Costa Mesa's Funk Freaks Bring Boogie From the Barrio to Europe and Back
Debo (left) and Diaz, founders of Funk Freaks
A needle drops on a turntable, the snare of a drum machine slaps against slippery guitar rhythms and slinky bass grooves, and the dance floor of Original Mike's in Santa Ana gets shocked back into 1984. The fog machine then starts up, its odorless plumes tangling with floating rays to cast a neon boogie haze over the crowd.
And what a crowd. On the last Friday of every month, bouncy Chicanas in hip-hugging spandex and cocktail dresses grab hold of the nearest two-stepping cholo, as Zapp, Shalamar and D. Train deliver jam after jam. Rising body heat drapes the floor-to-ceiling windows with steam. No one notices the rotating lights of cop cars zooming down Main Street outside, and wailing synthesizers drown out the sirens from the trucks roaring out of the fire station across the street. This is as close to Chicano heaven as you'll find in big, bad SanTana.
From the DJ booth, a group of selectors huddle around the decks, bobbing their heads, some jostling for their turn to spin before last call. They're members of the Funk Freaks, a staple collective in the OC funk scene known for playing rare grooves stockpiled over the years like weapons of post-disco destruction. Sporting fitted hats, Pendletons, chains and plenty of tattoos, they're savoring the final moments of another successful event at their Original Mike's residency, now six years running,
As 1:30 a.m. hits, they only have a few minutes before the lights come on. But when security guards try shooing everyone out a half-hour later, the crowd refuses to scatter, dancing and sweating on the linoleum until someone actually pulls the plug for the turntables out of the wall.
"Most of the time, our crowd won't clear out till after 2 a.m., if security is lucky," says Funk Freaks co-founder Ivan "Debo" Marquez with a chuckle.
But the funk fixation doesn't end when the party's over. Because Funk Freaks is more than a hipster attempt at nostalgia. For the DJs, it's a lifestyle built on endless crate digging, online scouring and dealing with record collectors around the world for the next song that's destined to slap you silly on the dance floor. In the past few years, their brand has gone international, with chapters sprouting up and pledging allegiance to the mothership by spinning and sharing shit that YouTube doesn't have, that Shazam can't identify, that Pandora will never stream. Traveling and connecting with like-minded DJs, the crew's name is showing up in the usual musical hotspots—San Francisco, LA, Austin, Chicago and New York City—but also cities in Russia, France, Amsterdam, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. It's these people who come to Original Mike's from abroad, drawn to the boogie and modern soul selections, as well as live performances from the old-school pioneers of the genre.
Recently, Debo was on the phone with Vaughan Mason—yep, "Bounce, Rock, Skate" Vaughan Mason—about coming down to do a show. Unsurprisingly, these cult legends are skeptical of an offer from a bunch of Chicano youngsters from OC and the Inland Empire until the DJs prove they're not faking the funk. "Honestly, he was hesitant," Debo says. "When I was talking to him over the phone, he was like, 'Whatchu talkin' 'bout?'"
But with a little coaxing, the Funk Freaks have managed to get musicians including Howard Johnson, Sekou Bunch and Carol Shinnette to check out their vinyl parties and see what they're working with. What you see when you squeeze your way through a crowded walkway, past the Original Mike's main room blasting Top 40, and into the back area of the bar, where the Funk Freak paradise happens, is only part of what they do to promote the music they love.
"We're humble, we're cool about it, but at the end of the day, if you really wanna get tested, we got all the funk you guys wanna hear," Debo says confidently. "Don't take us lightly. We got some shit that people won't hear anywhere else."
* * * * *
The Funk Freaks crew
Chilling outside El Toro Bravo in Costa Mesa while sporting a beanie, goatee and khakis, Debo remembers his first flirtation with funk between bites of a juicy taco. Fluorescent lights flicker sporadically over the head of the hefty, 6-foot-3-inch DJ who sits at an outside table at his go-to hometown taco spot.
"They make the tortillas right here, too," he says with his mouth full. "And the salsa's on point."
Fifteen years ago, Debo was busy haunting the hip-hop sections of local record shops such as Dr. Freecloud's and Noise Noise Noise. During a normal crate-digging session, he'd abandon the breakbeats and underground boom bap and start hovering over sections simply labeled "'80s" or "New Wave," thumbing through vibrant album covers splashed with fly, Jheri-curled artists of yesteryear. The records conjured memories of his uncle's ghetto blaster kicking out lowrider jams during blazing Cali summers in the mid-1980s, palm trees and carne asada Sundays. "This was the music we grew up with," he says.
