Tag Archives: psychedelia

Fred Mills: George Clinton & the Birth of Funkadelic

funkadelic

Once upon a time, in a funky galaxy far far away, there was… Funkadelic. Years later, in April of 2002, a future BLURT editor would talk with the legendary founding member, George Clinton, about how the group came to be and the circumstances surrounding debut album Funkadelic, released in 1970. The interview was conducted via telephone from Denver one evening following a Clinton recording session and was subsequently published in Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper. What follows below is an extended version with additional interview content never before published.

BY FRED MILLS

“If you will suck my soul

I will lick your funky emotions…” (- from “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?”)

On the eighty day God inhaled deeply and, amid a bloozy haze of Hendrixian goo, fuck-throb bass, nappy harp gulps and lysergically altered vocals, created Funkadelic.

By 1970 the age of Aquarius had been machine-gunned by Manson, Altamont, ghetto riots and the squirrelly little cocksucker they called Tricky Dick. That year would generate its share of not-insubstantial missives — Band of Gypsys, Morrison Hotel, Fun House, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, etc. — but perhaps no other LP captured the underground vibe quite so perfectly as Funkadelic’s self-titled debut.

Funkadelic was the brainchild of George Clinton, a North Carolina-born, New Jersey-bred leader of doo-wop outfit The Parliaments who’d moved to Detroit in ’64 to work for Motown’s songwriting factory while trying to land a deal for his group. Eventually the Parliaments did taste success with their 1967 soul hit “(I Wanna) Testify,” but ironically, Clinton was about to get his consciousness raised. Scarred by the New Jersey and Detroit riots of ’67, seared by Jimi Hendrix’s super spade psychedelia, and smarter by at least a barrel-hit or two of orange sunshine, he began plotting a musical agenda that was uncompromising, asymmetrical, and thoroughly freaky.

“Yeah, it was all of that,” says Clinton now, with a knowing chuckle. “See, we was leaving Motown. ‘I Wanna Testify,’ you know, after having been singing for years, just about the time we got our first hit record the whole industry was changing. So we had to make a quick turnabout ‘cos the rock ‘n’ roll was coming out again – which was the music I had listened to in school. Blues was my parents’ music. So I had to go through that again, you know? We just said, well, we’ll do the music that was the nasty music I listened to in school. We’ll do that funky music, we’ll do that nasty music!”

This was born Funkadelic. Recruited into the fold – the Parliaments at the time included vocalists Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins, Grady Thomas, Calvin Simon and Ray Davis, plus guitarist William Nelson – were guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross (changing instruments, Nelson became “Billy Bass”), organist Mikey Atkins and drummer Tiki Fulwood. Nelson came up with the dead-on descriptive name “Funkadelic” for their so-called “nasty music,” and soon enough the band had its mojo working in earnest on the Detroit scene, sharing management and concert bills with the Amboy Dukes, Stooges and MC5. (Clinton: “We all had the same agency, Diversified Management Agency, DMA. It was called ‘The Bad Boys Of Ann Arbor.’ We all played, tried to get John Sinclair out of jail…”)

Although the group’s original home Motown was still pretty conservative at this point, Detroit circa ’69 was decidedly not. Clinton recalls having “the best of both worlds” for the band, booking the Parliaments one night in a soul palace like the Twenty Grand and Funkadelic the next night into the rock venues of the day – the Birmingham, the Palladium, Grande Ballroom. (In fact, a powerful document of the era exists by way of ’96 CD Funkadelic Live, recorded in Rochester, Michigan, on Sept. 12, 1971.)

Soon enough the newly-christened Funkadelic went into the studio to record for upstart label Westbound Records, founded by Detroit record distributor Armen Boladian. Prior contractual problems, in fact, actually prevented the Parliaments from recording under their name at the time. As Clinton explains it, “We couldn’t record as Parliament so we started freakin’ out as Funkadelic, dropping acid. The first album, two days, really, just went in the studio and stayed in there for two whole days. We took all the vamps and things we did on the stage and just went from vamp to vamp, did everything we could think of.”

