Freak-zone funk

Westbound Records, 1970

If you will suck my soul
I will lick your funky emotions …
—from "Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?"

And on the seventh day, amid a haze of Hendrixian goo, copulatin’ bass-throb, sinewy organ vamps, nappy gulps of harp and lysergically stained vocals, God inhaled deeply and created Funkadelic.

By 1970 the age of Aquarius was 6 feet under, ambushed by the Manson family, ghetto unrest and a squirrelly little cocksucker called Tricky Dick. The underground would fire back that year with such missives as Band of Gypsys, Morrison Hotel and Fun House, but perhaps no other LP crystallized the countercultural aesthetic quite so deftly as Funkadelic’s self-titled debut.

The band was the brainchild of George Clinton, a North Carolina-born, New Jersey-bred hairstylist and songwriter. He’d moved to Detroit in 1964 to work in Motown’s hit factory while trying to land a deal for his group the Parliaments; ironically, by the time the outfit did taste success with their ’67 hit “(I Wanna) Testify” on Revilot, he was weary of the straight-laced nature of Motown-style soul. His consciousness raised by the New Jersey and Detroit riots, Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelia and orange sunshine’s benevolent glow, Clinton glimpsed a way out.

“Yeah, it was all of that,” chuckles Clinton, in a hoarse but conspiratorial tone, speaking from Denver where he and his P-Funk Allstars have landed the mothership once again on its never-ending tour. “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. And blues was my parents’ music. But we had gotten far away from it. So I had to go through that again, you know? We just said, ‘Well, we’ll do the funky music, we’ll do the nasty music!’”

Clinton and the Parliaments — vocalists Fuzzy Haskins, Grady Thomas, Calvin Simon and Ray Davis, plus guitarist William Nelson — recruited guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross (changing instruments, Nelson became “Billy Bass”), organist Mikey Atkins and drummer Tiki Fulwood. For their “nasty” and increasingly theatrical music, Nelson came up with the term “Funkadelic” and soon enough the outfit found itself on the same bills and sharing management with fellow Motor City subversives the Amboy Dukes, the Stooges and the MC5. Clinton recalls having “the best of both worlds” for the band, booking the Parliaments one night in a soul palace like the 20 Grand and Funkadelic the next night into the local rock venues — the Birmingham Teen Center, the Palladium, the Grande Ballroom. (One of the few concert documents of this era can be found on the 1996 CD Funkadelic Live, recorded in Rochester on Sept. 12, 1971.)

In 1969, contractual snags barred the Parliaments from entering the studio under that name, and Funkadelic began recording its debut for upstart Detroit label Westbound Records. Two singles were released that summer, “Music For My Mother” and “I’ll Bet You” (an old Parliaments track redone and funked-up), and when Funkadelic surfaced early the next year, the group, already an underground sensation in Detroit, took the funk national.

Any doubts as to whether the Clinton crew had turned on, tuned in and was broadcasting from the freak zone were dispelled by Funkadelic‘s opening cut “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?,” all nine bloozy, LSD-gargling 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 / It’s called Funkadelic music / It will blow your funky mind.”

Explains Clinton: “Because we were late in the psychedelic thing, we had to do it twice as much as anybody else had did it. Because, you know, Jimi Hendrix, once we heard those things, we said, ‘Aw shit. We’s late. Let’s catch up!’ When we played with the Vanilla Fudge one time, we heard the sound: ‘OK, 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!”

He pauses, laughs, and continues, “Eddie had learned guitar like that pretty good, so I was just humming in the microphone and they would follow whatever I was humming. 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?’ Well, we were playing our ass off!”

No shit. From the aforementioned “Mommy…” and the Afro-jazz blues arrangement and chain-gang vocals of “Music For My Mother” to the infectious acid soul of “I Bet You” and the explosive funk template “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody Got A Thing,” Funkadelic is a stunning synthesis of style and emotion. By today’s digital standards it may sound primitive, yet its raw immediacy and head-warping sonics trump any technical considerations. (Clinton recalls the reaction at one radio station: “’If you would take the airplanes out of your songs, we could play ’em.’ You know, all the tape loops and mmwwwhhmm!”)

Lyrically, too, there’s a conceptual cohesiveness that planted listeners at the metaphorical corner of Woodstock Avenue and Watts Boulevard. Clinton’s proto-raps in both “Mommy…” and its album-closing counterpart, “What Is Soul,” serve up black-power screeds yet are funny as a muhfuh, particularly the latter’s laundry list of what constitutes soul: “a ham hock in your corn flakes … a joint rolled in toilet paper … rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps … Soul is you, big mama!”). In the autobiographical fantasy “Music For My Mother,” the singer has an epiphany after hearing “something like raw funk” while down South, then ends on a triumphant note chanting, “Say it loud! I’m funky and I’m proud!” And “I Got A Thing…” defiantly draws the line in the sand: “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.”

“In the very beginning,” says Clinton, “when I was writing at Motown they was 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. It was very intentional. We did a few, you know, love songs. But mostly it was like — just funkin’! The concept would become ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow.’”

In his Funk encyclopedia journalist Dave Thompson describes Funkadelic 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.” And funk deejay Rickey Vincent, in his book also titled Funk, calls it “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.” Within a year both Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On would appear, groundbreaking documents of an era. But Funkadelic was there first.

And the thing was, it didn’t matter if you purchased your albums and eight-tracks from a shiny suburban record mart or out of a dusty bin tucked away in the corner of some inner-city wig shop. Funkadelic connected regardless of race, creed, size of bell-bottoms or kink of hair. One listen, and you knew: The revolution ain’t gonna be televised — it’s gonna be funkadelicized.

Concludes Clinton, “Basically I was talking about doing a concept album that would last from then on, you know, right till now, today. Embrace the funk the way rock ’n’ roll had been embraced, never change the funk no matter what the industry did.”

Like a classic jazz album, Funkadelic is knee-deep in stellar beats, stanky grooves and sonic detail. Like a vintage soul record, its vocal performances are supple and athletic. And like the great psychedelic classics, it boots the listener through the looking glass of enlightenment. Funkadelic might’ve titled its next album Free Your Mind … and Your Ass Will Follow, but anyone who’d heard Funkadelic first had already been delivered.

Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.

Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.