Funky Knuckles Went to No. 1 on iTunes, But They're No Household Name in Dallas
Funky Knuckles: bigger underground than above ground?
The Funky Knuckles have just begun their latest residency, a gig at Sundown at Granada every Monday night. They've had a great run in that respect, being on a six-year lucky streak of steady residencies, having never gone longer than two weeks before finding another home. The fact that they're in near-uninterrupted demand shouldn't be surprising: While Funky Knuckles may not be a household name in Dallas, the band and its members are in demand around the world.
Their music is an exciting pastiche of jazz, funk and hip hop. Form-wise, they're a lot more complex than straight-ahead jazz, close in spirit to the later works of Miles Davis. With seven members in the band, it's a bit of a controlled mania, but it all got it start in a slightly unusual manner: After playing together for years at a Fort Worth church, bassist Wes Stephenson gave up his heavy metal band to start a jazz-fusion trio with keyboardist and vocalist Caleb McCambell and drummer Cedric Moore.
Being friends and part of the same music network, the decision to start their own project was obvious. They first began playing weekly at Tini Bar and added more members: Guitarist Phill Aelony, Ben Bohorquez on saxophone, Evan Weiss (who's currently touring with the Polyphonic Spree) on trumpet and Frank Moka on percussion. Still nameless, they came up with a band name on the spot before every gig.
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"We were just dumb, having fun. We're aggressively improvisational, so we'd come up with silly names. One week it might be 'Pankie Toe' or another 'Funk Soldiers,'" says McCampbell. "Around 2009 Ced threw out the name 'Funky Knuckles', and at first we just laughed."
Their first album, the forceful As of Lately, was released by GroundUp, a label owned by Snarky Puppy's Michael League and a subsidiary of the reputable RopeaDope label from Philadelphia. "It was a nice 'Hello! How you doing?' Not even a local hit," says McCampbell of the lack of attention the album received. After extensive touring that took them all over the nation and to Canada, they released their second album, Meta-Musica, in 2014.
By then, they'd found a bit of a following -- so much so that on its release, the record claimed the No. 1 jazz spot on iTunes for three days, and remained in the top 10 for two weeks in the company of giants like Davis and Tony Bennett. Their album also reached No. 7 on the Billboard jazz charts. "We cried a little bit," Stephenson and McCampbell both admit. Anita Baker tweeted about her love of Meta-Musica a few months later, bringing in more publicity.
"We paid back the album and got a van," Stephenson says of their success, "but all the attention has helped us indirectly, to play bigger venues and to get greater pay-outs." McCampbell says their biggest highlight so far has been the realization of their overseas popularity: "You never know who's listening to your music."
Each of the band members have spread deep roots within the Dallas music community, but McCampbell can also claim a fine musical pedigree. His father and three uncles comprised the Mac Band, a late '80s Top 40 R&B band whose hit "Roses are Red" was used in a McDonald's commercial. His maternal uncle is Joseph Joubert, Broadway musical director for Billy Elliot and The Color Purple. "He's a phenomenal pianist and the reason I play piano," McCampbell raves. "I never had a choice," he adds with a laugh, referring to his choice of becoming a musician.
As a producer, he collaborates closely with Dallas-based Grammy-winning producer S1, and has had a chance to co-produce and contribute compositions for artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Jay Z. Just this year he helped compose some of the music on the legendary Gladys Knight's new album. Besides his own upcoming solo project, he says he's fully invested in the Funky Knuckles. Stephenson quips, in contrast: "Funky Knuckles IS my solo project."
Both Stephenson and McCampbell see Funky Knuckles as part of a larger community of like-minded artists in Dallas. Praising bands like RC Williams' the Gritz and the Cannibanoids, they point to others like the Found and Snarky Puppy as examples of what they see as the "Dallas sound" -- a mix of gospel, R&B, neo-soul, HipHop and jazz. McCampbell says, "Dallas has impressed something greater to the world of music that is recognized outside, but Dallas itself hasn't even realized it."
It would appear to be the same case for the Funky Knuckles, as they admit they're receiving far more recognition anywhere but in their hometown. "We have more supporters outside of Dallas than in it," McCampbell continues, noting that Moore has an endorsement with the UK's Liberty Drums. Also, after receiving some international press, they are currently considering offers they've had to play in Europe.
When asked about further future plans, in addition to relating that they're in the process of recording their third album, Stephenson says, with candid hopefulness: "We'd like to take over the world with our jazz madness." Until then, they'll remain the most famous Dallas band that Dallas has never heard of.
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