The debut Funkadelic single “Music For My Mother” was released that summer, followed by “I’ll Bet You” (an old Parliaments track funked-up and rerecorded) with both 45s doing respectably on the R&B charts. But early the following year Funkadelic appeared in stores as Westbound #2000, and the group became an underground sensation.

Clinton, operating in a songwriting and production capacity (he also sang lead vocals on two cuts), had marshaled his funkateers along with several moonlighting Motown session players to commence broadcasting directly from the freak zone. Any doubts as to whether the Clinton crew had turned on and tuned in were dispelled by Funkadelic‘s opening cut “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?,” all nine bluesy, sensual, LSD-gobbling minutes of it:

“I am Funkadelic, dedicated to the feeling of good

Let me play with your emotions, for nothing is good unless you play with it

Fly on baby

It’s called Funkadelic music

It will blow your funky mind.”

Funkadelic early 3

Explains Clinton, “The concept would become ‘free your mind and your ass will follow,’ like the second album says. Because we were late in the psychedelic thing, we had to do it twice as much as anybody else had did it. We had to overdo it because we was late! Because, you know, Jimi Hendrix, when he was Jimmy James and the Flames, with King Curtis, the Isley Brothers – once we heard those things [with him], we said, ‘Aw shit. We’s late. Let’s catch up!’ When we played with the Vanilla Fudge one time, we heard the sound: ‘Okay, that’s what it is!’ Went out and bought a whole ton of amps and just turned ‘em up and played the blues, played funky grooves, and talked shit! [laughs]

“Eddie had learned guitar pretty good, the blues. And [as the main songwriter] I was just humming in the microphone and they would play, following basically whatever I was humming. [Goes “mmmm-muuumm-hmmmm”] We’d just let ‘em trip, and the engineers would freak it out. People like Martha and the Vandellas would come by and we’d have them in the background singing, and they didn’t know what they was singing! They was like, ‘What the hell are y’all doing?’ We were playing our ass off!”

The man ain’t kidding. From the aforementioned “Mommy…” and the jazz-blues psychedelic chain-gang grooves of “Music For My Mother” to the freaked-up soul of “I Bet You” and the wigged-out sassy funk template “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody Got A Thing,” Funkadelic broke significant new ground. By today’s digital standards it may sound primitive, yet its raw immediacy and head-warping sonics outweighs any technical considerations. (Clinton: “One [radio station] said, ‘If you would take the airplanes out of your songs we could play ‘em!’ You know, all the tape loops and [mimics weird sound] ‘mmwwhhmm’!”)

Lyrically, too, there was an undeniable cohesiveness afoot that, intended or not, marked Funkadelic as a concept album whose signifiers planted open-minded listeners squarely at the intersection of Woodstock Ave. and Watts Blvd. Clinton’s proto-raps in both “Mommy…” and its album-closing counterpart “What Is Soul” were both slyly subversive and funny as a muhfuh, particularly the former’s autobiographical thrust (“I recall when I left a little town in North Carolina/ I tried to escape this music… But I had no groove, hehhehheh…”) and the latter’s itemizing of what exactly constitutes “soul” (“a hamhock in your cornflakes… a joint rolled in toilet paper… rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps… Soul is you, big mama!”).

Meanwhile, “Music For My Mother” is a narrative about consciousness raising in which the protagonist hears “something like raw funk” while traveling down South and, in the aftermath of this revelation, is left triumphantly and defiantly chanting, James Brown-style, “Say it loud! I’m funky and I’m proud!” And in “I Got A Thing” the combined counterculture/black power interface is made explicit: “You don’t drink what I drink/ You don’t smoke what I smoke/ You don’t think like I think/ You don’t joke like I joke/ Everybody got a thing/ When we get together, doin’ our thing/ In order to help each other/ In order to help your brother.”

