Back in the Motown days, we used to wear tailored suits. That was the thing to do in Philly. Even in the Ghetto, you’d buy the best suits or have them tailor-made. We was broke as hell, but that was the thing. It was like the clean, pimp style. But seeing how fictitious that was, we welcomed a change. So when kids started wearing hole-y jeans and T-shirts, we’d grab a towel and wear it like a diaper. When it changed again and it had to be clean again, we bought $10,000 leather-winged outfits, spacemen costumes and a half a million dollar Mothership. If it had glitter, we had to make it glitter to the point that nobody had ever done it before.
Then that was getting old after we’d been on tour for ever, so we got the camouflage stuff. We pretty much started that on the One Nation Under a Groove album. We went into the army/navy surplus stores and stuff was like three dollars for a pair of pants. $3.50, $2.50 for shirts. We loaded everything outta there. In a good six months, that shit was up to $30 or $40. Now it’s a couple of hundred dollars to get a good army suit.
The history of Funkadelic begins where Hendrix left of: distorted guitars, orange-purple soundscapes, black cosmology, LSD-weltschmertz, burning american flags, bombed out city centers – but with one forward-looking, crucial difference; they added the Funk, the continuous groove, the steady heartbeat of the Mothership.
The easiest way to break down P-funk? Psychedelic Rock crossed with Funk. This gives Funkadelic their unique flavour, that is why they appeal to both dirtbag rockers and californian gangbangers, that is why their music has met success both amongst American college-nerds and party-goers in the Brazilian favelas. While the original funk was developed under the disciplinary regime of James Brown, the Detroit bastard child was generally to fucked on acid when they were in the studio to accomplish something substantial. Skippable experiments drenched in bad acid and bad hippie wisdom is one of the weaknesses of the p-funk-catalouge. They also had the bad habit of including ballads on their releases, an area which they unlike James Brown did not master. Clinton’s half-baked Frank Zappa-imitations (Jimmy’s Got A Little Bit Of Bitch In Him) are also misplaced, since Clinton’s own sense of humour transcends Zappa by lightyears. To bow down to an inferior is not a good look.
The bitches’ brew that Funkadelic initially served their followers had ingredients echoing both the immanent theology of the likes of Meister Eckhart and Thomas Müntzer and the darker side of that took over after The Summe Of Love. “The Kingdom Of Heaven Is Within” is howled repeatedly on the intro to their first LP. On America Eats It’s Young they even include a text from The Church Of The Process, a congregation founded by ex-Scientologists that worshipped both God and Satan and believed the world would end any minute now. A.S. Van Dorston writes in his brilliant The Afro-Alien Diaspora, that it “seems unlikely that George Clinton took the Process Church seriously for long. Everything he did showed that his songs were meant to benefit everyone in a positive way.” The iconoclastic imagery of Clinton was larger than one church, it was an all rebellious, playful mythology that was riding on the bad acid-vibes of Hendrix and fellow noise-bringers. Dorston continues that
there’s no mistake that the early music was hard. In stark contrast to their later cartoonish space-freak image, the band looked and sounded as earthy as the dirt on the cover art for Maggot Brain. Funkadelic were bad motherfuckers. They shared management and stages with the other ‘bad boys of Detroit’ – Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes, MC5, and The Stooges. Their management even cooked up a marriage between George and Iggy Pop as a publicity stunt. Iggy was probably relieved that it was never followed through. ‘He could have been my wife’, tittered Clinton. (…) Funkadelic’s unique relationship with white rock ‘n’ roll started when they had borrowed amps from Vanilla Fudge. They were so pleased with the high volume that they immediately got their own. Like Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, they reclaimed rock music as their own. (…) By 1970′s Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, Funkadelic sounded as if they had absorbed some of MC5′s aggression and The Stooges’ decadent nihilism. They continued their critiques of capitalism and booty-liberation theology, but instead of the blues, Free Your Mind‘s title track showcased lysergic-drenched noise, with Bernie Worrell’s slavering, distorted three-note organ riff similar to Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray.
With time, the hard-work funk ethics of James Brown came more and more into play, and the psychedelic distortion and acid noise of the first albums took the back seat as the line between Funkadelic’s and Parliament’s identities blurred. The albums got more concentrated and funkier, and funkier, reaching a pinnacle with One Nation Under A Groove in 1978. As the album name suggests, the lyrics and concepts had moved closer to black nationalism (a course that took a later generation of black musicians a lot further. It is also interesting to note that the evangelic SF imagery is a central element not just in the Parliament’s completely masterful Mothership Connection, but also in the mythology of Nation Of Islam – and The Church Of Scientology).
As the eghties drew nearer, the P-Funk-army got more involved in the war against disco, which shows up in both confrontative song titles and in the music itself (it was getting polished). Funk was becoming more and more difficult to play. The times were changing. Cocaine replaced acid, and the quality of music declined. In the disco-era, what else could you do but sell your soul to the placebo syndrome and start smoking death instead of sweating away death under the powerful groove from A Fully Operational Mothership.
The pioneering work of the funk-tribes had however been accomplished. With Uncle Jam Wants You they passed the legacy onto the next generation. Not long after, Uncle Jam’s Army of pioneering hip hop-DJs was formed in Los Angeles, with Egyptian Lover sent out on a mission to once again reclaim the pyramids. On his solo release Computer Games from 1982 Clinton passes the torch to Afrika Bambaataa with the chant “like Planet Rock, we just don’t stop“: Planet Rock was released the same year, and a new world of music was born. Another generation took over. Once again black music was taken out of the clubs, into the urban landscape. Once again the sound in the parks was rough and raw, not smooth and polished. A rich foundation had been layed for the future of funk, and hiphop-producers gathered the ammunition needed for the oncoming battle. The apocalyptic Bring-The-Noise-eclecticism of Funkadelic was essential in The Bomb Squad‘s revolutionary Wall Of Sound-technique, while the beautifully bouncing booty-bass and slick arrangemnets of Parliament lives on in the productions of Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Organized Noize, and many others.
Ever since the mothership of Parliament-Funkadelic went under the radar in the disguise of The P-Funk All-Stars, Clinton hasn’t been the same, and releases bearing his name have mostly been thrown together without class. Atomic Dog was, of course, the shit, but besides that he has rarely shined like in the seventies. Two moments are worth the mention, though.
Just out of jail, and with both Dr. Dre and George Clinton on his side, U Cant C Me is as relentless and triumphant as we ever saw Tupac Shakur. This is one of his hottest tracks, much owing to Clinton’s idiosyncratic adlibs and Dre’s gloriously perfected p-funk (the beat is so large that it doesn’t matter that its skeleton is identical to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Who Am I). When the Clinton spaces the funk out on Synthesizer from Outkast’s critically-hugged-to-death Stankonia it’s another beautiful moment. But in recent years, solid contributions have been missing, and you would suspect that Mr. Clinton have been paying more attention to the crack-pipe than to the microphone. A friend even had the nerve to inform me of his demise some years ago, a piece of bad news that a quick googling could refute; in fact, he had a new album out. And he put in his input on that Wu-Tang Clan-album.
How does he do it? Perhaps George Clinton is a perpeteum mobile, an alien, cyborg machine that “just don’t stop“, defying physics and AA meetings. In a way the essence of Funk: bodies defying the laws of gravity, shaking, getting it on, grooving for hours and hours and years and years. It’s mind-blowing to see sixty-year-olds like James Brown blasting the same shit on stage as forty years ago. Funk aint slack. You gotta sweat if you wanna have fun. If you want your spot in the sun, you gotta be on some hot shit. On the other hand, if you got funk, you got style.