From Sugarhill Gang to Trinidad James, a Look at the Influences of Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars' 'Uptown Funk'

Courtesy of YouTube
Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson in "Uptown Funk."

Part of the excitement of Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk," the just-released kickoff single from the DJ/producer's Uptown Special is catching the allusions to one early '80s funk/R&B classic after another. Even on Ronson's own Facebook page fans cite "Cameo horns, the Time [keyboards], and 'Party Train' [by the Gap Band] drums."

There’s an irony here. Because “Uptown Funk” is effectively a new Bruno Mars single as well, it received instant airplay at top 40 radio, including the “world premiere” treatment from some iHeart Media stations. By comparison, many of the early ‘80s classics referenced were released during the worst period of a "disco backlash" that effectively kept all types of black music, not just disco, off of top 40 for three years, beginning in fall 1979.

A few R&B artists, most typically those with an established track record at top 40, still managed hits during those years, including Diana Ross, the Pointer Sisters, and Michael Jackson. So did acts who fit in with the soft pop that dominated top 40 at the time -- Al Jarreau and James Ingram's duets with Quincy Jones.

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But many other developments in R&B music -- the beginnings of rap, the return of disco to its R&B roots, the emergence of a second generation of funk artists, many of them influenced by new wave -- happened mostly off of Top 40's radar. Rick James' "Super Freak," a song that plays on Adult Contemporary stations today, reached No. 19 on the Hot 100 largely on the strength of sales. On charts that measured pop airplay only, it was mired in the 30s. The crowning of Prince as one of the decade’s breakthrough artists in the music press was spurred by two albums (Dirty Mind and Controversy) that got no pop radio support. Even "1999" was resisted by top 40 radio and had to be reissued after Prince’s breakthrough with the more overtly rock-flavored "Little Red Corvette."

The resistance to R&B crossovers finally broke down in 1982-83 as the result of a handful of records. Some were rock-flavored (Ray Parker Jr.'s "The Other Woman," Prince's "Corvette," Michael Jackson's "Beat It"). Some were just undeniable (Marvin Gaye's “Sexual Healing,” Jackson’s “Billie Jean”). Still, some of black music’s most exciting acts of the era were years into their hitmaking streaks before managing a crossover. Often, the biggest top 40 chart hit would turn out to be a less-enduring late career record. Ask most people to name a Midnight Star song and you'll likely get the No. 81 "No Parking (On The Dance Floor)" long before the No. 18 “Operator.”

"Uptown Funk" isn't the only recent example of a pop hit referencing an ignored R&B hit from this era. Disclosure's "Latch” recalls the shuffle of “Searching” by Change, the Chic-like Italian dance act fronted here by a then-unknown Luther Vandross. "Latch" broke at pop radio by riding the coattails of EDM, then engineered a reverse crossover to R&B/Hip-Hop and Adult R&B. "Searching" reached No. 23 at R&B in 1980, but never managed any pop airplay.

Here's a tour of the uptown funk of the early ‘80s with songs that listeners have heard alluded to in Ronson and Mars' hit -- some fleetingly, some more obviously. 

Zapp, "More Bounce To The Ounce" (1980) – In fall 1980, a lot was made of Tom Browne’s No. 1 R&B hit “Funkin’ For Jamaica (N.Y.)” failing to hit the Hot 100 at all. But “More Bounce to the Ounce” was nearly as scarce on pop radio, reaching No. 2 R&B and only No. 86 pop. Even after R&B was again welcome at top 40, Zapp somehow couldn’t shed the “too funky for pop” tag. Another classic, “Computer Love,” failed to chart pop altogether. Leader Roger Troutman had to wait until 1987 for a pop hit with the ballad “I Want To Be Your Man.” The exception was San Francisco where Troutman’s 1982 version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” became a hit on top 40 KFRC. It’s no accident that Troutman received California love long before 2pac's “California Love” was built around his samples.

One Way, “Cutie Pie” (1982) Evolving from Detroit’s Al Hudson & the Soul Partners, One Way charted nearly 30 R&B singles, but landed at pop only once when “Cutie Pie” peaked at No. 62, again with the help of KFRC. It’s too bad. In a genre filled with versatile ensembles, One Way was one of R&B’s most versatile outlets, managing, among other things, a James Brown homage, “Mr. Groove,” at a time when Brown was most absent from the R&B spotlight. Original lead singer Alicia Myers had her own stealth classic, “I Want To Thank You,” whose enduring appeal belies its own No. 37 R&B peak.

