Parliament-Funkadelic is one of those groups that's earned a legendary reputation but also feels strangely underappreciated. Immeasurably influential and respected, yet not given the same serious consideration as other luminaries in popular music. The reasons for this oversight are complex and veiled. In our view, Parliament-Funkadelic's contributions to the musical canon through their originality, audacity, and prolificacy, are virtually unrivaled. Before digging in, any conversation about Parliament-Funkadelic must begin by untangling what to a funk neophyte must seem like a convoluted web of names and personalities.
Definition of P-Funk
In 1956, George Clinton founded the doo-wop group, The Parliaments, in Plainfield, New Jersey. They had little to moderate success through the '50s and early '60s, and it wasn't until Jimi Hendrix burst on the scene in the US during the Summer of Love, 1967, that George Clinton truly began to find his voice and began assembling what would ultimately become the musical collective known as Parliament-Funkadelic. That year, The Parliaments had their biggest and only hit up to that point, "(I Wanna) Testify," which they'd later rerecord as Parliament.
Around this time, George Clinton somehow lost contractual rights to The Parliaments name. With little hesitation, he took the Parliament band and rebranded them as Funkadelic. Soon after, Clinton regained the Parliaments name and relaunched them as Parliament, a more soulful counterpoint to the Band Of Gypsys-oriented Funkadelic. Clinton would merge and intermingle the two bands: giving birth to Parliament-Funkadelic, a true musical collective. They'd release albums under their own names but tour together, and feature many of the same musicians, focusing on themes of Afrofuturism, free love, and the healing effects of dancing, losing yourself in the music. Clinton made sure to also include political and racial consciousness in his music, (which regretfully made him somewhat of a pariah in the mainstream music business by the 1980s).
Concurrently, William "Bootsy" Collins and his brother Phelps "Catfish" were coming up out of Cincinnati, Ohio, when Warner Brothers picked them up, and eventually they became the part of James Brown's rhythm section known as "The Original J.B's." Bootsy and Catfish left/got fired after less than a year due to their predilection for LSD, towards which the hardest man in working business was weirdly puritanical. The Collins brothers eventually migrated to Detroit, where George Clinton was recording; their partnership germinated lysergically. Bootsy became Parliament's featured bassist and songwriter, and backed up Cordell "Boogie" Mosson on Funkadelic. Here is Bootsy, Catfish, and Fred Wesley, all of whom ended up with Parliament-Funkadelic, playing with James Brown in 1971.
By 1974, Bootsy began writing and arranging with Clinton, his contributions first appearing on Up For The Down Stroke. The collective as a whole fully hit their stride with 1975's Mothership Connection released by Parliament. The record is accessible and loads of fun, and it introduces many of the thematic elements we now associate with the P-Funk mythology: the Mothership, the bomb, uncut funk, even the term P-Funk I believe are used here for the first time. The P-Funk sound is characterized by hard-driving bass lines, layers of spaced-out synthesizers, Hendrix-style guitars, and vocals alternating and intersecting between spoken word and gospelly choruses. Eventually, Bootsy Collins began focusing more on his solo project, Bootsy's Rubber Band, but remained in the P-Funk umbrella with Clinton. In many of their early raucous tracks, they settle on a driving guitar or bass riff, and then just hammer it into the ground until you feel it in your guts and you can't help but stomp your feet and clap your hands.
It seems to this humble narrator that much of what's holding back Parliament-Funkadelic from the same esteem of other rock/soul giants is the group's insistence on actively promoting the P-Funk mythology, which many find laughable and ridiculous. It may be both of those things, but laughable and ridiculous doesn't automatically make it worthy of scorn, and Clinton's & Collins' attempt at injecting Afrofuturism into mainstream consciousness must not be overlooked or minimized. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic did not invent funk on their own, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone were major early framers, but Clinton and company took funk and launched it into something eternally supersonic: a polyphonic carnival of Black consciousness, P-Funk.
Just about every other band of this era attempted, with varying degrees of success, of creating a mythology around them. Led Zeppelin adopted medieval symbols to represent each member of the band. David Bowie imagined an interplanetary rock star who comes to Earth to save us with rock 'n roll. Sound familiar? And yet no one disparages or laughs at Bowie's artistic conceits. Unfortunately, the same privilege does not extend to George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Bakhtin
When Parliament-Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, a whopping sixteen members were included, the most up to that point and since. That's like Cream, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, and The Supremes, all put together. It bespeaks the intricately multilayered sound George Clinton and his mates were able to concatenate through their music.
