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Dâm-Funk Remembers Uncle Jamm’s Army, the LA Collective That Taught Him How to Party

MERRY JANE caught up with the West Coast icon to discuss paying homage to UJA, the impact the crew had on his career, and why nobody truly parties like that anymore.

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Photos courtesy of Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

Think back to the wildest parties you attended in high school. You're drinking, dancing, flirting, maybe acting like an ass. Now imagine that instead of your friend's parents' house — don't break any tchotkes — you're at a huge sporting arena. Instead of the same few dozen classmates, you're surrounded by thousands of kids from different school districts. Instead of somebody's dad's ancient stereo rig, music's being played on megawatt amps. Instead of drunk teenagers fighting over whose Spotify playlist is on the aux cord, your DJs for the night are a renowned crew of professionals playing cutting-edge mixes.

That's the fantasy LA fixture Dâm-Funk conjures up when remembering the legendary '80s parties thrown by Uncle Jamm's Army, a collective that included electro pioneer Egyptian Lover, future N.W.A. member Arabian Prince, a pre-fame Ice-T, and legendary beatmaker DJ Pooh. With a name inspired by Funkadelic's 1979 album Uncle Jam Wants You, the grass roots crew turned partying into a legitimate business, starting with event planning and eventually moving into pressing their own records. This was the dawn of California's hip-hop and electronic scenes, which would explode into public consciousness once Ice-T and N.W.A. pivoted to harder-edged gangster sounds.

Before all that though, in the early-to-mid '80s, Dâm remembers being a teenager attending these funk blowouts. Given his familiarity with the scene, he was tapped to score new mini-documentary Uncle Jamm's Army: Pioneers of the Modern Party. Produced in collaboration with YoursTruly, the doc is part of Red Bull Music Academy's ongoing series The Note, which explores "vital creative crossroads and engrossing personal journeys that have and continue to shape our sonic landscape in profound ways."

MERRY JANE caught up with Dâm to discuss paying homage to UJA, the impact the crew had on his career, and why nobody truly parties like that anymore. Watch the full Uncle Jamm's Army doc below.

MERRY JANE: Hi Dâm, tell me how you ended up doing the soundtrack for this Uncle Jamm's Army doc?
DÂM FUNK:
The cats from YoursTruly, who I go back with, worked on the documentary, and they got me because I respect it; I'm not just some new booty out here scratching the surface or imagining what was going on. I actually was there back in the day. I think they respected that, and whatever happened, decided to let me do the score. I appreciate it because a lot of people look over the fact that I can do these kind of things in the music game. There's a lot of gatekeepers out here these days, and I find it refreshing for myself, and hopefully for the audience, that I can contribute something instead of just the same old gatekeepers doing everything all the time.

Is this your first time doing scoring or soundtrack work?
This is my first one, which is why I'm excited about it. I've been trying to get in that arena for a while, and I'll never forget: one time I had a meeting in Burbank with someone who was done with scoring in the business, this was maybe five years ago. I got sat down and they gave me the most discouraging, ridiculous, pitiless, dooming meeting I've ever had. I'm like, What am I doing here? That's what I came up here for, people discouraging me from doing movies because I'm a street musician?

As time went on, I could see that other cats were getting the opportunity to do this, but there is a glass ceiling in this game. All this is to say, finally, somebody that I had a relationship with, who I respected peer-wise, decided to get me involved in this scoring opportunity. I really had fun doing it, and it was a pleasure to be a part of something with legends I respect like Egyptian Lover and Rodger Clayton. Just to be able to contribute music to something like this is an honor.

Since you have clear familiarity with the artists covered in the doc, did you try to tailor your score to their era and styles?
Yes, that was the plan. I also got some great guidance from the directors. One of the things I wanted to prove by scoring this film was not to be one man on an island— for a lot of my career, I think I've been in that situation. The last few years I've been progressing, trying to relinquish that control over everything that I have, because I've started to learn that when you work with teams, things really come together a lot, and you need that sometimes to see the great vision you have in the gut of it all. With that being said, some of the notes gave me a good idea of where to go. But you know, somebody else might've come in with a Linn drum machine. But I know that you can't do that because it's an 808-based movement. I had to be careful about little things like that, and retool some of the music from that era for different scenes.

What other vintage equipment did you have to replicate that '80s funk sound?
I used nothing but Roland keyboards and drum machines, and then just one other keyboard I usually use for throwback funk stuff. I just used a couple keyboards and a drum machine, and just went for it. No rocket science, just like it was back then.