Funkadelic early 4

Clinton acknowledges that his early schooling as a songwriter for Motown came in handy when it came time to craft his conceptual piece. “In the very beginning, yeah, I was writing at Motown first and they was like very strict of how lyrics had to be, to make sense and tell stories and things. By the time we started doing [Funkadelic] it was puns and nonsensical, stream of consciousness – we’d do all of that and it was very intentional. Even if a song started off like that, I would make it general, with the population, into our people or a very feeling type thing, where you could emotionally feel it. We did a few of ‘em like that, you know, love songs. But mostly it was like – just funkin’! We was in love with the funk at the time. Very stream of consciousness. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we was stuck on ‘stupid’ and we would try trickery! [laughs]

“Basically, I was talking about doing a concept that would last from then on, you know, right ‘til now, today. That we was gonna embrace the funk the way rock ‘n’ roll had been embraced, and we was never gonna change it. No matter what the industry, which was always changing the names – R&B, to ‘urban,’ all of that. We did funk and we kept it that way! Right through to the Parliaments, the Mother Ship and all of that. But right from the very beginning, we started off – because Jamerson and them, you know, Motown, they called us ‘The Young Funk Brothers’ – Billy, Eddie, Tiki, Bernie, Tawl… you know what I’m saying? The Young Funk Brothers. So we kept it like that. The concept of funky music as the thing.

(Concept or not, some of the folks involved with the first couple of Funkadelic albums didn’t necessarily get with it, for as Clinton points out engineers Russ and Ralph Terrana didn’t want their names listed on the records and would soon move over to the presumably saner territory of Motown where they became the label’s main engineers. Likewise with some of the studio musicians the group enlisted: “They didn’t want to be connected with it because it was so crazy! They was going on out and saying, ‘I hate that!’”)

Just to place the album in its proper context: it would be another year before Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On or Sly & the Family Stone issued There’s A Riot Goin’ On. In short, the revolution wasn’t gonna be televised – it was about to be funkadelicized.

Funk book

In his 2001 consumer-guide encyclopedia Funk, journalist Dave Thompson rates Funkadelic a “10” and describes it as “a shattering blend of R&B sensibilities and acid soaked rock effects. The production treats the studio like one giant toy box and the feedback is a living creature. Play it loud.” Likewise, author and noted funk deejay Rickey Vincent, in his 1996 book also called Funk (which contains a foreword penned by Clinton), calls the album “a blues-rock classic that serves to introduce the Funkadelic concept with perfect clarity… [It captures] the gritty realism and urban blight of black rock in 1970.”

It didn’t matter if you purchased your albums from a shiny suburban record mart or out of a dusty bin tucked away in the corner of some urban wig store. Funkadelic, from the mysterious record sleeve depicting a lone black face kaleidoscoped into eight stoned stares to the brain-waffling, stanky matrix of sound within, made the connection regardless of race, creed, size of bellbottoms or kink of hair. Yours truly, an aspiring young teenage hippie exiled deep in the redneck south, was so seared by the album that I can still conjure up every telltale ka-chunk of the eight-track tape’s channel changes as I listened to it over and over while sprawled across the front seat of my mom’s old blue Buick.

As both the Thompson and Vincent funk books point out, the album also extended its reach into the hip-hop era. While most observers are quick to cite Parliament or solo Clinton tracks (say “woof!” if you haven’t heard an “Atomic Dog” sample) as rap DNA, Funkadelic’s influence is undeniable. The Beastie Boys and Ice-T sampled “I Bet You”; De La Soul and Kool G. Rap tagged “Mommy…”; and a zillion rappers including 2 Pac, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube have leaned heavily on “Good Old Music.”

It’s the equivalent of a classic jazz album, providing inspiration to generation after generation of musicians who find themselves (not just) knee-deep in its hypnotic grooves, irresistible beats, whacked-out vocals and expansive arrangements. It’s also every bit as classic a soul record as platters cut a half-decade earlier, telling a story via edgy, athletic vocal performances. And like the most groundbreaking psychedelic tomes, it has the capacity to peel back one’s inner eyelid, shove the listener through the looking glass and allow one to view the world through altered-state refraction.

Funkadelic_free_your_mind_g

George Clinton’s subsequent, estimable exploits and accomplishments aside, this album was a genuine vehicle towards enlightenment. Funkadelic might’ve titled its next album Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow, but anyone who heard Funkadelic first had already been delivered.