Afrofuturism is hot. Ever since Black Panther clawed its way to box-office glory with a killer soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar, the concept has taken feverish hold on a growing fanbase. In the heady rush to capitalize on this trend, let us take time to appreciate Parliament-Funkadelic, the phenomenally futuristic acid-funk-rock-proto-punk-band with a history so vast that it cannot be contained in a single blogpost. Here is a band teeming with enough inspiration to inspire future generations. As pioneers, these exceptionally talented musicians, showmen and show-women were truly ahead of their time. Some of us are only now catching up to them. Others never will but that’s alright. P-Funk knew exactly who they were playing to.
For much of my life, I’ve been familiar with smash hits such as Atomic Dog, One Nation Under a Groove and Tear The Roof Off The Sucker. But I knew nothing about P-Funk mythology until I spied Wax Poetics Issue 18 in a record store on Queen St. West in 2006. My interest was piqued by the animated figures of the band on the cover, (Mothership and all!) created by hip-hop sculptor Jean-Yves Blanc so I bought the magazine. It turned out to be an entertaining mix of archival photos, artwork and interviews with various band members and collaborators but most of all, it gave me clear insight into The Funk Mob spirit. Therefore, photos and references in my blogpost have been extrapolated from Wax Poetics Issue 18, a rarity since it is now out-of-print.
What’s truly astonishing about Parliament-Funkadelic is their early inception as doo-wop group The Parliaments, formed in a Plainfield, New Jersey barbershop by a teenaged George Clinton between 1955-6. Presently, Clinton is one of the few surviving members from this nascent period when Motown was king. That means he has experienced 7 decades of music history. In my opinion, this guy fits the definition of a time-traveller.
Peep this photo of The Parliaments taken in 1966. Now try to reconcile that with the wildly colourful elder statesman of funk we know now. If Sun-Ra was the godfather of musical Afrofuturism then George Clinton is the high-priest.
Funkadelic, consisting of bassist Billy “Bass” Nelson, lead guitarist Eddie Hazel, drummer Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, Tawl Ross and keyboardist Bernie Worrell was formed in 1967. They were younger and brought the psychedelic rock influence, whipped into shape by Worrell’s exceptional skills as arranger and composer. Shortly after moving to Detroit, Michigan, the collective became known as Parliament-Funkadelic.
Equally mindblowing is that in the early 70’s, Parliament-Funkadelic briefly relocated to Toronto, Canada. They even played gigs at The Hawk’s Nest which was located at 333 Yonge St. just north of Dundas. On The Robin Seymour show that aired from Windsor in the 60’s, the band used to wild out during their live performance and smoke ganja onstage in a hooka. After glimpsing their appearance on the show in a documentary, I realized that The Parliaments were Black artists that had given birth to punk a decade before it came to prominence by giving their unique interpretation of performance art that was previously thought to be the domain of hippies and privileged White artists. You could say they were…blippies! P-Funk were far-out, freakishly gifted and too funked-up to care what the mainstream thought. They had embarked on the trip of a lifetime and there was no stopping the souped-up funkateers, on course to make their collective mark on music history.
The infamous Mothership from which George Clinton descended as alien Sir Nose D’ Voidoffunk now rests in the Smithsonian Institution. I have heard from a few people who claimed to have attended these concerts say they had never seen anything like it before, nor since. A Black man emerging from a spaceship in an outlandish outfit backed by an ebullient band gussied up as funk-galactics…not since Sun-Ra had Black people been exposed to other possibilities of reconfiguring themselves by creating their own mythology.
Parliament-Funkadelic’s Afrocentric philosophy, visuals and sociopolitical messages gave alternative thinkers delectable nuggets to digest – or barf, according to how much you could tolerate. George Clinton’s collaborations with visionary artists Pedro Bell plus Overton Lloyd who developed the comics for Funkentelechy, laid the groundwork for the band`s cosmological imagery and distinctive parlance in their liner notes and lyrics.
I could spend days speaking of Maggot Brain and what Eddie Hazel‘s searing guitar solo did to my brain cells. Or Bootsy Collins‘ larger than life Starchild persona. Or raving that Alice In My Fantasies is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. What’s the point? Just listen and experience greatness for yourself.
There is no question that the P-Funk multiverse consists of deeply intelligent beings, many playing the role of cosmic clowns in order to get their message of psychic liberation across. Parallel dimensions await people of all colours to “free your mind and your ass will follow!” The Mothership is really a metaphor for the vehicular mind freed from mental slavery. A mind set loose from its artificial moorings can traverse throughout the universe, to places many would not believe possible. Parliament-Funkadelic knew this and embraced cosmic philosophy in their branding strategies and outlandish performances.
My sole criticism of Issue 18 is input should have been included from the leading ladies of P-Funk’s empire, like Brides of Funkenstein’s Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry. They are still touring and I’m sure they have many interesting tales to tell about their experiences as women in a band notorious for their wild antics.
Parliament-Funkadelic knew the masses could only handle small doses of g-(alactic) tonic. So they diluted and spoonfed listeners bit by bit, ensuring to disguise the medicine in polychromatic layers of highbrow silliness, yet retaining the strength of the message in their art. Of course, what they were really creating went over a lot of people’s heads because their stage act and marketing ploys were so outrageous but they didn’t care! Top notch is the donkey taking a dump on the steps of Royal Albert Hall to promote “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” in 1971. Apparently, the donkey was telepathically attuned to the band’s desire to overcome institutionalized racism – and made its contribution to the cause. Which in turn caused outrage from the stuffy British establishment while busting down barriers so the band could successfully tour Europe to sold-out crowds.
Through all of the internal squabbles, financial difficulties, drug abuse and inevitable losses, Parliament-Funkadelic succeeded in their mission because they knew it would take at least another 60 years for people to have that aha moment.
Having been recently honoured at the Grammys with a Lifetime Achievement Award in May 2019 and wrapping up a farewell tour for George simultaneously, it’s great to see Parliament-Funkadelic getting industry recognition that ‘s long overdue. Obviously, Afrofuturists can’t rely on the wilfully blind to show us the way because often, by the time they come around, our gifted professors have long flown ship.
Whether you can believe it or not, Parliament-Funkadelic is in fact a front for futuristic entities to show the dispossessed a way out of their personal funk. They found music to be a far more effective method of preaching to the population and they exploited that angle to the hilt. So what we have 62 years later is a living, breathing legacy that is still influencing next-gen musicians tapping into this dynamic, trans-dimensional lifeline. Despite old wounds, love remains among some surviving members, which was evident during their performance at the 2019 Grammys.
Wax Poetics Issue 18 is the definitive guide on the history of Parliament-Funkadelic, albeit in condensed form. It blows the cover off their delirious disguise and exposes them for what they really are and it may even blow your mind as well.
Kudos to Andre Torres, Matt Rogers, Edward Hill, Dante Carfagna and Richard Edson for your outstanding contributions to making Issue 18 a stellar example of music journalism.
Special shout-out to the P-Funk Family past and present: Garry Shider, Belita Woods, Glenn Goins, Jessica Cleaves, Fred Woseley, Frank “Kash” Waddy, Prakash John, Maceo Parker, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Ruth Copeland, Lonnie Green and many more too numerous to mention!
Copyright © 2019 Frankie Diamond. All rights reserved. Excerpts of less than 200 words may be published to another site, including a link back to the original article. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety and posted to another site without the express permission of the author.