This was the era of boogie funk, when the slap of the Roland TR-909 drum machine infused itself into R&B, funk, and the roots of early hip-hop. "Fools were just innovating with the synthesizer and the Moogs, and it was kind of like a free-for-all—you could do whatever you want," Debo says. "People didn't know how to label it."
Music offered a brief distraction from gang life for Debo and his fellow Funk Freaks. One of Debo's cousins went to prison for taking part in the first drive-by in Costa Mesa. His older brother, a tagger who was a founding member of a crew called 4MingKAOS (which later grew into the infamous street gang Forming Kaos, now FKG), introduced him to a lot of the music he now spins. Debo's friend David Diaz came up in the same Westside neighborhood and took the name DJ Loser (his name spelled backward), but grew up chasing fast money as a local drug connect, constantly in and out of jail. Diaz's older brother DJ Unic (pronounced "Unique") was a tattoo artist with his own shop. But even then, the incipient collective were vinyl junkies, before rare or coveted vinyl was only an eBay click away. The competition to have the best collection was cutthroat.
"We would play homemade tapes and be slapping each other with the funk," Unic says. "And when someone would ask, 'Oh, who is that?,' you'd be like, 'I dunno; I forgot.' It was like that."
For a while, Debo and Loser would hang out at the latter's pad, spinning and sharing hip-hop records. Neither can remember who finally got the guts to volunteer to deejay a friend's backyard party, but they both immediately fell for it. It was one thing to play tracks for each other, but another to see people freak out over a song they hadn't heard since junior high.
Debo and Diaz started slow in the early 2000s, even drifting apart for a while. But one day, Debo asked Loser to help him deejay his older brother Edgar's birthday party, with a request by the hermano to spin the funky stuff. "So [after that], Debo was like, 'We should do a funk night,' and I was down with that," Diaz says. "So once every few months, we did them, and it was crackin'."
Their goal was to introduce the crowd to some "slappers" (tunes highlighting a heavy drum slap or an infectious bassline), rare gems and a sprinkle of "Funk 101" (mainstream hits, O.G. anthems, anything by the Bar-Kays). Regardless of whether the songs were well-known or unearthed nuggets, the rhythm had to be fresh and upbeat, delivering a sound that resonated with OC's barrios, who embraced the music long after the rest of Southern California had relegated it to the bargain bins. "It all has a little Moog, a little clap, a little bassline, a little synth, a little on-the-one slap," says Debo.
As those parties started getting bigger, O.G.s from the Westside opened up their record collections to Debo and Diaz. Unic scribbled some cholo script in Sharpie that became the original Funk Freaks logo. The backyard parties transformed into a monthly happening at Malone's in Santa Ana. Hard-partying homies and gorgeous heinas followed by the hundreds at each step, often too much for security to handle: A fight outside the club that left one man severely beaten caused Malone's to cancel the Funk Freaks.
Suddenly, Debo had to find a new place to keep their momentum going. He didn't know it at the time, but it was gonna be a lot farther away than his local bar. The DJ was about to become OC funk's European ambassador.
* * * * *
In 2010, Debo's longtime girlfriend (now wife) Faith decided to switch from studying medicine to teaching English abroad. Her career choice at the time had an unexpectedly profound effect on Funk Freaks. She had been helping with the DJ nights since the beginning, working the door and selling merch. But her travel bug rubbed off on Debo.
"I'd never traveled outside of Orange County until I met her," Debo says. "I'd say I was getting a chance to be cultured—when someone inspires you to do something, you do it."
The following year, Faith accepted a teaching position in Barcelona and asked Debo to come with her. He agreed but hesitated leaving his neighborhood and the Funk Freaks crew behind, not to mention a job in Beach Operations for the city of Huntington Beach. And he also had to deal with the law: That summer, federal and local law-enforcement officials raided 42 locations throughout Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties in Operation Black Flag, targeting 99 individuals named in five federal indictments. The 32-month investigation included several local and federal agencies, including the FBI. According to one of the RICO indictments, FKG collected drug taxes on behalf of the Mexican Mafia. Debo's brother was one of the people targeted, pleading to weapons, drug and attempted-murder charges. He's currently serving a three-year sentence in Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution.
After the raid, Debo decided he needed to get away. He entrusted leadership of Funk Freaks to his younger brother and fellow crew member Robert (DJ Luer) and Diaz. "I told my younger brother and my boy Loser [Diaz] to keep this shit alive," Debo says. "I'm gonna be over there [in Europe]; I don't know how it's gonna go."
Spain was an adjustment from the moment Debo arrived in Barcelona. He snagged a few weekly DJ gigs for 150 euros per night. But most of the time, when he'd show up to spin, club owners wouldn't know what to make of him.
