George Clinton’s P-Funk Universe

George Clinton’s P-Funk musical universe was based around Parliament and Funkadelic, a pair of bands with a shared, shifting membership. (‘P-Funk’ is, depending on who you believe, either an abbreviation of Parliament / Funkadelic or stands for ‘Pure Funk’). In his book Funk, author Rickey Vincent describes the P-Funk collective as a “fifty-plus member aggregation of geniuses, lunatics, has-beens, wannabes, architects, saboteurs, and hangers-on.”

Broadly speaking, Parliament was a funk band with a horn section and Funkadelic was a psychedelic funk-rock band without horns, but both bands changed and developed over their lifetime. Many individual members were also involved in spin-off projects including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, The Horny Horns, The Brides of Funkenstein and vocal trio Parlet. 

At the centre of this sprawling musical circus was the P-Funk ringmaster George Clinton. A barber by trade, he formed his first group, do-wop outfit The Parliaments, in 1956, who had a small hit with I Wanna Testify in ’67. Funkadelic began life as the Parliaments’ backing band and Vincent describes the distorted acid rock/funk and country/folk oddities of their 1970 debut Osmium as “just as badly mixed, endless and unforgettable as one of their concerts.”

Early Funkadelic albums were psychedelic acid-rock/funk odysseys, mixing James Brown licks, a carnivalesque atmosphere, gospel harmonies and the searing guitar work of Eddie Hazel into what Clinton biographer Kris Needs described as “weighty funk-rock littered with experimental urges and surreal comedic touches.” But by the time of their biggest hit One Nation Under A Groove just a few years later in 1978 Funkadelic had mutated into a globe-dominating funk force. 

Key to this transition was the addition of a series of talented musicians. Classically trained keyboardist Bernie Worrell joined in 1972, bringing a sophisticated musical sensibility and his influential championing of the synth as a funk instrument. Bass legend Bootsy Collins joined, left again, then signed up for good in 1974, bringing his legendary space bass sound and songwriting acumen.  Former James Brown horns Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Richard ‘Kush’ Griffiths joined in ’75, bringing jazzy, intricate horn lines and Wesley’s infamously sharp arrangement skills. And a series of top tier drummers, Tiki Fulwood, Tyrone Lampking, and Jerome Brailey, provided the rhythmic pulse of the P-Funk groove. 

Collins and Clinton found they were a formidable songwriting team, their musical partnership described by Vincent as possessing “the social insight of Lennon and MacCartney, the folksy warmth of Simon and Garfunkel and the strength of Chuck D and Flavor Flav.” With all the pieces in place, P-Funk entered their peak period and for the second half of the seventies, Clinton and crew would be unstoppable.

Escalating drug use, issues over royalties, creative differences and legalistic chaos gradually engulfed Clinton and in the ‘80s the P-Funk empire faltered and declined.  Disgruntled band members had begun to leave at the end of the ‘70s, sometimes recording musical critiques of Clinton, who carried on as a successful solo artist and worked with Prince, Sly Stone, Thomas Dolby, Primal Scream and others, to varying degrees of success. 

But the impact of P-Funk on popular music was substantial. According to Needs, “…the albums released under the P-Funk banner stand among the most influential in music, kickstarting black rock, laying foundations for hip hop and inspiring the likes of Primal Scream, Talking Heads and Red Hot Chilli Peppers.” 

P-Funk’s pioneering synth bass and electronic handclap sound has become standard for much of dance and pop music. It was hugely influential in the soul, funk and disco world but also in the birth of electro and early hip hop too. Likewise, techno artists like Carl Craig, Underground Resistance and Robert Hood all pay tribute to the influence of the P-Funk aesthetic. Worrell’s use of Moog and Arp synths for those thick, punchy basses, gothic strings and silvery burbling leads all link P-Funk to the new wave and new romantic pop music that characterised the early 80s. 

Then in the late 80s, a whole new generation of musicians, artists and fans rediscovered Parliament, Funkadelic and the rest of the P-Funk eco-system via the West Coast G-Funk hip hop sound. Producers and artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Warren G constructed their hugely successful G-funk subgenre almost entirely from P-Funk’s snakelike Moog riffs, weighty synth basses and funk rhythms. 

The achievements of George Clinton’s P-Funk collective are many and they leave an impressive legacy; the P-Funk catalogue they created is incendiary, innovative, influential — and also superbly, supremely funky.

Let’s Take It to the Stage cover

Funkadelic would continue to feature rock guitars, not least on their ‘guitar album’ Hardcore Jollies, but Let’s… was their final full psychedelic acid-rock album before transforming into a churning groove-machine. Album highlight Get Off Your Ass And Jam appears from a squall of feedback, matching a supa-tight drum and bass rhythm track with guitar shredding and yet another highly memorable P-Funk slogan/lyric hook. The acid-funk-rock, surreal asides and sonic experimentation of Let’s… uniquely mesh squealing overdriven guitars, J.B.s-esque funk, occasional synth noodles and classic P-Funk stacked vocal harmonies.

Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs cover

Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s solo outing from 1977 is a short album, but each moment of its seven tracks is full to the brim with the licks of various members of Funkadelic providing a slick, churning funk-rock backing for Hazel to rock out on. It’s a mostly instrumental affair with that fat P-Funk synth bass and simultaneously languid yet loose groove, and Hazel makes judicious use of his Cry-Baby Wah Wah, MXR Phaser and Echoplex delay unit. Soulful, psychedelic acid funk-rock at its very best. 

All the Woo in the World cover

A lesser-known P-Funk album but one well worth checking from influential keyboardist, songwriter, producer and arranger Bernie Worrell. All The Woo… benefits from that elaborate multi-layered P-Funk production, its songs ranging from rock-tinged efforts, slinky, intricate funk, spacey soul-jazz and the twelve-minute plus pure P-Funk jam Insurance Man For The Funk. In the P-Funk catalogue, All The Woo… stands up to many of the more well-known classics, with a slinky, intimate character all of its own. 

Funk Or Walk cover

Co-written and co-produced by George Clinton, the debut album from singers Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry as Brides Of Funkenstein is a collection of urbane disco-flecked soul and funk. There’s plenty of horn-laden P-Funk dancefloor flavour, state-of-the-art leftfield laser-disco and some conventional soul balladry too. Having a pair of female singers upfront rather than the usual Parliament multiple vocal harmonies makes for a more soulful corner of the P-Funk universe well worth revisiting. 

Cosmic Slop cover

Before ’73’s Cosmic Slop, Funkadelic albums were sprawling, far-out acid rock built on a solid funk/R’n’B foundation. Cosmic Slop saw them moving into shorter, more radio-friendly songs. The production and recording are of a higher quality than some of their earlier work and you can really begin to hear the depth of musical quality from the band too. There’s lean, bare-bones funk, acid psychedelia, gothic-soul and the album ends on a pair of proto-metal hard rockers.

Motor Booty Affair cover

Parliament’s superb, surreal sub-aqua-themed funk concept album is, aside from a single dense, baroque take on the soul ballad template, all dance floor targeted material. The P-Funkers were in top form in 1978 and Motor Booty is track after track of oozing, liquid funk and slick, streamlined discoid grooves, peppered with futurist synths, sound effects, puns, and multi-layered vocals. There are moments of musical chaos nudging up against one of the tightest rhythm sections in the business; an accomplished, swaggering epic. 

Maggot Brain cover

Infamously told by Clinton to play as though his mother had just died, the title track to Funkadelic’s 1970 second album features guitarist Eddie Hazel delivering ten scorching minutes of anguished Stratocaster soloing. His overdriven guitar, drenched in Echoplex delay, creates an emotive electro-organic sonic collage that is easily one of the finest guitar solos ever committed to wax. Elsewhere, tracks like Super Stupid and Hit It And Quit blend killer guitar riffs with pounding funky drums, gospel organ and sophisticated vocal arrangements into distorted, visceral funk-rock jams. Raw, cathartic, playful and like nothing else at the time. 

Sweat Band cover

Where you draw the line in the sprawling P-Funk catalogue as to the ‘last great album’ is obviously personal but Sweat Band’s self-titled album from 1980 is a good contender. Made up of members of Bootsy’s Rubber Band including Maceo Parker, it’s a mix of clean, crisp vocal and instrumental tracks in a general P-Funk vein but also including a venture into bossa nova and the bongo and conga-fest Jamaica, both of which could have been interesting avenues for Sweat Band to pursue had they stayed together. Expert-level, professional funk. 

Radio Active cover

The second album from P-Funk founder member, singer and guitarist Clarence Eugene ‘Fuzzy’ Haskins was mostly written by Haskins with appearances from many P-Funkers including guitarists Gary Shider and Michael Hampton, drum warrior Jerome ‘Bigfoot’ Brailey and Bernie Worrell on keys and synths. Recorded at Michigan’s legendary PAC 3 Recording Studios, Radio Active is a little slicker than standard P-Funk but its accessible soul tracks, spacey funk and radio-friendly disco-ish grooves are all backed up by that quality P-Funk groove.

Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome cover

As disco took over the world, Clinton and crew presented an alternative, uber-funky version of R’n’B derived music with what is probably Parliament’s finest moment. Contains their most well-known track, the untouchable funk exemplar Flashlight, the triple-layer Moog synth bass of which revolutionised dance and pop music. Funkentelechy… is confident, exciting, adventurous and playful in equal parts, utilising the very latest recording techniques and a peerless set of players to present a space-age sonic vision of the future. It also funks hard.

