“I’m old-school,” said DJ Pam “the Funkstress” Warren. In an interview for The San Francisco Chronicle, she added: “I grew up listening to The Spinners. My daddy loved Bobby Womack and Patti LaBelle. My mom loved the Isley Brothers, the Gap Band, Charlie Wilson and Cameo.”
These were artists Warren loved, too – their influence helped create her trademark style, eventually attracting the attention of one very famous fan: in 2016 Pam The Funkstress became Purple Pam when she joined Prince on his final tour.
Warren grew up in Foster City, San Mateo County, California, and went to the nearby Burlingame High School. She was interested in music from an early age. The first record she bought was dance club hit “When I hear Music” by Debbie Deb. Later she worked in a record shop to save the money to buy her first mixer – a Realistic – in pursuit of her ambition to be the first female West Coast DJ.
She was already a popular party DJ when she was talent-spotted by Boots Riley of Oakland hip-hop band The Coup. Warren provided the cuts and scratches on The Coup’s 1993 record “Kill My Landlord” and continued to work with Riley over the next decade and a half, most recently appearing on the band’s 2006 album Pick A Bigger Weapon.
But though she collaborated on several studio albums, Warren’s passion was playing in clubs. Audience enjoyment was always her primary concern. She talked of watching audience reaction to gauge how her set was going and thriving on the vibe of people having a good time. “I play for the crowd,” she said, though she recalled one club-owner telling her to “stop playing so much good music so they can go to the bar and drink. Get them off the dance floor.”
As Pam The Funkstress, Warren played with many of the greats. She shared stages with Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs. But the gig that would define her career took place in February 2016. At that time she was combining work as a DJ with stints as a chef at Piccadilly Catering, a “soul food” restaurant in Foster City, where her speciality was the “soulrrito” (a burrito filled with mac and cheese, fried chicken, yams and collard greens). A friend took her along to a Prince after-party where Warren took to the decks.
Recalling that night, Warren told Pitchfork: “I guess [Prince] really liked what he heard. From what I understand, he likes funk, old-school classics. That’s up my alley … when he popped up with a surprise show in March, I DJ-ed another after-party at the Great American Music Hall. He came up to me and said, ‘DJ, give me a scratch’, and I scratched with him right there, him playing [guitar] over it. That was the first time we ever jammed together – no practice, no [rehearsing], just a connection that happened.”
Warren subsequently joined Prince on what was to be his final string of live gigs, The Piano and Microphone Tour, and earned her new nickname, Purple Pam.
Alas Purple Pam’s collaboration with the late artist cut short in April 2016 due to his untimely death. However, the rest of that year saw more new projects come into the pipeline. Warren continued her work as a chef at Piccadilly and also launched an online radio show, femalefunkradio, to showcase her favourite artists. She was a keen supporter of up and coming DJs and her friends remember her as a great mentor of young women eager to follow in her footsteps.
Shortly before her death, Warren announced via social media that she would have to step back from her DJing commitments for a while due to unspecified health issues. She is believed to have undergone successful organ transplant surgery, only to succumb to complications.
Her friend DJ Styles wrote of Warren’s death on “Prince just needed his DJ. I’ll see you again my friend.”
Pam Warren aka Pam The Funkstress, DJ, born 1966, died 22 December 2017