After its cancellation in 1989, By Way of the Drum’s cult reputation grew in proportion to its inaccessibility.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were fallow decades for Parliament and Funkadelic, but surprisingly busy ones for the P-Funk collective, many of whom continued to play on George Clinton’s solo albums and as part of the P-Funk All-Stars. And, while there wouldn’t be an official release of new material under the Funkadelic name until 2014’s First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, it wasn’t entirely for lack of trying. In the mid-‘80s, Clinton had convened a lineup of the venerable group to record a full album, By Way of the Drum—only for the project to be summarily rejected by prospective label MCA Records.
Listening to the album now, it isn’t hard to understand why MCA passed. During his creative peak in the ‘70s, Clinton had been famously capable of sustaining multiple overlapping projects; but by the mid-‘80s, that peak had long since passed, and the material on By Way of the Drum falls short of concurrently recorded albums like Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends and R&B Skeletons in the Closet. A competent funk-rock number like “Jugular,” written by latter-day P-Funk guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, feels like a pale imitation of Word Up!-era Cameo: a dispiriting irony when one recalls that Cameo started out as a pale imitation of Mothership Connection-era Parliament. Meanwhile, the only thing more pointless than the go-go-flavored cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is the fact that it squanders a guest appearance by Funkadelic’s original guitarist Eddie Hazel—that, and its reprisal on the inaptly-named “Some Fresh Delic,” in which Clinton just regurgitates some of his choice past ad-libs (“Put on your sunglasses, y’all”; “What’s happenin’, C.C.?” over more of Hazel’s shredding and the same interminable go-go beat.
Yet, if By Way of the Drum lacks the quality of even a middling ‘70s Funkadelic album, it nevertheless makes for a fascinating funhouse-mirror vision of the group in the notoriously funk-averse ‘80s. Where the early Funkadelic had drawn from Jimi Hendrix, for example, By Way of the Drum opener “Nose Bleed” wouldn’t sound out of place on the “Miami Vice” soundtrack. It’s thus unsurprising that the album’s stronger moments come when it isn’t trying to live up to Funkadelic’s reputation as the more rock-oriented side of the P-Funk equation. “YaDaDaDa,” an outright theft of Slick Rick’s flow from “La Di Da Di” by Clinton’s son Tracey Lewis, is a fascinating, albeit clueless stab at hip-hop, the genre that would play no small role in reinventing P-Funk for a new generation in the coming decade. Elsewhere, the title track and “Primal Instinct” pair vintage Garry Shider and Mallia Franklin vocals with then-contemporary electronic beats: an instantly-dated combination, to be sure, but not an unpleasant one. Finally, with its snatches of backwards voices and synthesizers, “Freaks Bearing Gifts” oozes atmosphere and shows that even at their most polished, Clinton and Funkadelic hadn’t fully abandoned their weird streak.
After its cancellation in 1989, By Way of the Drum’s cult reputation grew in proportion to its inaccessibility. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2004, Clinton himself claimed not to have heard the album in 15 years: “If you can find one, send me a copy,” he said. Now, thanks to a 2007 reissue by Universal’s Hip-O imprint, the album is ironically more accessible to contemporary listeners than several more canonical P-Funk albums, including its immediate predecessor, The Electric Spanking of War Babies. This doubtlessly takes away from some of the mystique, but it also results in a low barrier of entry for listeners curious to hear what might have been. If the idea of a mid-to-late ‘80s version of Funkadelic—and all that entails—sparks your curiosity, then By Way of the Drum is just a Spotify search away. Whatever else there is to say about the state of music listening in 2019, it’s pretty hard to complain about that.