Modern funk artist and producer XL Middleton remembers vividly the first day he visited Long Beach. He was 11 years old and his father took him out on a weekend drive. “Where do you want to go, son?” his dad asked as they left their home in Pasadena.
“I wanted to go to 21 and Lewis,” Middleton says, noting the Eastside intersection immortalized in Warren G's “Regulate.” “My dad took us down there – to where Warren G was talking about – and I thought, 'This is way better than Disneyland.'”
Middleton's love of funk runs deep through hip-hop roots, and even though his recent solo album Tap Water is more inspired by juicy '80s boogie than the gangster life he never had (the ode to that would be last year's Big China Mack), G-funk is at least partly responsible for the modern funk movement that's been bubbling in L.A. for more than half a decade.
“If it wasn't for hip hop I wouldn't have found my way to all this great old funk music, most of it made before I was born,” he says. “I got into [older funk] after digging through all the songs that all my favorite rappers from '90s were sampling.”
It's about time that the modern funk revival happening in L.A. makes an appearance in Long Beach, the home of the deep G-funk grooves and squiggly melodies that preceded it. Middleton, along with singers Moniquea and Diamond Ortiz, who are on Middleton's label Mofunk Records, are playing a no-cover show at the Blind Donkey Thursday. It will be the first time in three years that Middleton is performing in Long Beach, and the first since the release of Tap Water, a pristine specimen of the modern funk sound.
So what does today's funk sound like, if not the disco-era bass-slapping of yore? It may have started with Dam-Funk's Toeachizown, the 2009 double-disc masterpiece that fused funk, boogie, hip hop, punk and sci-fi music into songs to which you still couldn't help but dance. On Middleton's Tap Water, the Japanese-Hawaiian funk connoisseur gives new life to the once-cheesy boogie genre's heavy funk bass and melodic synthesizers by infusing the traditionally instrumental tracks with vocoder vocals and an undeniable hip-hop edge. The result is an album that's at home both on the dance floor and blaring out the window on a Sunday drive through palm treed streets.
Throughout its decades-long evolution, funk has always remained a music that moves people. The Blind Donkey's intimate underground space (and excellent selection of whiskey) will make a great venue for dancing to a throwback-to-the-future sound.
“Funk is so infectious because it's a groove. It speaks to you in a way you can't always verbalize,” Middleton says. “These are rhythms that allow you to express yourself in a way you didn't know you could. That essence has remained the same at its core.”
XL Middleton plays the Blind Donkey Long Beach, Thursday, Dec. 17; No cover; 149 Linden Ave.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.