If you don’t know much about funk, P-Funk—the legendary Parliament Funkadelic—is a great place to start. (Yes, you can make the same case for James Brown, Sly Stone, the Ohio Players, and myriad others.)
P-Funk emerged in the late ‘60s and dominated the 1970s. They went through at least four somewhat distinct periods, pioneered a unique approach to groove—especially once bassist Bootsy Collins, fresh from a stint with James Brown, joined the band—and combined that with psychedelia, humor, space travel, and subtle yet cutting social commentary. They were a guitar-centric outfit, but often had a horn section, embraced synthesizers, and never lost sight of their vocal roots.
Parliament and Funkadelic were not two separate bands. P-Funk, under the guidance of vocalist and ringleader George Clinton, was a collective of musicians—which numbered about 50 people during their mid-’70s peak. In addition to their marquee Parliament and Funkadelic recordings, the collective spawned numerous spin-off projects like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet, and the Horny Horns. Critics often try to distinguish between Parliament and Funkadelic, claiming that one was more of a vocal group and that the other was more guitar-focused. But that isn’t correct. As P-Funk’s catalog shows—and especially as the ‘70s wore on—the recordings made under the various monikers are, for the most part, indistinguishable. The real reasons for the different band names had a lot more to do with circumventing various legal challenges, Clinton’s dream of building a Motown-style musical empire, and gaming the system. But regardless of what you call it—and despite considerable output—P-Funk’s releases were consistent, awesome, and never not funky.
P-Funk’s glory days ended in the early ‘80s amid a sea of legal headaches, money problems, and band defections. But by that point, they were an institution. With the rise of hip-hop, they became one of the most sampled artists of all time. Their beats, horn lines, ad libs, and grooves were resurrected—literally—as the foundation of countless hits throughout the next three decades (and counting), and that’s in addition to the influence they had on scores of artists like Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others.
If you’re unfamiliar with P-Funk, you’re in for a treat—and probably a few surprises—and if you’re an old friend, take this opportunity to dust off your vinyl and revisit the extraterrestrial dealers of funk.
The earliest version of the group that would become P-Funk was founded in the mid-1950s as The Parliaments. It started in George Clinton’s barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey, which was also a meeting place for local teens. They were a doo-wop group and—in the spirit of the times—sported matching sweaters, slick processed haircuts, and tight vocal harmonies. In addition to Clinton, the other members—who remained in the band throughout their mid-‘70s heyday—included Calvin Simon, Fuzzy Haskins, Ray Davis, and Grady Thomas.
The Parliaments released their first singles in the ‘50s, but didn’t score a hit until 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify,” which was recorded for Revilot Records in Detroit. (You might be familiar with Johnnie Taylor’s 1969 cover of the song, which was a Top 40 hit as well.) But the Parliaments were not The Temptations or the Four Tops, and the slickness of the scene, the matching suits and choreographed dance moves—not to mention troubles with their label—doomed their doo-wop aspirations.
And that was probably for the best.
The Parliaments regrouped under a new name, Funkadelic, added a young, psychedelic rhythm section—which included guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross, drummer Tiki Fulwood, bassist Billy “Bass” Nelson, and eventually keyboardist Bernie Worrell—signed with Westbound Records, and experimented with extended song forms and raunchy guitar textures.
The result was P-Funk’s first great creative period—their psychedelic period—and includes three releases as Funkadelic: Funkadelic (their eponymous debut), Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow, and Maggot Brain. These albums are dripping in fuzz, space jams, swirling stereo soundscapes, and drugs.
Did I mention drugs?
Drugs are a big part of these records. You can almost hear them—especially on the second release, Free Your Mind—oozing out of the speakers. Drugs affected everything: from the mix, to the wordplay, to the arrangements, to the sonic experiments, to you name it. Disagree? Watch the band in action and decide for yourself:
Maggot Brain (released in 1971) is the most important of these early releases. It is known for Eddie Hazel’s brilliant, 10-plus-minute guitar solo on the title track, but also includes classic psychedelic soul cuts like “Hit It and Quit It,” “Back In Our Minds,” “Can You Get to That” (a rare example of funkified acoustic guitar), and the album’s apocalyptic closer—complete with a relentless groove and cycle-of-life sound effects—“Wars of Armageddon.”
They also released Osmium, under the reclaimed—and slightly modified—band name Parliament during this period as well. (Osmium came out in 1970). The album features the same musicians and oozes the same guitar-heavy, jam-centric sounds. It also features the first appearance of concert staple, “I Call My Baby Pussycat” (the song morphed over time and appears on other records and in other forms, but this is the first version committed to tape). They won’t release another album as “Parliament” until Up For The Down Stroke in 1974.
