Nu-funk, nu-jazz, and future soul … these were the terms used to describe underground soul in the mid-2000s. It was an international movement that spread from Los Angeles’ J*Davey to Detroit’s Amp Fiddler, and from the UK’s Steve Spacek to Germany’s Jazzanova. Genre confusion prevailed as musicians blended Detroit funk, the simmering ashes of European broken-beat, echoes of acid jazz and fusion, and dollops of Nuyorican Poets Café-styled spoken-word and “conscious” hip-hop. Despite its many elements, nu-funk had distinguishing tics, like the squishing electric keyboard notes once favored by P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, the “boom-clap” percussion popularized by J Dilla, and the “jazzy” vocals employed by D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. The musical tempos ranged widely from psychedelic neo-soul balladry to 4/4 deep house beats. In fact, nu-funk was primarily supported via dance labels such as Ubiquity and BBE, and found a home in house music clubs, which may be why it continues to be primarily associated with electronic music history (but that’s a whole ‘nother rant).
In some ways, the nu-funk style bloomed and faded before its time, splintering into variations like boogie-funk, L.A. beats, electro-pop and retro soul before the pop mainstream could take notice. It was a clear precedent to today’s alt-R&B despite taking cues from 90s neo-soul instead of 90s R&B. Sa-Ra Creative Partners (whose members later worked with Frank Ocean and Puff Daddy) and Plant Life (whose leader Jack Splash went on to produce Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and others) could have benefited from the kind of cross-platform viral campaigns that later benefited the Weeknd and AlunaGeorge. But a few names initially associated with nu-funk continue to thrive today, including Robin Hannibal of Quadron, Little Dragon, and Dam-Funk. And thanks to its relative lack of exposure, nu-funk remains an era poised for rediscovery.