In the early 1980's, as the Disco music era came to an insufferable conclusion, the innovation of utilizing electronics and computers in music was gradually becoming more than a curiosity.
Soul music, unlike drug-crazed Disco, was clearly art based music, founded on true human emotion, and real spiritual dynamics.
How on earth could replacing real human talent with computers lead to any worthwhile "SOUL" music?
By 1982 Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Marvin Gaye all began utilizing a little bit more than the usual Fender "Rhodes" electric piano to compose. There was Hohner's "funky clavinet", talk-box "vocoders", and a plethora of "drum machines" coming into the musical instrument marketplace.
Eventually up-and-coming R&B talent would see this electronic age of musical instrumentation embraced by established stars and legends.
When the Stevie Wonder's the Prince's and the Marvin Gaye's scored huge chart hits using the new hi-tech musical instruments, the younger Soul music talent saw this as the nod of approval they needed to follow suit.
One of the most innovative Soul & Funk hit records to break new terrain in the early 80's was the electro-funk song; "777-9311". Composed by Prince and recorded by the Minneapolis funk band; The Time. This immensely popular and influential urban party record was the lead single from The Time's second album; "What Time Is It?!!"
Recorded for the album at Prince's home studio in May–June 1982, the song was produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince, with lead singer of The Time; Morris Day adding the lead vocal track.
A sophisticated and deeply funky song it opens with an electronic drum machine beat pattern featuring an active and syncopated hi-hat pattern that repeats. Then electric rhythm guitar and a real slap-bass guitar is added climaxing in an erotic orgy of guitar and electronic synthesizer parts. All together it is far from mechanical, it is a sensual and moving experience that insisted all who heard it immediately rush onto the dance-floor.
"777-9311" reached #2 on the R&B charts and is one of The Time's signature numbers, played at all their concerts and reunion shows until today.
Another influential track from 1982 was the song that stayed atop the #1 r&b position for ten consecutive weeks: "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye.
This post-disco, soul, funk, and reggae infused song was composed and performed on the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
The record-setting success of this seminal recording by the esteemed Motown legend: Marvin Gaye would cement 1982 as the turning point in the end of Disco and the beginning of Hi-Tech Soul R&B.
'Synth-Funk' would go on in the next few years to spawn legions of soul crooners using drum machines and synthesizer backdrops to record their own sexy love songs.
David Frank and Mic Murphy, along with Kashif, Mtume, and Paul Laurence Jones, all hailing from the heart and the heat of the early 80's NYC streets, were among the best of the burgeoning new army of electro-synth funk bands.
The new producers and new 80's groups were now influenced by the new synthesizer equipment being manufactured by music instrument companies such as; Roland, Korg, Yamaha, Sequential Circuits, and Oberheim. The new wave of sound created sparkling ear candy for the fans of soulful R&b and funky urban music, all while remaining dance-able and commercial.
By the end of the Disco music era contemporary rhythm and blues artists began to follow in the mighty footsteps of the early chart success of "777-9311" and "Sexual Healing".
The 'synth-funk' legacy lasted all the way through the 80's into the 'new jack swing' era of the early 90's, then into the Timbaland and Pharrell synth-sampled hits of the new millennium.
The playlist embedded below features the very best of "The System", an early 80's funk duo formed by David Frank and Mic (pronounced Mick) Murphy.
I want to share their music since they were among the first to follow the Disco exit straight into the Hi-tech Funk era and went so far as to literally name themselves after their brand new equipment! (The Oberheim System), you can't get more synthesized than that can you? But also because I feel David and Mic retain the soulful urgency and genuine emotion needed to create a convincing hybrid of 'soul and synthesizer'.
Moreover it's Mic's sensitive lyrics that evoke the great soul ballads and R&B love songs of the past, while it's David's funky electronic sounds that are layered in a meticulous backdrop of uniquely colorful electronic timbres.
I have always found something joyful in the varied arrangements, and something infectious in the passionate vocals of "The System".
Enjoy and comment!
By James Clark