So what was it like being a kid and going to these Uncle Jamm's Army parties?
I got to experience their first parties before they expanded into other regions of LA, but it was great. People were freakin' — that was when you didn't get in trouble for rubbing up on somebody at a dance — it was like, boy-girl-boy-girl freakin' in a line at these parties. A lot of phone-number-getting, talking to girls for two hours at home. It felt like they were doing parties for teenagers; it wasn't older cats. I kinda felt like [Uncle Jamm's Army] were a little bit older, but it didn't matter. We were just so focused on the girls, and poppin', and partying, that you didn't even trip on what was going on onstage or who was DJing, you just knew you were at an Uncle Jamm's party.

I think it's common for the party music from your teenage years to have a formative impact on you. Once you started getting into music yourself, did anything from this scene stick with you at all?
I guess I took some of the influence whenever I throw a party or am at a party. I'll look at people my generation or younger partying, and they're not partying. What do you mean they're not partying, they're enjoying themselves. Nah, they're not partying. I remember what a party was from when I was growing up. All this standing around, beard-pulling, nodding your head to some wonky beats, I'll look around like, Damn, you motherfuckers don't know what's going on. Then I have to quickly wake myself back up like, Oh okay okay, we're in 2017. It's too cool for school, people don't wanna dance, they just wanna stand there. The guy sets up the laptop and twiddles the knobs, and they like that. Let me just calm down.

That's what I remember from those parties, because there's not that freewheeling party vibe anymore. Of course there are some great parties still, but especially in LA — man, people think they're partying, but he's just standing around just talking, picking somebody's brain, yapping while the song is playing, walking up on the DJ booth and start talking to him. Rodger Clayton and those cats would've bit your head off if you would've tried to have a conversation. You're supposed to be partying! That's what I take away from that era. I try to make the parties that I do a definite party vibe — I've got a microphone, I'm trying to make sure people have fun. I'm not one of the [adopts conspiratorial tone] quiet, Mr. Serious DJ guys, stirring the tension in the air. Some people don't understand what I do because they came up with supernerds who don't have the charisma to rock a party.

So they definitely influenced your performance style, but did Uncle Jamm's music, some of the earliest electro around, impact you at all?
Yeah, some of the music that they were playing influenced us a lot. I loved that uptempo electro-funk sound, It was different than the other styles of funk. That was a fixture in the music that I was growing up with between like '82 and '85, you know that uptempo style of music. But they were influenced by Prince a lot, and Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa. The main influence for me was Prince, but being involved in the style of music that Egypt[ian Lover] and everybody was making, listening to it, and buying the records was great.

It's interesting that guys like Arabian Prince and Ice-T were involved in this, because they soon went on to form the bedrock of gangster rap. You know, like one day Ice-T is doing records like "Body Rock," and then all of a sudden he does "6 'N the Mornin'." What was that like to witness?
That's interesting. It seemed like it happened overnight. You know and accepted it because those were the main guys and when their records dropped you'd see it and people would just kinda hear around. With Ice-T, Dr. Dre with World Class Wrecking Cru, and Uncle Jamm's Army, [local radio station] KDAY supported them so much that they just had the whole city on lockdown. But it seemed like they changed that to the gangster style overnight and people just went right with it. They'd adapted to what was going on in the city at that time, around '85, '86, '87.

But the funk was still there when rap took over. Like when you did 7 Days of Funk with Snoop, it became clear how ingrained was in his career.
Yeah that style is just always been very prevalent in Los Angeles. Even though I liked every style of music — metal, new wave, all kinds of stuff — it's always been there. Whereas disco preceded the East Coast's hip hop culture, funk preceded ours. Blame it on the weather, the car culture, whatever, but we just really enjoy the funk. As far as 7 Days of Funk, we returned to that original funk sound. Every time the West Coast gets away from it — we miss it, we try to emulate other people's stuff, we get influenced — every few years, we always seem to come back to the funk, somehow, someway.

As far as your solo career, what do you have coming up on the horizon?
Recently, I've been laying low just kinda getting [my label] Glydezone together, trying out some different things. I toured Europe in 2017, just to remind people how funk and boogie is supposed to be represented, humbly speaking, from a DJ perspective. It really went well, it hit all over Europe. Now I'm working with Glydezone, I've got my radio show, and I'm just dabbling in other things. I think it's time for another album, this one would be my third in almost ten years. I take a while to make records. The new one is definitely low-key in production right now.

Watch more episodes of "The Note" on Red Bull Music Academy's website.

Follow Patrick Lyons on Twitter.