Sitting in the makeshift studio in the garage behind his Leimert Park home, Dam-Funk says he doesn’t know who dubbed him “the Ambassador of Boogie Funk,” but he wants to be clear that he didn’t give himself that title. “Boogie is fun, but I don’t want to be lumped into a hole,” he says. “I’m not going to let anybody peg me.”
As an artist, producer and DJ, Dam (pronounced “dame”) might have resurrected the genre of boogie, which got big in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as electronic instruments and disco smoothed out funk’s grit, but his songs are also influenced by Chicago house, experimental electronic music and the slow roll of ‘90s gangsta rap.
The 38-year-old’s compositions are full of blown-out synthesizers, thwapping drum machines and vocodered vocals, all wrapped in a thick purple fog. It’s the kind of stuff that would blare from the stereo of a homemade spaceship.
“Beauty on top of hard stuff, that’s what I want to bring to the table, where you just let your hair blow in the wind,” he says.
Dam is one of those rare artists who looks the way his music sounds. With his pressed shoulder-length hair and taste for retro future sunglasses he could be confused for some kid’s mentor in a coming-of-age film, someone who works in a community center or a roller rink where he spins records and drops sage advice about the opposite sex.
His songs share that same nostalgic cool. Titles like “Burn Straight Thru U” and “Candy Dancin’ ” come beamed from an entirely less self-conscious era. The idea of escape -- mentally, on the freeway or into your own dimension -- is one of his recurring lyrical themes. On “The Sky Is Ours” he croons, “Look in the mirror and realize who you are / You hold the flame of the funk and that’s real / You know who you are / Live your dreams, don’t let no one take them from you.”
Stones Throw Records last week released all 139 minutes of Dam-Funk’s full-length debut, “Toeachizown,” as a double-CD collection, but the music has been available online since August on the label’s website, which offered “Toeachizown” incrementally as five digital mini-albums. Later this year, Stones Throw will package “Toeachizown” on vinyl as a five-record set.
“He is the type of artist that people want everything from,” says Stones Throw owner Peanut Butter Wolf.
Dam-Funk, born Damon Riddick, grew up in Pasadena playing keyboards and drums. After an apprenticeship with noted songwriter and producer Leon Sylvers III (which included working on unreleased material with a post-lip-syncing Milli Vanilli immediately after his high school graduation), he became a session musician for hip-hop acts, including Westside Connection and MC Eiht. He played the keyboard parts of old songs so the performers wouldn’t have to pay to sample them.
Though Dam says he never witnessed any troubles during this period, he eventually decided to get away from that environment. “I didn’t want to always walk into a studio and there’s a gun on the recording console,” he says.
He began working as a DJ and gained recognition for proudly displaying the album covers of the records he spun and announcing the song title, artist, label and the year it was released. While this sort of full disclosure is rare and admirable in the secretive world of music collecting, Dam admits that there have been drawbacks of being so forthcoming.
“Now the records are so expensive,” he says. “Sometimes it’s $75 or $85 for a 12-inch you used to be able to find five years ago at [defunct L.A. record store] Aron’s for $1.99.”
He knows plenty about collecting. Though his garage holds his home studio, the space is dominated by his staggering record collection. The albums overflow from the sagging shelves and storage units and into crates and containers on the floor. Dam says they are mainly organized by the point in his life when he acquired them.
After several years of focusing on his own music and starting the long-running Funkmosphere party at Carbon in Culver City, he found a supporter in Peanut Butter Wolf. The songs that Dam spun at Funkmosphere and knew so much about were the same boogie records that Wolf bought when he first started getting into music as a preteen in San Jose -- songs from masters of the sound, including Mtume, Slave and Prince in his earliest days.
For the last few decades, boogie was considered supremely un-hip and was ignored by record revivalists who preferred funk and soul from the 1960s and early 1970s, the music that dominates hip-hop’s DNA. It is Dam-Funk’s dedication to boogie that is chiefly responsible for its current reevaluation.
“Dam created this movement,” Wolf says. “It was a movement I was creating in L.A. too, but I didn’t really have the outlets for it because I was playing bigger venues and I had to cater. L.A. had this love/hate relationship with the music, and Dam stuck with it.”
Dam’s live show is now both a performance of his own songs and a DJ set in which he pulls from his vinyl archive. He’s been touring the world and will continue to play for the rest of the year, including a set today at Amoeba Music to celebrate the release of “Toeachizown.”
“I know we’re in the MP3 atmosphere, and people can’t afford these records anymore, but if I have it, I want to show people I’m real about this,” Dam says. “You’re not dealing with some cat that’s faking the funk. And I think that’s resonated.”
It has certainly earned him some unexpected fans. Animal Collective, indie rock’s most popular weirdos, commissioned him to remix their single “Summertime Clothes” and had him open their two high-profile shows in Brooklyn.
He’s also found kinship with members of L.A.'s scrappy lo-fi vanguard. “Dam-Funk is just straight-up true school -- completely passionate, unpretentious music and strangely outsider as well,” wrote Ramona Gonzales of Nite Jewel in an e-mail. “I think you can hear a certain ecstasy in his playing that is communicated through the way he records with live takes, zero editing.”
Layer upon layer
“Toeachizown” is Dam-Funk’s first album, but it also marks the end of an era for him. He plans to learn modern recording software, like Ableton Live. “The next [album] will be recorded the right way, if you will,” he says.
All the songs on his debut were made using an archaic method he developed when he recorded on cassette. “That whole aspect is almost like a revenge of that era on Sunset and Hammond in Pasadena where I grew up,” he says. “Wolf loves the dirty sound, the raw sound. He loves to hear that buzz. The fact that I have a label head and an executive producer who digs that was a blessing to me.”
Asked to demonstrate that technique, he fiddled with the mixer through which he runs his vintage drum machine until he found the right “wetness” to the slack beats. Moving on to his Korg keyboard, he played around for a few minutes until he uncovered a sly, whiny groove that he liked.
Turning on his CD recorder, he laid down the song’s foundation in one take, calling out the verses, the hook and the breakdown. Like all his songs, he kept any mistakes that he or his equipment made.
He then recorded more parts -- synthesizer flourishes and vocals sung through a cheap vocoder -- while playing directly over each CD he just finished, adding layer upon layer. Less than 30 minutes later, a hazy and bubbling new song was done.
“I don’t want to get deep, but I really do feel like there is a force that’s helping. I definitely call it God, or it could be another force.” Dam says. “I appreciate the force, that’s what it is.”