"They'd definitely never seen a Mexican as tall as I am," he says. "And my whole way of dressing . . . Dickies hanging, rags, fitted hats and tattoos. . . . They'd never seen anybody like me."
The floundering DJ worked a number of bar jobs and had to rely on Faith's income to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Funk Freaks soldiered on, bouncing from the tiny Signal Lounge in Orange to the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa before Original Mike's came calling, offering them a regular, monthly spot.
Though it was tougher to make it in Europe than he expected, Debo managed to connect with DJs and artists. When Faith's teaching job ended in 2013, she and Debo returned home. Debo went back to running things with Luer and Diaz and looked to local vinyl-heads, as well as his foreign contacts, to expand the collective.
Aside from being neighborhood homies, DJs Ney, Lewis, C-los and Frosty were always in the mix at Funk Freaks parties. Even before they were official members, they'd show up to events with crates of handpicked vinyl. Then there were Dems, Bosoe and Ryan G, skilled DJs out of Riverside who always drove out to support Funk Freaks nights. A year and a half ago, Debo asked if they could expand the crew's parties into the Inland Empire. In addition to Original Mike's, the Riverside Funk Freaks draw devotees to the Vibe and the Mission Tobacco Lounge.
Meanwhile, holding the funk down out of Bakersfield is Mr. Groove, known for his extensive collection and the dedication to drive three hours to spin at Original Mike's whenever called upon by the Funk Freaks. Last but not least is Lil Man, the shortest and oldest in the group at age 42. But if he stood on top of his vinyl collection of rare Nigerian funk, he'd be taller than everyone.
Several times a year, events such as the White Party (with its all-white dress code and at which DJs can only spin vinyl test pressings) and 45s to the Dome (some of which are so old and worn you can hear them skip) force the DJs to step up their game.
"When you go to a Funk Freaks show, you're gonna hear music that's super-rare," DJ Lewis says. "You're gonna have people coming up to us going, 'What's that?' or, 'Who's that?' Everyone loves funk, and you could go anywhere and hear old-school, but these guys all have good collections."
Whenever possible, Debo arranges barbecues with his fellow DJs at their trading post (a.k.a. the front lawn of his mom's house). On a chilly December evening, Lil Man worked the grill, on which the coal-fed flames were jumping, as carne asada and chicken wings sizzle. Between swigs of Modelo, the topic of discussion around the porch kept coming back to vinyl.
It's clear these guys were willing to drop serious dough on the wax they bring to their Funk Freaks shindigs. Sometimes, a small handful of records from private collectors can go for thousands of dollars. "You can go digging all you want, all day every day," Bosoe says. "Eventually, you have to come to the realization that you're not gonna find it; you gotta buy it from a collector. But sometimes, you'll find a $200 record in a dollar bin."
"Lil Man's got some stuff that if he sells it, you'll never see another copy of that record again," Frosty says.
"It's like a unicorn. . . . Have you seen a unicorn?" Lewis chimes in. "For sure, Lil Man has one in his garage."
Buying an expensive piece of vinyl gives them a rush. However, they're a lot more tight-fisted when it comes to selling it.
"Fool, I have got, like, Carpenter records and Barbra Streisand records that I can't even throw away," Diaz says. "I don't use 'em, I don't like 'em, but I don't wanna throw 'em out. It's all vinyl, ya know?"
* * * * *
Though they started as a local crew, Debo's traveling took the Funk Freaks name way beyond Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. For the past three years, he has made pilgrimages to Europe, meeting with boogie funk DJs he contacted through Facebook. He's met most of them face-to-face in Russia, Berlin, Frankfurt, Oslo, Amsterdam, Rome and all over France—Lyon, Grenoble, Paris, Dijon and Montpellier. Each time, he managed to pick up a ton of regional '80s treasures and plenty of new languages. . . . Well, sort of. "Mostly cuss words," he admits.
His Euro pals offer him room and board while he's in town. They hang out, go vinyl shopping and swap a few records, and Debo returns the favor when they come to the States.
In Lyon, Kâshif Kroche reps the Funk Freaks. Debo first met the DJ in 2011 at a Starpoint concert, and they've gone back and forth, visiting and performing together. When Funk Freaks started a small record label to put out modern soul and funk artists, Kroche's group, the Funky Drive Band, was one of the first acts on the roster. Debo also inspired Kroche to get into deejaying.
"The fact that Funk Freaks people are close to my band and that their state of mind corresponds exactly to our vision of a good successful funk party makes us recognize ourselves through them," Kroche says. "It's an international family. Our parties are always billed with the Funk Freaks label because we are proud to represent this state of mind of an old-school funk party here in France."
