Hoop Tunes: Slam Dunk the Funk
It's Better than "Basketball"
When it comes to musical paeans to basketball, Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” seems to be the gold standard.
And it sucks.
I mean the music itself is likeable enough. It doesn’t rise above standard fare mecha-R&B of the mid1980s and the female backing vocals are pretty good. In fact those ladies are the only part of the song that’s above replacement and they deserve all the royalty checks.
But Kurtis Blow’s rap sucks.
Kurtis Blow the rapper doesn’t suck. His style was better suited for live instrumentation, though.
I mean listen to “The Breaks” and you can hear his naturally stilted delivery’s edges softened by the lively bass and quick-hittin’ piano. Importantly, the actual lyrical content of “The Breaks” is one hilarious mini-story of misfortune after another.
“Basketball” contains none of that energy. It’s a novelty song that’s nothing but a joke. And I don’t use novelty song as pejorative term. “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies is a complete cash-in job that’s novelty to the max.
It also slaps.
(Wilson Pickett recorded a slowed-down, reggae-tinged soul cover of “Sugar Sugar” that also slaps. It’s just flat-out good stupid song!)
Well, two years before Kurtis Blow’s unfortunate foray into hoops music, a much better song about basketball was released by the band Instant Funk.
It’s also novel, but it actually sounds good too.
🏀 SLAM DUNK THE DUNK 🏀
Instant Funk’s basketball jam, “Slam Dunk the Funk,” was released on their album Looks So Fine. It benefits greatly from coming out in 1982, two years before Blow’s “Basketball.” This was also before The Machines had fully taken over 1980s music and if Instant Funk had recorded their song in 1984, it probably would have sucked too.
The early ‘80s were a period of harmonic balance between live instrumentalists, synthesized music, and producer programming. It was also an era when hip-hop had yet to fully separate itself from its funk and disco origins. Unsurprisingly a lot of funk and disco of the period also had hip-hop trappings.
Instant Funk made the most of these musical exchanges and balances.
Hailing from Philadelphia by way of Trenton (NJ), Instant Funk ultimately registers as a one-hit wonder in the annals of music history. Their 1979 single “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)” reached #1 on the R&B and dance charts while also climbing to #20 on the pop chart. They also performed as session musicians, most notably laying down the grooves on Evelyn “Champagne” King’s 1978 hit “Shame,” which peaked at #7 on the R&B, #8 on the dance, and #9 on the pop charts.
These two singles would far and away be Instant Funk’s best commercial showings.
Despite their lack of chart success, over the years Instant Funk worked consistently with Philly soul writer and producer Bunny Sigler at their side. The band and producer had chops, but could never throw together a consistently great album. I’ve unfortunately never seen them live, but they sure seem like a group that could turn an arena out, while struggling to completely transfer that wildness to the studio.
Perhaps their best song was from 1976, the insanely catchy and groovafied “Philly Jump.” That track lends credence to my theory. It sounds great in studio and it probably was an epochal experience when the band performed it live.
Now there’s a song that is a basketball song even though its lyrical content has nothing to do with basketball.
In fact there’s barely any lyrical content. It’s just the band members chanting/imploring listeners to “get down with the Philly Jump” over a slushy groove alternately spiced up by a smooth saxophone and a gliding guitar. It feels like something that was floating through the minds of Julius Erving or Earl Monroe as they traipsed up and down the court.
Anyways, 1982’s “Slam Dunk the Funk” was a basketball song about basketball. The band chanting “SLAM! DUNK! THE! FUNK!” is the kind of floor stompin’ yell Darryl Dawkins could get behind as he broke a backboard.
And to my earlier point, this song is a fairly good synthesis of uptempo Black music as it stood in ‘82.
It has crunchy synth bass that was becoming ubiquitous thanks to the twin smashes of “More Bounce to the Ounce” and “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” in 1980. A whizzing keyboard that rears its head throughout the song was appropriately inspired by “Head.”
The success of the popularly remembered “Rapper’s Delight” and the popularly forgotten “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” in 1979 opened gates of R&B radio to hip-hop. Seriously, the video below shows how joined at the hip hip-hop, funk, and disco were in this period.
Instant Funk wasn’t quite rapping on “Slam Dunk the Funk,” but funk music for some time had lyrics that could be halfway sung, halfway spoken. (Think of Isaac Hayes or George Clinton rapping on some of their classic tracks.) And Instant Funk was no exception there, especially on “Slam Dunk.”
All these influences showed Instant Funk was keeping up with the times, but the band didn’t leave behind their dance-funk roots, though.
There’s still a live bass slippin’ and slidin’ up and down the track. An Instant Funk staple since forever. Chicken-plucked rhythm guitar was a general funk staple since James Brown was breaking out into cold sweats, so nothing new there. And a smashing on the one stomp anchors the song as the band chants “slam dunk the funk.” Also, the band makes copious use of a whistle as they call out various violations through the song. Perfect synergy for a funk ode to basketball.
But let’s bring this back to the lyrics.
I don’t mean to be harsh, but“Basketball is my favorite sport, the way they dribble up and down the court?”
That’s the lamest shit I’ve ever heard.
And that’s Kurtis Blow’s entrance into his basketball song. Before that it’s the catchy female vocalists singing how “we love that basketball” and this dork shows up with that rhyme?
How the hell you expect me to take that song—even as novelty—seriously after that point? I’m sure he did play basketball, but Kurtis Blow sounds like somebody merely watching the game, but had never experienced the game at any level.
In contrast, “Slam Dunk the Funk” sounds like the band just got done playing basketball and can’t wait to get back at it once they got these grooves on wax.
Their lead singer, the raspy-voiced James Carmichael, immediately implored you to “Watch my inside moves and my outside groove / Feel it from my head to my tennis shoes.”
Now that’s a motherfucker who knows what he’s talking about from experience. Sounds like he’s singing about basketball and taking your girl after the game is over.
Okay, now having said all that…
“Slam Dunk the Dunk” is not a good song. It’s ultimately alright uptempo funk from 1982. It has its charm and does hit a pocket, especially that guitar. I spin it from time to time and when it pops up on shuffle, I certainly don’t hit the skip button. But it wasn’t a hit, it shouldn’t have been a hit, and it will never be a hit.
It’s sho nuff better than “Basketball,” though, which also shouldn’t have been a hit, but was.
Ah well, it’s probably better that Instant Funk’s song sank to obscurity, while Kurtis Blow’s survives as a stupid oddity.
That means Li’l Bow Wow never got a chance to sully Instant Funk.
My top 10 Instant Funk jams, in no particular order, if you’re interested in further exploration of a C-tier funk band that had two moments of greatness backed with fleeting hints of potential…