Funkadelic contains the seeds of all that would come later.
Funk, as a discrete musical genre, was only about five years old when Funkadelic’s self-titled debut was released in February 1970. But George Clinton, the group’s chief songwriter, producer and general ringleader, recognized something much bigger and more primal in the fledgling form. Clinton envisioned funk as both mythology and ontology, with a history spanning multiple centuries and even planes of existence. As he pronounces over the sticky groove of the album’s nine-minute opening track, “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”, “My name is Funk… I am not of your world.”
If Clinton’s funk was supernatural, however, his own roots were decidedly prosaic. Born in small-town North Carolina, he formed the group that would become Funkadelic as a teenager in the late 1950s while working at the Silk Palace, a popular black barber shop in Plainfield, New Jersey. The Parliaments—named for the cigarette brand—began as a doo-wop vocal quintet in the tradition of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, with Clinton, Ray Davis, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas. By the mid-‘60s, the group were making weekend commutes to Detroit, recording on independent soul labels like Golden World and Revilot while Clinton put in work as a staff writer for Motown Records. Now a touring unit, the Parliaments’ lineup had expanded to include bassist Billy Nelson, guitarist Eddie Hazel and drummer Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood. The origins of Funkadelic were twofold: first, a contractual dispute with Revilot Records, which had released the group’s sole hit single “(I Wanna) Testify” in 1967, prevented them from continuing to use the Parliaments name; and second, Clinton discovered LSD, the drug that would irreversibly change the course of his life and music.
Funkadelic wasn’t the first psychedelic funk album: Sly and the Family Stone had been blending soul melodies and harder funk rhythms with the sonic innovations of acid rock since 1967, with even the notoriously conservative Motown picking up on their buzz soon after. At the time of its release, though, Funkadelic was the album that most flagrantly wore the genre’s chemical inspirations on its sleeve. Fulwood’s impeccably sloppy drumming and the former Parliaments’ ragged harmonies on “Good Old Music” are enough to give the listener a contact high. And even if the audible bong hits and stoned giggles on closing track “What Is Soul” didn’t already make it clear just how the Temptations had reached “Cloud Nine,” Clinton goes ahead and spells it out: “Soul,” he explains, “is a joint rolled in toilet paper.”
Enhancing Funkadelic’s subcultural bona fides is its cacophonous, reverb-drenched sound, which often gives the impression of having been literally recorded underground. Even in its more musically conventional moments, the album hits harder and goes deeper than its psych-funk predecessors. The first two minutes of “I Bet You” stick closely enough to the Motown template to inspire a Jackson 5 cover later that year; but the remaining four minutes give way to a fuzz-laced solo by Hazel, accompanied by the band’s frenzied claps and grunts. Haskins’ “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing” channels the Family Stone with its layered vocals and stop-start rhythms, while also evoking Detroit’s proto-punk rock scene with a guest solo by Rare Earth guitarist Ray Monette. The closest thing to a tame moment is the Clinton/Hazel co-composition “Qualify and Satisfy,” a slinky acid-blues jam that falls short of distinguishing itself from the deluge of other slinky acid-blues jams coming out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
One area where Funkadelic does set itself apart from its antecedents, however, is in its overtly Afrocentric politics. Where Sly’s multi-racial Family Stone was steeped in the predominantly white hippie culture of Haight-Ashbury, Funkadelic was rooted firmly in black radical Detroit in the wake of the 1967 and 1968 uprisings. A key part of Clinton’s funk mythology is its essential blackness. On “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?,” he locates a racial identity crisis in his own past turning natural black hair into chemically straightened “processes”: “I went to New York, got slick, got my hair laid,” he chuckles. “I was cool, I was cool… But I had no groove.” In funk, he finds the “groove” he was missing: a musical mode as raw and kinky as the Afro hairstyles embraced by the Black Power movement. Underscoring this connection is the moment near the end of “Music for My Mother” when the band breaks into a chant adapted from James Brown’s 1968 single “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Instead of “black,” they say “I’m funk and I’m proud,” making it clear that the two are one and the same.
The musical and lyrical ideas explored on Funkadelic would be elaborated and in many ways improved upon in the years to come; today, the album is only rarely considered to be a major work in the sprawling Parliament-Funkadelic discography. But like many other great debuts, Funkadelic contains the seeds of all that would come later. Its heady mixture of funk and rock, science fiction and black nationalism, gospel proselytizing and stoner goofs would blossom into one of the most wildly original and influential bodies of work in contemporary pop music. “Hold still, baby, I won’t do you no harm,”Clinton—as “Funk”—promises on the opening track. “I think I’ll be good to you.” Almost 50 years later, he wasn’t wrong.