One Nation Under a Groove cover

The platinum One Nation Under A Groove single with its irresistible synth bass and clap rhythm track gave Clinton and Co huge crossover success, and the accompanying album was a triumph too. Constructed of layers upon layers of complex interlocking musical parts it’s an album with lots of R’n’B-derived futurist funk played with consummate skill, a few nods to their acid-rock heritage and some songs that simply defy categorisation. As rich and inventive as ever and perhaps Funkadelic’s most fully realised album. 

Hardcore Jollies cover

1976’s Hardcore Jollies is a transitional Funkadelic album. It’s dedicated “to all the guitar players in the world” and features plenty of scorching rock lead guitar over lean, taut funk tracks. Although Funkadelic’s original guitar hero Eddie Hazel is absent, Garry Shider, Glenn Goins and Michael Hampton more than adequately fill his shoes. It’s guitar-heavy, but aside from the guitars the rest of the music is no-horns, intricate R’n’B. Hardcore Jollies was the final psychedelic rock outing from Funkadelic who would return two years later with the world-beating funked-up disco of One Nation Under A Groove.

Mothership Connection cover

The first Parliament album to feature the jazzy riffs and swinging soloing of The Horny Horns, Mothership Connection is considered by many fans to be the best P-Funk album. It’s packed full of musical and vocal hooks, with jazzy Ellington and Basie-descended brass and a vocal harmony technique perfected in the 50s do-wop period all perfectly meshing with the very latest studio trickery and leading-edge synth work. No ballads, no down-tempo jams and a cosmic Black Afronaught concept tying it all together, Mothership Connection was a pure funk triumph. 

Reworked By Detroiters cover

A project to remix selected cuts from George Clinton’s P-Funk catalogue was a bold move, but luckily the calibre of producers involved here — including Detroit house and techno luminaries like Moodymann, Underground Resistance, Alton Miller and Recloose — means that the quality across this project is generally high. Some of the remixes here are more like faithful re-edits, most of them beef up the production, putting a contemporary emphasis on the drums and bass that just wasn’t there in the 70s, and a few radically rework the source material. A great modern complement to the P-Funk catalogue. 

Chocolate City cover

Described by Clinton as “straight-out commercial… straight-out sophisticated J.B.’s or Sly Stone funked up”, Chocolate City again saw Parliament upping the groove factor. The album is mostly pile-driver, party-friendly funk, but its precision playing, sophisticated songwriting and bold arrangements make for a more experimental and adventurous sound than many of their mid-70s R’n’B contemporaries. An album of intricate, edgy, Day-Glo, ribald R’n’B, standing on the edge of greatness.

Bootsy? Player of the Year cover

P-Funk were always the antithesis of beige, commercialised disco but that didn’t mean they shied away from uptempo 4/4 grooves as blistering album opener Bootsy What’s The Name Of This Town clearly demonstrates. Elsewhere you get a few of Bootsy’s distinctive ballads that are often part intimate soul-bearing confessions, part musical cartoon show, and a series of seismic-bass-helmed funk songs. Released in ’78 which was pretty much the peak of P-Funk’s global success, Bootsy? has surprises around every musical corner and features some of Collins’ best songwriting. 

The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein cover

The playful but edgy Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein is smooth, laid-back P-Funk with musical polymath Bernie Worrell’s soaring arrangements resulting in perhaps the best ever sounding P-Funk horn section. It’s less intense and chaotic than much of the P-Funk musical universe and with its single ballad is essentially just a series of juicy, celebratory, soulful funk grooves. With reduced weirdness and experimentation, it’s an extremely accessible album, a party pretty much from start to finish. 

Mutiny on the Mamaship cover

Funkadelic drummer Jerome Brailey’s 1979 solo album came after he left the P-Funk collective due to money disputes with George Clinton. The songs on Mutiny…feature several pointed barbs aimed at Brailey’s former boss and its eight pile-driving tracks clearly demonstrate his ability to funk hard outside of Clinton’s influence. Unsurprisingly, it bears a close resemblance to contemporaneous P-Funk albums; excellent splinter-group funk. 

Up for the Down Stroke cover

The first album from Parliament since their 1970 debut, ’74’s Up For The Downstroke dialled down the weirdness a little and dialled up the groove, adding jazzy horns and interlocking funk guitars, all held down by the heft of Bootsy’s insistent, fluid bass. Downstroke… was a further consolidation and streamlining of the P-Funk dance floor sound, with the rhythm section pushed high up in the mix and Bernie Worrell using lots of funky clavinet. It’s the classic P-Funk aesthetic in the raw, just waiting for the addition of synths to launch them into outer space. 

Quazar cover

Vocalist and guitarist Glenn Goins left Parliament-Funkadelic in 1977 after disagreements with George Clinton. Quazar was his debut album project but Goins tragically died during recording aged only 24. It’s mostly tight, effective high-energy guitar-led funk with a couple of romantic soul ballads and finishes on the sweepingly orchestrated instrumental space-disco of Shades of Quaze. A great sounding, low-chaos/high-groove P-Funk spin-off.