Funk In Motion: XL Middleton Glides To Freedom

words by Evan Gabriel

photos courtesy of XL Middleton

 

At 10 o’clock on Friday, a wobbly group of swanky twenty-somethings pours into downtown Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel. Between the bar and the elevator, the standing room shrinks as patrons slink around the bar line to an even larger line for the rooftop, where producer, singer and modern funk mainstay Matthew “XL” Middleton is slotted to DJ. 45 minutes and $12 later, I’m clutching a Ballast Point and finally stepping onto the elevator when I spot Middleton walking the opposite direction, towards the front door. Did I miss his set? Relented, I break from the elevator and cut past the gleaning mass of confused eyes to stop him and introduce myself. Luckily, he tells me he doesn’t play until midnight. In spite of his big frame, the 33-year-old maneuvers the crowd with a natural grace, and speaks in a relaxed tone. 

With a dozen releases under his belt, Middleton’s most recent offering takes the form of a love album. Released this past October on his own label MoFunk Records, Tap Water is a brilliantly bright LP with a title that refers to a gritty, unpurified funk sound that Middleton grew up loving, but wouldn’t recognize as his true musical calling until years later. On top of forming a record label devoted to further fostering this glazey music, his regular DJ gigs and wide range of production credits are the reason he is among a small group of artists helping to propel funk’s reemergence in the modern musical landscape. 

Since signing to Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stone’s Throw Records in 2008, Pasadena’s Dam Funk has helped reopen a lofty dialogue of digital drums and analogue synths that put to rest the illusions of funk as all keytars and rainbow-colored afros. After realizing he wasn’t content to remain in the oft-overlooked production credits on records for rappers like MC Eiht and Mack 10, Dam Funk launched Funkmosphere in 2006, his weekly residency at The Virgil, where Middleton regularly DJs. “[Hearing Dam Funk for the first time] made me feel validated because so many people told me, ahh nobody’s into this funk stuff. It felt really good to know I wasn’t the only one,” says Middleton.

Even if it’s presence isn’t immediately obvious, Funk music has remained hugely impactful on current pop, R&B and hip hop. Unquestionably, the secret weapon of Daft Punk’s Grammy winning song Get Lucky is the savory rhythm guitar riff played by former Chic member Nile Rodgers, which after he recorded it, was repurposed as the foundation of the song. More recently, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars cashed in on this sound with Uptown Funk, which sold over 2 million copies and won Record of the Year in February. Billboard writer Sean Ross credited the Minneapolis sound of the 80’s -- Prince [ed. Note rest in peace], Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis -- as heavily influential on Mars’ single.   

Fortunately, for Middleton and for dancefloors across the city, Los Angeles is currently having a funk renaissance. In addition to Funkmosphere, the Funk Freaks residency at Original Mike’s in Santa Ana is now six years running. While Middleton has never been a dancer, he loves to select the sounds that cause people to shed their ego and give into the pure connection. “People are always going to want to catch onto something that they can say, this is my shit, I love this song, I’m so glad I’m hearing it right now!” he says. 

Unlike the stiff, blunted seas of bobbing baseball caps that tend to cluster at the outer and back rings of hip hop shows, funk music, by nature, continually calls the audience to action. Musicians like Middleton and Dam Funk are the heirs to a longstanding sound of the West Coast that is often associated solely with G-Funk acts of the 90s like DJ Quik, the late Nate Dogg, and DJ Battlecat. But the influence goes deeper than yowling synths or montages of Cadillacs amid a division of red and blue. Middleton notes that 90s “gangsta rap” was taking cues from older funk and boogie records; the favored music of 80s gangbangers in Los Angeles. 

A few days following the show, I’m sitting in Middleton’s Glassell park studio, where he reflects on his perception of funk as a teenager. While he wasn’t involved in gangs, he was aware of what was going on with friends and at school. “Honestly, it’s [funk] very rooted in the gang culture, lowriding culture,” he says, sipping a Bombay on the rocks. “In California those two things are kind of married to each other in many minds. When I hear “Midnight Star” by Zapp & Roger, that’s what I associate it with,” he says. How then, did the soundtrack of 80s lowrider culture morph into a retro-future dance party on top of The Ace Hotel? 

Since the mid 70s, funk songs have generally stuck to one of two themes: having fun at a party or being in love. Along with taco trucks and chili-cheese stands, Middleton likens the sunny, tree-lined streets of his native Pasadena as instrumental in shaping the bounce and glide that has kept car stereos and cookouts bumping for decades. Whether nipping a Mai Thai on a roof in downtown, or draining 40 ounces of King Cobra in Estrada Courts, this music compels you toward movement. Shared experiences--good and bad--rise to the forefront, and no matter your individual motivation, communal settings always pack a punch in memory.  

In its vast expanse and unconventional layout, Los Angeles is a fit setting for experimentation, and few moments on Tap Water say more about Middleton’s lack of constraints than the space he leaves between the kick drums and the opening chords on Do Me Like That, which features Pasadena-raised MoFunk artist, Moniquea. Middleton parses out the elements of his songs so the individual colors jump out, keeping them from feeling too dictated, or too polished.  Instead, Middleton and Monique keep the lyrics clear and catchy. “I think the sound always was universal, I guess maybe everybody just wasn’t aware of it,” says Middleton. “And now the awareness is being created and I love that.” 

