There are many groups in Hip Hop who were on the cusp of “making it big” and becoming household names.
There are even more who were incredibly influential and developed some of the techniques that became part of the blueprint that later groups benefitted from greatly. The Funky 4 check all of the above boxes and K.K Rockwell, Keith Caesar, Rahiem and Sha Rock were one of the first Rap groups formed at Hip Hop’s inception. M.C. Jazzy Jeff and Lil Rodney joined later and were part of a personnel change that would rename the group The Funky 4 Plus One.
When D.J. Baron’s family moved to the Bronx his older brother hung out with D.J. Kool Herc and attended Herc’s parties. In order for Baron to attend the parties he had to help with the equipment. After seeing Herc play, Baron was impressed with the music that he played and the way that he played it, so he began to buy the same records that Herc was playing and he started practicing at home. Baron’s brother introduced him to D.J. Breakout who was also a D.J. interested in this new style of presenting and manipulating music which didn’t have a name yet. Like Baron, Breakout was a collector of the same records that Herc played called breaks or break beats. Between the two of them, Breakout and Baron had a few component sets, speakers and other odd pieces of equipment. In the beginning they didn’t even have a mixer – just record players wired to together in a fashion that they could play a record, stop and put the next record on. Eventually Breakout & Baron got proper equipment, a name (The Brothers Disco) and an Emcee – K.K. Rockwell.
With the assistance of D.J. Tony Tone who would eventually become a founding member of the Cold Crush Brothers who did not exist yet, The Brothers Disco started to build their sound system which was just as if not more important than the contents of the D.J.’s crates at the time. A GLI 3800 mixer, SL1500 turntables, Altec speakers with double 15s and BGW power amps were the ingredients of the sound system that would rival their contemporaries in the Bronx. The infamous Gauss speakers made of literal garbage cans were the icing on the cake that earned an iconic name for their sound system – The Mighty Sasquatch. Sasquatch earned the distinction of being the cleanest and most clear sound system in the Bronx.
It was D.J. Baron who came up with the name Brothers Disco and they eventually created a female group called Sisters Disco who served as a promotional tool for the Brothers Disco –handing out flyers and dancing at their parties, and later they provided security for M.C Sha Rock, the only female M.C. affiliated with their organization. The first jam that Breakout & Baron played with K.K. Rockwell was in Murphy projects and they were billed “Breakout & Baron with The Voice of K.K. Rockwell.”
The Funky 4 are synonymous with firsts. They are one of the first organized groups in
the Bronx and in Hip Hop outside of Grandmaster Flash & The 3 M.C.’s. They are the first Rap group to have separate microphones and stands for each M.C. , which were mandatory for the syncopated dance steps that they performed which were modeled after their idols - The Jackson 5 and The Temptations. The Funky 4 were the first mixed gender crew in Hip Hop, the first nationally televised crew with their 1981 performance on Saturday Night Live, by invitation from Deborah Harry of Blondie and the first crew to have fog machines on stage which they bought with their own money that they saved as teenagers. The first authentic Hip Hop motion picture Wild Style was originally a documentary on the Funky 4. The Funky 4 introduced Hip Hop to the Punk Rock crowd and took it Downtown to The Mudd Club, Soho, The Ritz and The Kitchen.
To understand the importance of the Funky and their place in history you need to understand the dynamics of the few M.C.’s that were rhyming and Djing in the late 1970’s. Herc & The Herculords were rhyming, but they were only saying phrases, and not on the beat. Busy Bee was a nomad hopping from The L Brothers to Breakout and Baron, Disco King Mario, Master Don, Kool D.J. A.J., and Bambaataa to name a few. Mele Mel and his brother Kid Creole were running with Grandmaster Flash and Keith Cowboy forming Flash & The 3 Mc’s. Outside of the 3 Mc’s who were about to become the Furious 4 there were no organized DJ/MC crews in the Bronx.
The genesis of the Funky 4 is K.K. Rockwell joining with Breakout & Baron. Next K.K.’s best friend Keith Keith aka Keith Caesar joined the group. Hip Hop’s first female M.C. Sha Rock joined third and Rahiem completed the 4. Before Rahiem joined the group the M.C’s liked to rhyme to Breakout’s beats because he played a more uptempo music. Rahiem preferred to rhyme to Baron’s music and soon Sha Rock started to rhyme to Baron as well. Rahiem who was also a singer brought more routines and showmanship to the group.
In May of 1979, at the Webster Avenue P.A.L. The Funky 4 battled The Furious 4 and Rahiem left The Funky 4 to join The Furious 4, thus creating the Furious 5. Soon after, Sha Rock left the group as well and Breakout & Baron held auditions for replacements. Lil Rodney C and Jazzy Jeff were in a group called the Magnificent 7. They auditioned and got the position in the Funky 4. Shortly after Rodney and Jeff joined, Sha Rock returned and the group was re christened The Funky 4 Plus 1.
By the end of 1979 there were at least two dozen Rap records on the market, most of which were by artists wishing to cash in on what many deemed a fad. These records with the exception of Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” and The Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” were produced and distributed by independent labels. Bobby Robinson who had great success distributing R&B records on his Enjoy label developed an interest in this new “talking music” and The Funky 4 Plus One was the first Rap act that he signed. “Rappin’ & Rockin’ The House” was a 16-minute roller coaster ride that was musically based on “Got to Be Real” by Cheryll Lynn. This record also introduced producer Pumpkin to Enjoy records where he became the in-house drummer and producer. Members of the Funky 4 were among the crowds that would gather at Pumpkins garage in the North Bronx to hear him practice on his drums. They introduced him to Bobby Robinson, thus beginning his prolific career in the music business.
By 1980 Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson was signing many of the active Rap acts in Harlem and The Bronx in an effort to monopolize on the genre after the gargantuan success of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight”. The Funky 4 Plus 1 released “That’s the Joint” on Sugar Hill records in 1980 and it stands as one of the labels most solid releases. The group also released “Do You Want to Rock” and “Feel It (The Mexican)” on the label as well, but they were never able to match the success of “That’s the Joint”. The unreleased recordings “King Heroin”, “Super Stars” and “Square Biz” were released on an overseas compilation called “That’s The Joint” on Sequel records in 2000.
Deborah Harry of Blondie took a real interest in Hip Hop culture after hanging out with Graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy and witnessing the Funky 4. That interest led to her recording “Rapture” which name checked Grandmaster Flash and reached number 1 on Billboards Hot 100 - 33 R&B. According to Lil’ Rodney C, Deborah wanted to take the group on tour with her, a request that Sylvia Robinson allegedly declined causing Lil Rodney C and K.K. Rockwell to leave the group and form Double Trouble who were featured in Hip Hop’s first motion picture Wild Style. The remaining group members continued to record and release music, but eventually Jazzy Jeff went solo signing with Jive records (Jeff is the second Rap artist signed to Jive after Whodini). Sha Rock joined forces with Lisa Lee and Debbie D and formed US Girls. US Girls were featured in the movie Beat Street as well as on the soundtrack.
Today The Funky 4 are the subjects of documentaries and books, they are featured in museums and college curriculum. The influence of the seeds that they planted more than 4 decades ago continue to manifest.