Note: Click here to see all entries in this ongoing series.
Who They Are: An ever-evolving, ever-dynamic musical collective founded and helmed by the great George Clinton for well more than half-a-century at this point, and still counting. Clinton’s original group was a doo-wop inflected vocal quintet called The Parliaments, who scored their first chart hit in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify.” Label, legal, and financial issues later inspired Clinton to develop the heavier rock-inspired instrumental group Funkadelic, and the more soul-oriented Parliament, as parallel acts, who just happened to feature the same core and key players for much of their histories. I’d cite the Funkadelic line-up of Eddie Hazel (guitar), Billy Nelson (bass), Bernie Worrell (keys), Tawl Ross (guitar), and Tiki Fulwood (drums) as one of the greatest instrumental ensembles to ever tread the world’s stages, with the vocal crew (Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, and Ray Davis) being equally thrilling. And that was all before folks like Glenn Goins, Bootsy Collins, Gary Shider, Walter “Junie” Morrison, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, Michael Hampton, and Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey joined the team. Eventually, the fluid collective evolved into an amorphous, and gigantic, crew under the “P-Funk” moniker, not only issuing albums under the two flagship brands, but also creating records under a wide variety of related imprimaturs, e.g. The Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, etc. I had the great opportunity of interviewing Clinton in 1996 (see here), which was utterly delightful, and I saw him and his latest incarnation of the P-Funk Mob in Chicago in 2018; it was a big, fun, wonderful mess, and it looked like this:
P-Funk were admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, with more members specifically inducted than any other act, before or since. Clinton’s crew are among the most sampled and widely-influential artists in recent hip-hop, pop, and modern rock history, and even if you haven’t heard any of their songs, directly, odds are that you’ve heard bits of their work in dozens of popular songs inspired by and built upon their work over the years.
When I First Heard Them: Mid-1970s, after we moved to Central Nassau County, Long Island, New York, when my Dad’s Marine Corps career sent him there, and we all dutifully followed. I was a little Low Cackalacky country cracker at the time, for the most part, and my limited personal experience with strongly Afro-centric music was primarily focused on Southern Gospel, as per this post. My friends at Turtle Hook Junior High School in Uniondale, on the other hand, were deeply attuned to the R&B Charts of the day (where, alas, the music industry of the time ghettoized a lot of brilliant black artists), and that rubbed off on me, quickly, with P-Funk and Earth, Wind and Fire (who I will cover later in this series) as particular favorites. I can specifically remember listening to “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” and “Flash Light” with friends when they were charting, and went from those crossover pop singles into exploring the Funk Mob’s album catalogs, which were mind-blowing both musically and visually. Pedro Bell‘s landmark album covers were absolutely perfect for a teenage boy, as I was then, appealing (like Frank Zappa) to both the smart and dumb quadrants of my developing cultural mind, with trenchant social commentary, high concept art, and pee-pee/poo-poo humor merged into a brilliant creative whole. That introduction was deeply cemented and imprinted on my brain’s permanent registry when I had the chance to see one of the Mothership shows at Nassau Coliseum in the latter part of the decade. It moved me deeply and probably warped me permanently, and I was tickled to pieces when I had an unexpected second encounter with some of those same visions during a visit to Washington, DC in 2017, as per this post.
Why I Love Them: Lots of artists I listen to are “influential” from critical and cultural standpoints, but a lot of them can (admittedly) smack a bit of intellectual wankery when it comes to the way that regular radio listeners receive music, independent of the deep thought that music nerds like me might apply to it. P-Funk, at their best, were always able to find that sweet spot where really smart music played by really talented musicians also appealed really strongly to folks who just liked a good jam, feeling the music warmly and openly without having to think about anything too very hard. I have long considered George Clinton to be the same sort of musical genius as Mark E. Smith, or Captain Beefheart, or David Thomas, or Brian Eno. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles. Unlike Smith’s Fall, Beefheart’s Magic Band, Thomas’ Pere Ubu, or Eno’s solo outings, though, Clinton managed to make pure popular music magic within such an eclectic and ethereal rubric, and I count him as one of the greatest American creative geniuses of my lifetime accordingly.
#10. “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, from Computer Games (1982)
#9. “Mr. Wiggles” by Parliament, from Motor Booty Affair (1978)
#8. “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing” by Funkadelic, from Funkadelic (1970)
#7. “Chocolate City” by Parliament, from Chocolate City (1975)
#6. “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” by Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain (1971)
#5. “Ride On” by Parliament, from Chocolate City (1975)
#4. “Funky Dollar Bill” by Funkadelic, from Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow (1970)
#3. “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic, from Maggot Brain (1971)
#2. “Cosmic Slop” by Funkadelic, from Cosmic Slop (1973)
#1. “Biological Speculation” by Funkadelic, from America Eats Its Young (1972)