An Introduction to Funk Music
What is Funk Music? What does it mean for something to be funky? Funk music is a form of dance music that emerged in the late 1960s and was widely popular throughout most of the 1970s. Funk is inspired from rhythm and blues. It is a hybrid of multiple different genres with a wide range of different elements, such as rhythm and blues, jazz solos, horns playing, rock-oriented horns, and vocal singing styles that are associated with soul music. Funk music lyrics with a large variety of different themes, such as feelings of black pride, optimism, disillusionment, ambivalence, and despair.
The first time funk music was played is credited to being James Brown’s 1967 song “Cold Sweat.” In this song, there was more emphasis on the bass and drum line. There was stress on the first beat, which became the bedrock of funk music. Other elements of funk music include slap bass, which is the sound most associated with funk music. Slap bass is like playing the drums on the bass guitar.
One of the masterminds behind funk music becoming mainstream was George Clinton. George Clinton and his group Parliament Funkadelic ignited a black music revolution that would carry throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Who is Parliament Funkadelic and what is P-Funk?
Parliament Funkadelic is an American funk musical band that was started in 1968 by George Clinton. The band is a funk band that mixes elements of funk, psychedelic rock, and soul. P-funk is short for “pure funk”, which is a subgenre of funk music. George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were the creators and originators of P-Funk music. The lyrics of P-Funk promoted black self-determination and liberation, as well as the idea that blackness should be celebrated. The band had influence from another funk band, Sly & the Family Stone, since it was one of the earliest mixed gender groups to receive mainstream success.
George Clinton wanted to experiment with new sounds and a new type of music in the black community. When George first started P-Funk, he was interested in getting more black people involved in rock music since the only successful black rock musician at the time was Jimi Hendrix. George wanted to change this, so he mixed elements of funk music with psychedelic rock music and called it funkadelic music.
Parliament Funkadelic expressed creative freedom and the idea that you could create any type of music you wanted to that came to your mind and heart. With creative expression comes expression of dress. Members of Parliament Funkadelic often wore very crazy and exotic costumes. Some people would argue that live concert tours and shows reminded people of being at a circus since there was so much going on stage with performers and singers. However, despite there being as few as 20 people or as many as 100 people on stage, they all knew how to perform in sync together.
Successes of Parliament Funkadelic
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic are considered to be one of the most prominent and well known funk music artists. Their most popular and well known songs are “Give Up the Funk” (1976), “Flash Light” (1978), and “Atomic Dog” (1982).
1976’s “Give Up the Funk” went #5 on the Hot 100 Soul Singles chart and #15 on the U.S. Billboard 100 Chart. It was also Parliament Funkadelic’s first million selling single and was initially certified Gold (500,000+ copies sold in the U.S.) when it was released.
1978’s Flashlight was the first P-Funk song to ever be #1 on the R&B Singles Chart. On the U.S. Billboard 100 Chart, the song peaked at #16. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Flash Light” #202 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
The band’s last song to chart at #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart was 1982’s “Atomic Dog.” Ironically, while “Atomic Dog” is now a well known and popular classic song in black culture, it just messed being on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.
During the group’s peak of fame and success in the 1970s, they released 5 critically successful albums:
- Mothership Connection (1975) certified Platinum
- The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976) certified Gold
- Funkentelechy vs the Placebo Syndrome (1977) certified Platinum
- Motor Booty Affair (1978) certified Gold
- Gloryhallastoopid (1979) certified Gold
Criticisms of Parliament Funkadelic
While George Clinton helped to create a whole genre of funk music and a sub-genre within funk music (P-Funk), there were some black people who were not as receptive to George’s “out of this world” style of music. The notion and concept of mixing funk music and psychedelic rock music together seemed very strange and foreign to some people, and isolated both black listeners and white listeners alike. It is safe to say that most of Parliament Funkadelic’s success and popularity was due to black fans and black people who bought their albums.
While their concerts expressed artistic freedom, fans who went to see the group live sometimes noted that the act seemed very chaotic and so much was going on. It was as if you were in a trance as they performance had so many crazy and wild acts and tricks and many flashy lights. It was very different from the traditional way of performing concerts. These criticisms are why George Clinton had to experiment more with his sound and his style a little bit before the group started to have mainstream success with their hit singles “Give Up the Funk”, “Flash Light”, and “Atomic Dog”.
Some other explanations for why Parliament Funkadelic received criticism is because of its extreme and intense nature of experimenting with different sounds and elements of funk music. This could perhaps explain why funk groups such as Sly & the Family Stone, Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Kool & the Gang were generally a more successful and popular among both black and white fans. All three of these groups used the same musical elements that George did, but they did it a neater and nicer way and in a way that appealed to a wider audience. They knew how to take P-Funk live show concerts to the next level, which helped them have a universal appeal.
Legacy and Influence of Parliament Funkadelic & Funk Music
Parliament Funkadelic really inspired black audiences in expanding their imagination. The group expressed the notion that black people could be whatever they wanted to be and that black people could achieve the “unachievable” (such as their being a black president, black first lady, black astronaut, etc.) This was a major source of liberation for black imagination. George also wrote about their being black Cabinet members in politics and there being a “Black House” instead of a “White House.” Songs such as “Chocolate City” expressed these fantasies. In may albums, George created lyrics that told about stories that intertwined the party theme with fantasies featuring black mythical heroes and villains. Black creativity and blackness being represented in fantasy and science fiction was powerful for fans of funk.
In 1997, George Clinton and fifteen other members of Parliament Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2019, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic will be receiving Lifetime Grammy Achievement Awards for all of the contributions that they made to funk music and the music industry in general.
Funk Music became a way of life in the 1970s. Everywhere there was funk music- funk was the new hot music in the 1970s. Funk music influenced many different types of black music groups, especially famous Motown groups like the Jackson 5. Funk music not only influenced the black music industry, but it also influenced white music artists. Perhaps one of the most famous funk songs by a white funk band was “Pick Up the Pieces” by Average White Band, which was a Scottish band. They were so funky and sounded so authentic that members revealed that James Brown even came to one of their shows and complimented them on how real their funk music sounded.
The influence of funk music and culture extended beyond just the music industry. The film industry started releasing many black films that were made by black people and for black audiences. This provided new job opportunities for black actors and actresses in the film industry. These films were called Blaxploitation films and some of the most famous films of this time genre were Foxy Brown with Pam Grier and Superfly with Curtis Mayfield.
While funk music dominated the black music scene and black film industry, it also influenced black every day culture. Funk music instilled a sense of black pride and black empowerment in black Americans post the Civil Rights Movement. The terms groovy and funky began to be used. For the first time, African Americans could proudly and boldly be black and recognize their black identity. Black people could display their blackness and recognize their ancestors with pride. Funk became synonymous with black pride. This included black people growing Afros and having natural hair styles.
Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K. Maultsby. African American Music: an Introduction. Routledge, 2015.
“Parliament Discography.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_discography.
“Parliament-Funkadelic.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament-Funkadelic.
*In class lecture notes from watching Funk Documentary*