Debo also sought out living legends such as Italian artist/DJ Ago (whose albums fetch $80 to $100 in the U.S.) and Ameega (the underrated, French version of Prince), both of whom helped define the '80s boogie sound in their respective countries. Most of their English is learned through American song lyrics. Ago still can't speak a lick of English unless it's a tune he knows by heart. "I keep trying to talk to him in English offstage, and I don't understand a word until he gets up there to perform a song," Debo says. "We understand each other through the music, though."
Debo flew both artists to Santa Ana for packed shows filled with West Coast funk-lovers who'd otherwise never get to see them live. But Funk Freaks also bring domestic artists out of retirement. In 1984, Carol Shinnette was a rising star when her classic track "Cyanide Love" hit the airwaves. Today her LPs are considered rare funk classics that go for $200 apiece on sites including Discogs.com. When Debo found her in 2014, Shinnette was running a retirement center in Birmingham, Alabama.
"I got her number from [Kroche]," Debo says. "I tried calling off and on for months, and no one picked up. But one time, this old lady picks up; she's all, 'Who? Carol? Yeah, she'll be here next week.'"
He tried calling her back a week later, and sure enough, Shinnette answered. "And she was trippin' out, like, 'Haha, yep, that's me! That's me!'"
Debo offered Shinnette a free trip to California and compensation for a 35-minute set, an offer that sounded weird coming out of the blue from a random DJ in California. But he convinced her and even got her a warm-up gig in East LA. There, more than 200 people showed up, shouting the words to "Cyanide Love" as the singer clutched a microphone and let it rip for the first time in years. The welcome reception was far from what she expected.
"She was like, 'Man, I honestly thought there was only gonna be two Mexicans and a donkey at this show,'" Debo says.
Charles Glenn was the bassist and bandleader for Ozone, which started in Nashville in 1977 and backed legends such as General Kane, Teena Marie and Billy Preston. Signed to Motown until 1984, their two biggest hits, "Strut My Thang" and "Gigolette," are bona-fide slappers on the Funk Freaks dance floor. Before Debo reached out, the band hadn't played in more than two years.
"He called me and said, 'Hey, Charles, I have a song list of everything we want you guys to play,'" Glenn remembers. "I was like, 'Wait a minute, who is this guy telling me what to play?!'"
Not only did he include Ozone's hits but also a bunch of throwaway songs and B-sides such as "She's a 10," which they'd never before bothered to perform live. Despite being confused and a bit miffed at the suggestion, Glenn agreed. Weeks later, as the band heard the raging party growing outside their dressing room, they wrote down the requested set list, as promised. As they took the stage in front of a screaming crowd to start the show, Glenn still had doubts.
"We're gonna play this song. I'm not sure why," Glenn confessed to the crowd. "Because we've never done this with Ozone, ever."
But as soon as his fingers plucked out the first bassline of "She's a 10," the crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings went nuts, most of them singing along to all the words. Thanks to the Funk Freaks' promotion of their music, including their B-sides, Ozone had plenty of die-hard fans before Glenn and his band hit the stage, fans who knew them even better than their parents did when the music first came out.
* * * * *
More than half a decade after their start, Funk Freaks plan to take OC's connection to funk to the next generation. That boast has a new meaning for Debo, who became a father when Faith gave birth to their daughter in 2013. Not only is the funk in her blood, but it's also on the 2-year-old's birth certificate: Zyanya Faith Boogie Marquez.
Boogie's lineage also comes with a collection of rare, expensive funk vinyl in mint condition, her DJ daddy's version of a trust fund.
"At the end of the day, my record collection is hers," Debo says. "I've got some $1,000 records in there—the minute she needs to go to college, she can sell 'em. I've lived a good life; I've been able to travel the world and see cities most people won't ever see other than books. My priority is her now."
Debo says as long as they're having fun with it, there's a good chance Funk Freaks will be around when his daughter is old enough to throw down on the decks. Despite ups and downs, these blue-collar DJs have used their art to connect to a world far outside their hoods. They've created a path through deejaying that will always lead somewhere new—as long as it still sounds as good as 1984.
"We're representing more than our record collections at this point," Debo says. "We're representing a culture that's just been fermented and ready to go. It just needed a stepping stool, someone to take it up there, and we represent that as the crew."
"I just looked at the guys on the stage," Glenn says, still remembering his triumphant Original Mike's reunion with Ozone, "and said, 'Man, they know something that we didn't know. This is the best shit ever.'"
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