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Steven Greenberg talks about creating Lipps, Inc. and writing ‘Funkytown’

by Andrea Swensson

February 27, 2014

With its disco guitar riffs, electro beats, and unmistakable vocal hooks, "Funkytown" might be the most instantly recognizable song to come out of Minnesota. And it's also one of the most successful—all told, the song has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and earned a platinum status here in the U.S., coming in second to Owl City as the best-selling single of all time.

Since being released by Lipps, Inc. in 1980, "Funkytown" has earned a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and become one of the most ubiquitous songs of the advertising and licensing world, appearing in everything from Shrek 2 to South Park to the NBC drama Parenthood.

But it all started in the heart of Minneapolis, where songwriter Steven Greenberg was working as a DJ and producer. I asked Greenberg to take us back to the very beginning and tell us the story behind "Funkytown."

Local Current: Let’s go back to the late ‘70s. What was the scene like at that time?

Steven Greenberg: Well the late ‘70s was a great time in music, especially here in Minneapolis, St. Paul. At the time I was producing records, some of them for Twin/Tone. I produced the Suburbs, and bands like that. It was kind of punk, new wave-ish, cool stuff going on. A very enjoyable time in music.

How did Lipps, Inc. form?

Well the Lipps, Inc. group was just me, in the beginning. I was writing songs at the time. I ran a mobile disco system, I was a DJ at parties and weddings, and I figured I could write one of these songs, one of these disco songs. So I wrote lots of songs at the time, and "Funkytown" was one of them. And it ended up being a good one.

Did it feel different than other songs you had written?

It was one of many that I had. I thought it was good, but every songwriter thinks every song they write is good. But in my mind, I had a vision of the way it would sound on record, and it’s actually one of the only songs I’ve ever written that actually came out exactly like I wanted it to come out. So that’s a good sign.

What was the inspiration behind the lyrics?

Well the lyrics are “Gotta make a move to a town that’s right for me,” basically, and I wanted to get out of here. The scene here was very bland, there was no black radio. Maybe KMOJ played a little bit but it wasn’t really out there. I grew up on the Temptations and Motown and stuff like that, Earth, Wind & Fire, and you couldn’t get that here. It was very vanilla. A very vanilla market.

Tell me about Sound 80 Studio, where Funkytown was recorded.

Sound 80 Studios was the great thing ever. First of all, it was beautiful. [Co-owner] Herb Pilhofer probably had a decorator do it, because he was that kind of guy; a very elegant person, and he liked beautiful things around him. Including his Bozedorfer piano, which was a piano I often played at Sound 80, which was awesome. I recorded in Studio 2 there, which was the smaller room, and it was a beautiful room to record in. And that’s where I recorded "Funkytown." It was tape, 24-track tape, and it wasn’t always accurate—I will give up a secret about Sound 80, that when you recorded there, when you listened to your recording, you’d have to bring it to either your car or your home to make sure the levels were right, the bass was in the right place, the snare drum was in the right place, etcetera. So we did a lot of testing. But it was a great place to be, they had great technical assistance there, and great engineers. And Sound 80 will always have a place in my heart forever.

How did you find Cynthia Johnson?

Cynthia Johnson, the great voice of "Funkytown"—thank you, Cynthia. I wrote a song called "Rock It," which was the first song I was seriously recording for dance music, and I was interviewing singers and I brought many singers into the studio and they just didn’t seem to be cutting it, for my vision. One of them—and I don’t remember exactly which one, it was either Sue Ann Carwell or Patty Peterson—told me, “You should call Cynthia Johnson, she has a fantastic voice, she lives in St. Paul, you should try to get a hold of her.” So I got a hold of her—kind of a weird deal, just calling some woman out of the blue and saying, “I wrote this song, would you sing it?” Anyway, we ended up partnering up and Cynthia and I then became Lipps, Inc. Before that, during that time it was kind of a producer’s medium, and producers would make a record and hire singers to sing, but finally I found a partner in Cynthia and I’m certainly glad I did.

Once "Funkytown" came out, when did you know that something different was happening?

Well, I got signed to Casablanca Records on the strength of "Rock It." No one had ever heard "Funkytown." But when they told me to go home and make an album, after I signed my contract, I said, “I’ve got this song 'Funkytown,' it’s going to blow your mind.” And they’re like "Yeah, yeah whatever, just go back to Minneapolis and make a record and bring it back."

