like all types of music. I still say, bringing it back to the funk now, it's a lack of music that's out there that you can get your car and ride to and feel good at the end of the album.

I always say, the type of music I make, is like a smile with a tear. That sums up my music.