By Tim Smith
The Gem City has long been credited as the birthplace of Funk music, harkening back to bands like Lakeside and The Ohio Players. One local group of Funksters works hard to keep that legacy alive while introducing younger audiences to this unique sound. The Dayton Funk All-Stars, or D-Funk as they’ve nicknamed themselves, will unveil their newest lineup of original songs along with some familiar favorites at Prouty Plaza on Aug. 2 as part of the Prouty Concert Series.
The All-Stars was formed in 2000 by guitarist Tony “Silky T” Allen and keyboardist Deron Bell. Together, they hand pick the best musicians working in Dayton. In addition to Allen and Bell, the current line-up includes Ronald Nooks, Felicia Jefferson and Troy’s own Paul Hawkins. Three horns, four keyboards and two percussionists make up the eclectic ensemble. The two co-leaders recently spoke about how they’ve kept Funk music front and center.
“I used to be production manager for the Dayton Black Culture Festival,” Allen says. “I talked to the organizers about us putting together a local band with some of the entertainers that were playing. We handpick everybody, there ain’t nobody in there because of their friends. Always handpicked, always have been. We’ve had a revolving door with people going in and out. Deron and I have been there the whole time. We still have five members who were there from the very beginning.”
“It’s not the typical band just looking for bookings,” Bell adds. “I would describe it as educational music and performance. For example, we’re big on schools and mentoring. A couple of years ago we did a show for the students at what is now called World of Wonder. We gave them a sheet of songs we were going to play. Each grade level took a song and dressed for it and did a performance piece. While we played, they came out and acted out the lyrics. Prior to that, they did some things with their teachers and it just evolved into this performance. Imagine the
Dayton Funk All-Stars performing and each grade doing something different from Slave to Zapp to Parliament and the parents getting involved and talking about community wealth building. That’s a big part of our educational component.”
In addition to the education element, preserving the legacy of Funk music is foremost with D-Funk. They also use their popularity to show younger musicians what is involved in a working professional band.
“Tony was always big about handpicking people for the mission,” Bell says. “There’s sustaining the sound, but then what does it look like? We show millennials what it looks like, the horns, the sound people, the technical aspects, the publishing piece, the administrative level, the performance level. There’s a lot of layers. We’re building and birthing and preparing to perform new Dayton music. In a sense, it’s a new sound. We’ve always heard ‘For 18 years you guys have been playing the Dayton sound,’ but it’s more than that. The band learns the foundation of Tony’s songs and my songs, then they add their own part, the horns, the keyboards, the singers. Now there’s the purpose-driven component. We have a long list of ala carte originals we’ll be presenting.”
Performing covers of Funk classics may be an audience expectation, but the All-Stars strive to provide much more.
“When I think of covers, I think of doing someone else’s songs,” Bell says. “That’s what we do a majority of the time, then it’s the originals. Tony always says ‘Hey, we’re just learning a record.’ Sometimes we can be Lakeside heavy, or Parliament heavy. There’s a high level of expectation because it’s very much about the community as well. This puts us more in the frame of mind of the industry. I’m just not a guy at home writing music, and we’re not just a cover band. Where else can you go and present these originals at that level of production and support? We’re preparing upcoming artists as well as seasoned artists to share their original works.”
Both musicians lament the reduction of performing arts education in the modern public school system, and have made it one of their goals to compensate for that loss.
“That just reminds me in high school, and I came out in ‘84, there were the core music classes,” Bell says. “I can close my eyes and remember we had music theory, the concert band, pep band, marching band after school, plus choir. The balance that you get from the core classes is important, but that early formal training just made for a great balance. When we put music together, you learn the music pretty quickly. When you do originals, you learn how to put it
together, the key signatures, the time signatures. There’s so much history. We’re glad to represent it, and inspire young musicians. When they see the glitz and the glam and the speakers and things, that’s the draw. We think ‘Let’s get them on stage.’ Look at all these careers that are here beyond the stage.”
“The surge of the ‘70s Funk has definitely been a plus for our band, because that’s the shift,” Allen adds. “Every few years we vary from it but we always come back to the Dayton sound. It just plays back into our hands. It’s good for Dayton, not just us, but for Dayton entertainment. We hear good stuff being built locally. Now if we can just get the school system to recognize that’s what the music was. We had music in the schools at every level, and they took all that away. Now it’s just here and there.”
D-Funk has built a loyal fan base over the years, including the Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center. The band has been involved with that organization since its inception.
“They’ve been right there for us,” Bell says. “We made the contribution to the initiative when they were getting started, and played for them. It’s just part of what we do as entertainers. If you’re trying to get something going, we chime in. It’s a great thing for the city, with all the murals and live entertainment. That touches on something that’s beyond the music, being a part of the relationship. We put that under community wealth building.”
Both Allen and Bell, along with the rest of the ensemble, want audiences to leave a Dayton Funk All-Stars show feeling not only entertained, but enlightened.
“We want them to like the band, like the music,” Allen says. “We work hard to entertain. We’re just entertainers. We want them to leave with a good experience. We don’t try to have bad experiences. The way we look and everything is very controlled.”
“From my end, its community wealth building and relationship building,” Bell says. “Recently we were in Xenia, and the crowd was so diverse. Everyone was all together. It was so amazing. Ages 10 on up, down front, dancing, just a lot of positive energy. We’re sustaining the legacy and the sound, but also inspiring others to go forward with the sound.”