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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: FUNK,
PART FOUR

Prior to the explosion of funk bands in the 1970s, a singer-songwriter in his late 20s decided to relaunch his doo-wop group, The Parliaments, and infuse it with the new black aesthetic of funk. George Edward Clinton, born in a Kannapolis, North Carolina, outhouse in 1941 (so the story goes), knew funk when he smelled it. A minor songwriter for Motown in the late 1960s, Clinton got his first taste of success with “(I Wanna) Testify,” a 1967 Parliaments hit. He sang the track solo, rounding out the soul song with session players. For touring, he enlisted guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross, bassist Billy Nelson and drummer Tiki Fulwood. A label dispute ensued, and Funkadelic rose from the ashes of the contractually enjoined Parliaments.

1970’s self-titled Funkadelic and Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow, both largely defined by the guitar histrionics of Brooklyn-born Eddie Hazel and classically trained keyboardist Bernie Worrell, played off of the psychedelic rock revolutionized by Jimi Hendrix and the soulful lyricism of Sly Stone. Orchestrator George Clinton stood at the center of Funkadelic’s many lineup changes through Maggot Brain (1971), the politically tinged America Eats Its Young (1972), Cosmic Slop (1973) and Standing of the Verge of Getting It On (1974). Fresh from James Brown’s band and full of lessons about landing on the one, bassist William Earl “Bootsy” Collins and guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins joined Funkadelic in ’72—after lending funk to JB classics like “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Soul Power” and “Super Bad.”

There was a dark, raunchy, insurrectionary and often despairing energy to the early Funkadelic recordings on Detroit’s Westbound label, roiled by the PTSD of Vietnam, racism, poverty and smack. But after this division of the P-Funk superstructure inked to Warner Bros., it eventually morphed into an engine of funk-rock uplift, with jams like “Good to Your Earhole,” “Let’s Take It to the Stage” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep” serving as paving stones toward Funkadelic’s apotheosis, “One Nation Under a Groove.” That 1978 triumph, from the album of the same name, became a manifesto for countless creators and disaffected kids of all colors and kinds—and a utopian vision of community cohesion through the almighty groove.

The year President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, George Clinton resurrected Parliament (sans “s”) as a more mainstream funk band with Up for the Down Stroke. Surrounded by the funk on all sides by 1974—bands like the Meters, Tower of Power, Cameo and the Gap Band—Clinton’s bandleader vision for Parliament-Funkadelic led both bands to wear their rock-aesthetic excesses fully on their sleeves. That meant fluid musicianship under the psychedelic influence of acid, PCP and as much weed as a reggae group. The late artist-illustrator Pedro Bell created an entire superheroic P-Funk mythology in liner notes and album covers from Cosmic Slop up to Funkadelic’s most recent By Way of the Drum (2007).

Parliament emerged from the same rotating collective as Funkadelic, and several of its raw early recordings have the same politicized, lysergic fury—witness a track like the furious “Come in Out of the Rain”—but it gradually established a freaky identity of its own. Horn-driven rather than guitar-fueled, celebratory and utopian, full-blown Parliament became a commercial powerhouse and a cultural torch-bearer for funk as liberation. “It’s nothin’ but a party, y’all” may sound like the typical hedonism of the era, but Parliament has something more transformative in mind. Clinton’s restless imagination found restorative ritual in a litany of sci-fi tropes and metaphors for uplift: the UFO-redeemers of “Mothership Connection,” the mad medicine of Dr. Funkenstein, the illumination of a “Flash Light” to help you find the funk. Anthems like “We Want the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” and kindred hits characterized the funk not merely as a groove to get down to, but a light to fly up to.

This playlist, Black History Month: Funk, contains most of the cuts referenced in our primary discussion of the genre, including a generous sampling of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton's various P-Funk projects, The Meters, Prince and many more. We don't mind if you decide to stop reading and dance.

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