Gap Band, "I Don't Believe You Want To Get Up And Dance (Oops, Up Side Your Head)" (1980) The Gap Band were former protégés of Leon Russell and veterans of several labels when they reeled off a string of funk hits, beginning in 1979. It would take three years before top 40 grudgingly acknowledged them with “Early In The Morning” (which others hear referenced in “Uptown Funk” as well) and the funk/rock “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.” This 1980 hit got its subtitle (which most people think is its name) from a Pittsburgh audience’s ad-libbed chant.

Earth, Wind & Fire, "Getaway" (1976) EW&F were on an eighteen month hot streak that included "Shining Star," "That's The Way of the World," "Sing A Song" and the live versions of “Reasons” and “Devotion.” “Getaway” went to No. 12 pop, but has long disappeared from the Oldies/Classic Hits format. That’s too bad because this song, an unlikely tribute to transcendental meditation, contains especially propulsive drumming and the sort of reverberating horn riff that powers “Uptown Funk.” Even on the heels of the pop-flavored ballad “After The Love Is Gone,” EW&F would face resistance when they came out with another album in fall 1980, during the worst of the disco backlash. They would manage one more pop hit a year later with “Let’s Groove.”

Sequence, “Funk You Up” (1979) In the last few days of 1979, it was still possible to name every rap record that had been released on the heels of the phenomenal success of the Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper’s Delight.” Sugarhill, the label, waded back in with one of the first female raps (and the acknowledged first by a group) and its promise to “funk you right on up.” With “Rapper’s Delight” able to get no further than No. 36 pop, this got nowhere near pop radio. The group’s Angie Stone resurfaced in the ‘90s as the lead singer of Vertical Hold, and then with her own neo-soul hits.

Sugarhill Gang, "Apache" (1982) The Incredible Bongo Band's version of Jorgen Ingmann's 1961 instrumental hit is one of hip-hop’s break-beat backbones. The version that gave the Sugarhill Gang their last top 15 R&B hit often isn’t even mentioned in the same breath, typical of the grudging respect that the group often commands. Within a few months, other rap hits like “The Message” and “Planet Rock” would make the Sugarhill Gang sound quaint. But the song remained a wedding/party staple for years, as did Sir Mix-A-Lot’s derivation, “Jump On It.” And thanks to the current boom in old-school Hip-Hop stations, I’d actually already heard “Apache” on the radio on the day that “Big Bank” Hank Jackson died, earlier this month.

George Kranz, "Trommeltanz (Din Daa Daa)" (1983) Before MTV helped break down the resistance to new wave, especially the quirkier version, it was often easier to find on R&B radio than at pop. Even after top 40 opened up to "Puttin’ On The Ritz," "The Safety Dance" and other such goofiness, it was R&B only that found a place for this German import, at least until it was sampled in M/A/R/R/S' "Pump Up The Volume." ("Trommeltanz" was particularly a hit in Detroit, always a hotbed of new wave/R&B cross-pollination.) Some of that probably had to do with being on an indie label, a barrier that was still a few years away from falling. 

The Time, "Cool" (1981): – "Uptown Funk" recalls different Time songs to different people. It might be because Morris Day's call-and-response with the band became one of their signatures. It might also be because more people heard "Jungle Love," after the band’s appearance in "Purple Rain" and the success of all things Prince related finally pushed them on to pop radio. Ironically, the band's biggest chart hit, only R&B No. 1, and only gold single is the now forgotten 1990 reunion song, "Jerk-Out."

Trinidad James, "All Gold Everything" (2012) The only credited song on "Uptown Funk," this top 10 R&B and rap hit gives "Uptown" its "if you don't believe me, just watch" chant, and offers an irony of its own. Despite a boom in R&B crossovers at the beginning of the year, it's as hard for a new Hip-Hop or R&B hit to make it to top 40 as it was 33 years ago. Heritage acts (Jay Z, Eminem) and retro-sounding hits ("Happy," "All Of Me") have the advantage. Even Jeremih's "Don't Tell 'Em," the most contemporary sounding recent crossover, depended on an artist with two other previous pop hits (and a reference to Snap's dance-pop hit, "Rhythm Is A Dancer").