P-Funk’s second, transitional, period started in 1972 with the release of America Eats Its Young. The album is the first to feature P-Funk stalwarts Garry Shider (vocals and guitar) and Cordell "Boogie" Mosson (bass). It is also the first album to feature bassist Bootsy Collins, although he won't join full-time until 1974.
These transitional albums still bear the hallmarks of P-Funk’s psychedelic releases—like raging guitars, manipulated voice effects, and inappropriate nursery rhymes—but the grooves take on a more familiar, funk-centric feel. Other significant records from this period include Cosmic Slop (the title track is still in their repertoire) and Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, which features P-Funk classics like “Red Hot Mama,” “Sexy Ways,” and the title track.
But it was in 1974, with the release of Up For The Down Stroke and Bootsy Collins’ full-time commitment to the project, that the band entered their third, most funkified, and commercially viable period.
Up For The Down Stroke was released as a Parliament album in the summer of 1974. It was their first album on Casablanca, and the title track peaked at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100. That song also features Collins’ Mu-Tron-soaked thump, Bernie Worrell’s otherworldly keyboard tones, and—although uncredited—Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley (both from James Brown’s band), and the Horny Horns. The tight grooves, open-ended vibe, ad-libbed background clutter, and rich vocal harmonies define the band’s mid-70s output.
The album also features a reworking of their first hit, retitled here as “Testify,” plus the extended jam, “The Goose,” and a guitar-centric blues jam, “Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good.”
The follow up was Chocolate City, which came out the next year. It was huge, especially in Washington D.C., and features Clinton’s narration over the title track, an idiosyncratic Collin’s bass groove on “Ride On,” the vocal gesticulations on “Big Footin’,” and the same uncredited horn section (including studio aces Michael and Randy Brecker).
However, the peak album from this period—when the stars aligned and the cosmic forces converged—was their next release as Parliament, Mothership Connection. The album was huge at the time—it peaked at #13 on the Billboard 200 and went platinum—but its influence, especially with the rise of hip-hop and sampling, was even bigger.
You know this record.
The hits, “Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” are ubiquitous party favorites and oft-sampled classics. It is also the first album to feature vocalist Glenn Goins—he sings lead on “Handcuffs” and “Unfunky UFO”—and guitarist Michael Hampton (aka Kidd Funkadelic) was in the band at this time as well. If you’re new to funk and trying to understand the genre, this is the place to start.
And despite the album’s commercial appeal, P-Funk didn’t forget to get weird. Listen to album closer, “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” and dig the “gaga goo ga” vocals and sub-bass synth riffs.
P-Funk hit a commercial peak as Parliament during the mid-’70s (on Casablanca), but that didn’t stop them from signing a deal with Warner Brothers as Funkadelic. They released the under-appreciated Hardcore Jollies in 1976.
It was also around 1976 when P-Funk’s sound began evolving into what’s best described—for lack of a better, more accurate term—as disco. That isn’t a pejorative—P-Funk was always raw and funky—it’s just that at this point they had shed the bombast and madness of their earlier releases.
The first albums from this period, like The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (fans of The D.O.C. will recognize “Getten’ to Know You,” which was sampled on No One Can Do It Better), still owe an allegiance to the heavy funk sounds of their previous albums, except that the fuzzed-out guitars are almost nonexistent and the horns take on a much more prominent role. But as the ‘70s went on, the production values were slicker and more dance-conscious.
Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome was released as a Parliament album in 1977 and features a number of massive hits like “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)” and “Flash Light.” “Flash Light” peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100—and if you’re a fan of the Minimoog, “Flash Light” is a must listen. The instrument—played by Bernie Worrell—is the bassline. The song also features an iconic rhythm guitar part played by Catfish Collins (Bootsy Collins’ older brother).
In 1978, P-Funk released—this time as Funkadelic—One Nation Under a Groove. (If you still think Parliament and Funkadelic are distinct entities, One Nation Under a Groove should dispel that notion. Its sound—and musicians—are indistinguishable from Parliament releases of this period.) The album peaked at #16 on the Billboard 200, went platinum, and has been sampled ad infinitum.
Other albums from this period include Motor Booty Affair, Gloryhallastoopid, Trombipulation, Uncle Jam Wants You, and The Electric Spanking of War Babies. “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” from Uncle Jam Wants You, is De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I.” “Let’s Play House” from Trombipulation is the Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” But by the early ‘80s, legal problems and disgruntled former members finally grounded the mothership.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Clinton regrouped, released his first solo album, Computer Games, in 1982—it features the techno-groove hit, “Atomic Dog”—and started touring as the P-Funk Allstars in the mid-‘80s. He’s been touring, producing, and releasing albums at a steady clip ever since. In April 2018 he announced that he is retiring from touring in 2019.