After it came out, it took a major move on the dance charts—I think they were called the disco charts back then, from like 66 to 10. And then they told me that it had sold 23,000 copies in New York in one day. And I said, "Is that good?" And they laughed. They were like, "Oh, god, is that good. Greenberg, get with it. It’s incredible! New York, one day, 23,000!" And so that’s when I realized that something was going on.

What happened after that?

Then I would get calls every day. It’s doing this here, it’s on this radio station there, you’ve gotta do an interview with Time Magazine, you’ve gotta do an interview with Rolling Stone, you’ve gotta do this, do that. I was just overwhelmed by how cool things were happening. And seeing the music business from the inside, watching the wheels turn—pretty cool. Especially when you have a #1 smash hit, and everybody’s kind of rallying around and very excited. There’s parties and lunches and meetings. Sunset Blvd. was where Casablanca Records sat, it was a very cool place to go to every day, and hang out. They would have me come into town to do my interviews and do different things, and they’d give me a big white limo to drive around in, with this cool guy driving it, and put me up at the Sunset Hyatt, which was kind of the rock ‘n’ roll hotel, like Led Zeppelin threw TVs out the windows there and stuff. So yeah, that’s the deal on that. It was great.

What is the legal status of "Funkytown" now?

The copyright status of "Funkytown" is a complicated legal issue, but basically in 2015 I’m supposed to get my copyright back on the master recording of "Funkytown." And the master recording is “Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc.—in other words me and Cynthia recording, and no other recording. Just that recording. So things are in motion and we’ll see what happens in 2015, but right now everything’s cool.

Have you seen the show Parenthood?

Yes, and I have been to their kind of Funkytown before, and I love it!

Are you getting paid every time someone talks about it and hums it on TV?

Those kinds of things are licensed by my publisher, and yes I do get paid something for that kind of use.

We don’t have to get into exact figures, but I’m wondering about the financial aspect of selling albums in comparison licensing. If we had to make a pie chart, how would you break down profits from album sales, licensing, and other royalties?

Steven Greenberg (Photo by Chris Roberts/MPR)

I mean it’s pretty linear. In the beginning, you get a lot of money from record sales, because that’s what’s happening at the time. So we’re talking 1980. And those eventually slow down, and other records come out and people buy something else. But albums, in my case, sold less than the single. My album, Mouth to Mouth, sold less copies than the single, and now the licensing—it has been great licensing opportunities for the last 20, 25 years. Somehow, "Funkytown" got into the advertising world, and it has the kind of hook that makes people pick their head up when they’re doing something else, and that’s what advertisers look for, whether it be a TV show or just a commercial on TV, a movie soundtrack. So, the licensing on the pie chart is pretty large. A large slice of apple royalty pie.

So there’s a peak right away with the sales and then the licensing carries on over time?

For me—that’s because Funkytown became this thing. For most people, it doesn’t become that. It just kind of dies out, and they’re lucky if they get a song on Grey’s Anatomy or something happens. I got really lucky.

Do you think it’s possible for another “Funkytown” to exist today—a song that is that commercially successful and culturally ubiquitous? 

I do. I think it would be possible. There are some songs I’m sure that are great. But you know, we’re talking 34 years later. It gets to be an oldies status, and then kind of a standard status, because people want to hear it again and think back to the old days. Advertisers want to pick a demographic, and right now Funkytown is right in a demographic where if they’re targeting people who are 50 to 65, it’s good for them to hear that.

How does it make you feel to have something that you wrote used in advertising?

I have to ok almost all the advertising opportunities that I get, and I try to take great care in what "Funkytown" is used in. I feel it’s kind of my baby, and I treat it as such. There was a man in Florida who wanted to use it in local car ads, and you know how cheesy local car ads can be. He offered me a stinking ridiculous amount of money, and I turned him down. Just because I don’t do those loud, cheesy local car ads. So I do try to take care of it.

That’s interesting that you do have that much direct control of it.

They give me that opportunity and I’m glad they do, because it really helps keep the song true.

Anything else on your mind about Funkytown’s legacy?

One of the great things about Funkytown was that the art people and the commercial people all liked it. It wasn’t thought of as something cheesy, and it wasn’t a disco song. It was kind of a forerunner to the EDM movement, if you listen to some of my songs. There are other songs other than "Funkytown"—I had four albums out—and there’s a lot of stuff on there that’s pretty cool, some house type music and some trance type stuff. I kind of idolized Kraftwerk, and now when I look forward I see Daft Punk taking bits of some of my music and using it in their music. I don’t know if that’s true at all, but it sounds like it to me. So I think "Funkytown" was kind of groundbreaking, that it was commercially successful and looked at as a nice piece of art.



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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.