Despite said newfound awareness, Middleton admits he had no expectations following Tap Water’s release. Classic cowbells and sweeping synths sound familiar on Exception To The Rule, but Middleton’s gentle vocals carry the track’s unique persona. A standout is the upbeat High On Your Love, which feels like a blissful, high speed trip down the 101, yet remarkably hasn’t been picked up by radio. Still, fans and critics responded warmly to the album, and Tap Water landed write-ups on LA Weekly and The Washington Post. 

Unfortunately, the buzz around Middleton’s name following Tap Water brought a level of unwanted attention that caused Middleton want to close up and hole himself up in the studio.“The new music that I’m making has been coming from a darker place. I think it’s going to be a strong reflection of that desire to be alone. Almost everything on the next album is going to be me by myself. Not guest musicians, nothing.” While Tap Water has moments of synthetic modernity, there is weighty human emotion that isn’t lost in the onslaught of electronic instrumentation. Take the sentiment on Psychic's candid conclusion: “If you really want it I suggest you let it be known/ ’cause I am not a psychic.” Middleton’s plain diction speaks directly to the refreshingly honest, unfiltered sound that he sought out as a kid. 

Raised on Spam and macaroni salad from his Hawaiian mother, Middleton was always drawn to hip hop’s rough and sampled-laced quality. His parents moved from South Central to Pasadena early in his life, where his father taught him to play keys at a young age. Hip Hop was his first love, and he recounts his high school influences similar to many purists: Nas, Mobb Deep, Big Pun. In the mid 90s, Middleton began making his own rapping and making beats. By the early aughts, he was experimenting heavily in his range as an MC, as well as producing Southern-style and G-Funk beats. Early projects like The Hedonistic Album, or Big China Mack show versatility, and his twangy chorus on “Middle Class Blues” brings to mind Devin the Dude. 

Still, there were shortcomings in how far he wanted to excel given the genre’s confines. He founded his first local label imprint, Crown City, in 2003. But the 2000’s brought a watery peepshow of popular music. Middleton began to feel stilted about the state of hip hop, which led to cynicism for the radio altogether. “I realized that so much of what I love is sampling or invoking the feeling of funk music, and just realizing that when producers and rappers stopped doing that, that was the time I became less interested in hip hop,” he says, later finding freedom in funk’s lack of structural confines.  

In the late 2000’s, he began to channel his production and writing though his near-three thousand record collection. Soon, he was crafting music from within a more fluid, natural zone. “All the time making hip hop records there was something that felt not right to me. It was always like, this is what rappers do so you’ve got to be about this as well,” he says. Yet by immersing himself in 80’s records, Middleton moved from the basics to creating his own variations of southern California’s stamped style. Suddenly, classic albums became inspirational pieces of their own merit, not just sample material. The Funk “blueprints,” as Middleton describes them, are often-overlooked records from the 70s and 80s that have long served as a basis to make people move on any type of dance floor. 

By 12:45 Middleton commands the Ace Hotel’s rooftop with poise. Unapologetic energy surges as nearly everyone dances alone, but given the unity of the soundtrack, no one seems to care. Middleton masterfully blends classic 45s with contemporary funk releases, like when he throws on the legendary Egyptian Lover’s remix of Psychic, Tap Water’s closing track, and no one misses a beat. The dance floor remains the true theater of funk, where the crowd conveys all they need of a track’s effectiveness through their bodily contortions. But a song’s trend factor, or the artist hype, isn’t part of this dancefloor equation. It’s about finessing the 45 along the platter so it doesn’t skip on the best groove. It’s sensing the next best song to cue up as the needle winds to the cylinder’s center. In spite of playing to rooms of people who could use Spotify and Shazam to aggregate millions of songs without leaving the toilet, DJ’s like Middleton keep dance floors bouncing to grainy, classic vinyl on a regular basis. “It’s [about] feeling good, and there’s a certain over-the-topness with the music, but it’s not over-the-top music,” he says. 

Since permitting himself to explore the funk full on, Middleton and Funkmosphere resident DJ, Eddie Funkster, launched MoFunk Records in 2013, where Middleton often has a direct hand in creative output. Tap Water Runoff, his heavily instrumental cassette of “leftovers” that didn’t make the LP’s final cut is available on MoFunk April 8th. No matter the specific inception, the funk has long been a part of Middleton, and in the last year he has helped progress the music’s influence by significant margins. Ironically, his decision to make music for no one but himself is received by imminent shoulder pops and high leg kicks on the dance floor. The genre that has long been revered as the official score for gangsters hitting hydraulic switches in Impalas has reemerged as the light in a dark party, and all are welcome. People are moving to the music, proof that whatever Middleton’s put in the water, it’s working.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified XL Middleton as a Funkmosphere resident DJ, and the producer of Diamond Ortiz's next record. Middleton is not a resident and Ortiz is releasing his self-produced album on Middleton's label.