In summer 1991, Damon Riddick sat patiently behind his keyboard at a small studio in Reno, Nev., wondering if the infamous lip-syncing crew Milli Vanilli was ever going to show up.
Legendary funk and R&B producer Leon Sylvers III of SOLAR Records had asked Riddick and members of the group Switch to assist with what was supposed to be Milli Vanilli’s big comeback record. But, as the story goes, the album didn’t happen. “It never came to fruition because those guys just messed around in town doing things, while we sat in the studio looking at our watches,” Riddick says.
One could chalk it up as a loss. But Riddick went back to Los Angeles, and the keyboardist who could have been responsible for Milli Vanilli’s salvation instead became the acclaimed funk musician, DJ and producer known as Dam-Funk.
But for Riddick, his transition from patient, unknown sessions player to present-day keytar-wielding funk ambassador is a story that’s all about timing. Back in the mid- to late ’80s, session work for funk and R&B acts (like Milli Vanilli) dried up when rap music emerged—essentially squashing funk’s popularity overnight. “A lot of us, especially in the L.A. area, we really liked funk,” Riddick says. “We rolled to it, we partied to it, we made cassette tapes of it. We just never gave up.”
However, like most of the West Coast, Riddick wholeheartedly embraced the budding G-funk scene and worked with rap acts like Westside Connection, Mack 10 and MC Eiht. “What a lot of people don’t get is, cats like [Dr.] Dre and [DJ] Quik actually saved funk, in a way,” Riddick says. “It was the previous cats that looked at it as something that wasn’t valuable.”
After years of behind-the-scenes production jobs (producing Master P’s soundtrack to the film I Got the Hook-Up) and various side work, Riddick finally got his break when he messaged Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf on MySpace. “At that time, I was workin’ at OfficeMax, delivering bullshit to people, and Wolf asked me if I wanted to remix a track called ‘Burn Rubber,’ ” Riddick says. “Then some of the DJs started gettin’ on it, and Wolf and I started checking out each other’s DJ sets.”
Riddick eventually signed to Stones Throw in 2007, and since then, the Los Angeles-based label (known for exposing artists such as Madlib and J Dilla) has given Dam-Funk carte blanche to advance a sub-genre he calls “modern funk.” Created mostly on vintage drum machines and Roland keyboards, this wavy blend of old school-electro, boogie and G-funk ditches any preconceived notions of ’80s music (like dudes in mascara and poofy blouses) and somehow comes across as unfathomably gangster.
Toeachizown, released in 2009, is Riddick’s modern funk monument, a lush double disc that bleeds with his influences: early Prince, L.A. Dream Team and Egyptian Lover. “I knew around that time there was a nostalgia thing happening,” Riddick says. “I was trying to join the past and the future together, but it wasn’t a retro record, really. It was more of a continuation of where funk left off. But I knew it would take a while for people to digest it, so I had to just sit back and kind of just chill.”
Being incredibly patient and letting music do its thing is something Riddick is familiar with. But through his weekly funk showcase, Funkmosphere, and collaborations with funk stalwarts like Steve Arrington and Leon Sylvers III, Riddick has effectively rekindled his genre.
“At first, ’80s-style funk was laughable to some of these cats,” Riddick says. “But now, with the work that we’ve done, people have lowered the lights and now they’re playing this stuff. I suppose the only back draw is when I go on eBay and want a rare 12-inch from ’82 that used to go for like $5; now, they’re going for $180.”
w/Peanut Butter Wolf, The Stepkids, Myron & E, The Doobie Sisters
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Wednesday, Aug. 21, 8 p.m.
$15 in advance, $17 day of show