In the first half of the 20th century, Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin developed the idea of heteroglossia, literally a multitude of voices, to describe the phenomenon in the novel, but it seems perfectly applied to music of Parliament-Funkadelic. Most legendary bands usually feature one or two dominating forces who leave a lasting legacy. The Stones have two, the Beatles had three. With P-Funk, there is George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, and arguments can be made for Garry Shider and Michael Hampton. There are scores of other fantastic musicians that have played with or revolve around the group. P-Funk is a true musical collective, an Afrofuturistic carnival where individual voices thrive and intersect with each other ultimately creating a complex sound hinting at the infinite capabilities of an untethered soul. Parliament's 1975 album, Mothership Connection is the definitive record which establishes the P-Funk mythology and the P-Funk musical philosophy. The famous track "Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off This Sucker)" embodies the heteroglossia phenomenon.
A definitive characteristic of P-Funk is the lexicon itself. What is funk after all? No one can really define it but we intrinsically feel it. Funk is not necessarily always a good thing. The guy standing next to you on the train who rushed through his deodorant on a hot day is funky in a bad way. Take this song off Bootsy's Rubber Band's second album, "The Pinocchio Theory." The multivocal chorus goes, "Somebody's been funkin' with my funk / Funkin' round funkin' with it till they funked it up / (Don't funk with my funk)." In one short stanza, Bootsy runs the gamut of at least four meanings and variations of the word funk. "Funk can not only move, it can remove."
Bakhtin explicitly laid out how the evolution of slang and jargon give rise to a vernacular that is a hallmark of heteroglossia. "Make my funk the P-Funk / I want my funk uncut" traverses drug slang ascribing it onto a style of music that is uncompromisingly outrageous and soulfully pure. These multitudes of voices and motifs represent both an expression by the artists and an inspiration to the listener to Bakhtin's idea of the Unfinalizability of the individual. In other words, we are constantly evolving and our true selves are never fully known to the world or even to us, but in the eternal struggle to define ourselves, our individual and collective purposes emerge. These same themes are echoed in the mysticism of the world's great religions and reflected in the lyrics to "Mothership Connection (Starchild)" taken from an old negro spiritual, "Swing low sweet chariot, stop, let me ride."
It should come as no surprise that Parliament-Funkadelic is widely sampled by rap and hip-hop artists. The groundwork for Dr. Dre's G-Funk sound was sampling Parliament-Funkadelic beats, grooves, and riffs. George Clinton prominently features on Tupac's All Eyez On Me, singing backup on "Can't C Me" which samples Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep."
Golden Era: 1974-1978
As Deadheads, we often talk about the Dead's golden period, the years when just about every show, everything they did was pure gold. For Parliament-Funkadelic and the P-Funk collective, their golden period was undoubtedly 1974-1978. Here's a timeline of the selected albums released, each one clearly an indispensable funk classic:
April 1974: Funkadelic, Standing On The Verge of Getting It On
August 1974: Parliament, Up For The Down Stroke
April 1975: Parliament, Chocolate City
April 1975: Funkadelic, Let's Take It To The Stage
December 1975: Parliament, Mothership Connection
January 1976: Bootsy's Rubber Band, Stretchin' Out in Booty's Rubber Band
September 1976: Parliament, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein
January 1977: Bootsy's Rubber Band, Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
November 1977: Parliament, Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome
January 1978: Bootsy's Rubber Band, Bootsy? Player Of The Year
April 1978: Bernie Worrell, All The Woo In The World
September 1978: Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove
Lay any of these albums on your turntable and you've got a boisterous party going on. Particular highlights on the list above are Mothership Connection, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, and every Bootsy album. "Hey! There's gonna be a party for days playin' when The Player plays"
The achievements and contributions to music of Parliament-Funkadelic cannot be quantified. They were able to synthesize and then influence dance, hip-hop, rock, and soul. Because of their incredible diversity of sounds, they evaded most labels, with Funkadelic even poking fun at the expectations of the audience with their track, "Who Says A Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!" off One Nation Under A Groove. For lovers of music, freedom, love, and mind-bending weirdness, Parliament-Funkadelic is the goose that laid the golden egg.
WE'VE GOT TO GET OVER THE HUMP!