The Red Hot Chili Peppers has been many things over the decades – freaky-style dance party MCs, heavy rock band, pop-star quartet, alt-rock crossover act, mildly avant-garde album-makers, arena rock superstars.
The one constant? The funk.
It feels like poetic justice that for its first area appearance in more than a decade - Feb. 10 at KeyBank Center - the RHCP will be performing in the city of Buffalo proper. That's because Buffalo is one of several urban centers that can claim to be a birthplace - and a hotbed - of funk. We know our funk around here with a history that goes back 50 years.
Dyke & the Blazers put us on the map way back in 1967, with its ode to the underside of Buffalo nightlife, the song "Funky Broadway."
Rick James took the torch and ran with it throughout the 1970s and well into the '80s.
A new generation of vibrant Buffalo funk artists started showing up in our music clubs in the early '90s. By the late '90s, Soulive had gone national, Phonkbutt was marrying aspects of heavy guitar rock to the funky party, and C.O. Jones was offering area audiences the opportunity to let their "Superfreak" flags fly.
As the century came to a close, the Waz was injecting an acid-jazz element to B-Lo funk. When that trio split, keyboardist and saxophonist Eric Crittenden - son of guitarist DJ Jones, whose resume includes 12 years as guitarist in James Brown's band - would commence the journey deep into the heart of Nickel City funk.
It would eventually yield the 2006 release "Blu," an album that crafted the blueprint for 21st century Buffalo funk, while reminding us of its roots in gospel music.
Last year, the latest wrinkle in Buffalo's funky fable arrived with the horn-led funk powerhouse Tiger Chung Lee that, on a good night - and the ones I've witnessed have all been good - takes the listener on a tour through five decades of our city's version of the form.
When you listen to the Chili Peppers, it sure sounds like the guys in the band are aware of Buffalo's rich funk history, especially bassist Flea. The funk connoisseur and musicologist is so devoted to the musical cause that he took the band's 2008 break in touring to enroll in the University of Southern California's music program as a freshman.
More than any other member of the band – though drummer Chad Smith is surely a close second – it's Flea who understands the funk. And one cannot understand the funk without a primer in the music of Rick James and, by extension, the music of Buffalo's Jerry Livingston, who played bass on five of James' finest albums.
The odds of Flea having jammed out to Dyke & the Blazers' Buffalo anthem "Funky Broadway" or James staples like "Superfreak" and "B-Lo the Funk (Pass the J)" at some point over the years? Very high. That rich tradition is echoed in Flea's most memorable bass lines from "Give It Away" to "Hump De Bump."
"I always respected how the Peppers paid tribute to Stevie Wonder and others in the groove 'n' move genres in their own west coast, punk-infused, funky way," Crittenden said. "I think you can definitely hear the L.A. version of Rick James in their music, for sure. While the 'SuperFreak' style of funk is certainly rooted here in Buffalo, when Rick moved to L.A., fame and left coast life and times put a spit-shine on the grind, and it sure sounds to me like that's what the Peppers picked up on."
C.O. Jones founder Schulz hears in the Chili Peppers a bit of the Rust Belt sound, as exemplified not just by the punk-funk of James, but by the indelible contributions to the form made by bands hailing from Dayton, Ohio, many of whom helped to shape the sound of 1970s funk.
"Anyone who has made a career out of stanky funkiness can't deny the influence of Rick James on the genre as a whole," Schulz said. When George Clinton produced the Peppers' 'Freakey Styley' album, that's as close as they ever got to the Buffalo 'punk-funk' sound. They took the Buffalo thing and then added the influence of the Ohio funk scene - bands like Slave, Zapp and the Ohio Players - and came up with something of their own."
For Flea, the route to that "stankiness" came via subtlety, not excess as is clear when he discusses his sound on the band's 1991 commercial breakthrough album "Blood Sugar Sex Magik."
"I was trying to play simply on 'Blood Sugar Sex Magik' because I had been playing too much prior to that, so I thought, 'I've really got to chill out and play half as many notes,' " Flea told Bass Player magazine in 1995. "When you play less, it's more exciting—there's more room for everything. If I do play something busy, it stands out, instead of the bass being a constant onslaught of notes. Space is good."
Space is good. Therein resides the secret of funk. Rick James knew this. Dyke & the Blazers knew this. In fact, the long history of Buffalo funk is a celebration of the very revelation Flea stumbled upon as he was trying to clear away the debris to establish a deeper relationship with the groove. It's about what you don’t play as much as what you do play. Head out to see a Buffalo funk band in 2017, and you'll still hear this, loud and clear.
"Don't get it twisted - Buffalo is a half-degree of separation from everything that has ever been or ever will be funky," Crittenden said. "The Red Hot Chili Peppers has been the fortunate torch bearers of the funk, and they clearly show no signs of running on empty."
So when you welcome the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the KeyBank Center stage, you will be, in a sense, welcoming the band home.