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The Pleasures of Psychedelia

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Yet, like jazz and rock before it, funk’s hybrid roots were obscured by its rhetorical positioning within a given racialized culture. While funk was mobilized in various popular culture forms that highlighted black difference—notably in the so-called blaxploitation films of the era—it was a form influenced by, and influencing in its own turn, musical worlds beyond its nominative home culture. In fact, Vincent spends considerable space on Jimi Hendrix and other black rock musicians in his book, signaling the cross-genre nature of 1970s funk. As George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic fame admitted, “The Beatles are my all time favorites,” and, like Tony Williams, he admired Detroit’s hard rock band the mc5, in addition to contemporary “prog rock” bands such as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was not only that white musicians could “bring the funk” but also that groups such as the Beatles and other progressive rock bands hipped black funksters to the pleasures of psychedelia and the possibilities recording technology and the performance equipment used by rock bands enabled. Funkadelic Billy “Bass” Nelson admits that having to borrow the Marshall stacks and fiberglass drums of the white funk-rock band Vanilla Fudge, when Funkadelic’s equipment failed to arrive for a gig opposite them, persuaded the band to change “from rhythm and blues, Motown wannabes into what we evolved into: the real Funkadelic.” Beyond mere instrumentation, George Clinton and his P-Funk amalgamation played with the sonic and mind-warping possibilities of the studio, and the sound of funk for many bands was a noticeably sophisticated blend of technological and rhythmic acuity.

The music by groups and artists such as Sly and the Family Stone; Stevie Wonder; George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic; Earth, Wind, and Fire; the Bar-Kays; and the Ohio Players circulated as musical and figurative manifestations of an Afrodiasporic tradition that was not simply historical but a vital part of the contemporary soundscape. Musically, while funk bands emphasized the fundamental James Brown rhythmic vamps that formed the foundation for complex overlayings of polyrhythms and melodic material, like their rock counterparts they developed individualized sounds through a careful manipulation of electronic instrumentation and gear, fetishizing specific instruments, playback, and recording systems, as the often extensive equipment listings on recordings of the time attest.

As post–civil rights era hopes were challenged by continued structural oppression and racist policies in the United States, funk musicians looked to Africa as an imagined repository of black cultural authorization but gave it a sounding out that used the latest studio and playback technologies. While instruments such as mbiras and djembe drums, as well as the wearing of dashikis, demonstrated the connections to Africa felt by funk artists and their audiences, even if in primarily imagined expressions, traditional instrumentation was buttressed by their creative interplay with technology, using speaker systems, effects processing, and mixing options to produce music that would have been unrealizable without the electronic gadgetry. These emerging musical practices, including the use of Afrocentric artwork and fashion in promotional photographs, album artwork, and live performances, supported these young musicians’ desires to reconnect with working-class black communities through a fashionable blend of black pride and musical technique.

It is no coincidence, then, that a strong element of avant la letter Afro-futurism was prevalent in funk. Egyptian iconography vied with stylized space suits, and pyramids served as backdrops to hovering spaceships in the stage spectacles of live performances and album covers. Afrofuturism is a term used to describe a number of African American artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians, whose works complicate and comment on blackness through the engagement of science, technology, and, often, science fiction literature and iconography. As Matthew Brown argues, “Nineteen-seventies frustrations led to more mediated beliefs in this homeland; rather than a nationalism that pointed either to Africa or to a secure community in the U.S., Funkadelic album cover art on One Nation under a Groove (1978) presents ‘Afro-nauts’ leaving earth and colonizing outer space.” Accordingly, Clinton’s evocation of a Mothership connection to the Parliament-Funkadelic aggregation played on science fiction imaginings, while other groups, including the Bar-Kays; Earth, Wind and Fire; and the Commodores, performed in space-age costumes. Even Marvin Gaye released a 1978 single, A Funky Space Reincarnation, which effectively linked science fiction themes within a funky, streetwise perspective. Drawing on African imagery and futuristic science fiction imaginings for their album covers and stage shows, many funk bands imagined a “funky” black presence that projected Afrocentric cultural values into a technological future.

Yet, while funk allowed black musicians to claim a connection to Africa— even if only to an imaginary, fantastic Africa—and was used to broadcast Afrocentric political views, nonblack musicians are an important part of its history. The white guitarist Joe Medina was a member of the so-called Funk Brothers, the name given to a group of studio musicians used by Motown, playing a seminal role in the constitution of the label’s mainstream commercial style of black music. Sly and the Family Stone, heralded as one of funk’s founding bands, featured an interracial membership, and the success with black audiences experienced by white funk groups such as the Average White Band, whose very name played on the racialized assumptions of genre, was evidence of the cross-cultural legacy of funk. Tower of Power was founded by the saxophonists Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka, neither of whom are African American but whose band became one of the more successful funk bands of the era.

This proto-Afrofuturist turn to outer space and science fiction was not restricted to funk musicians of the 1970s. The fusion drummer Lenny Williams produced a number of science fiction–inspired recordings, including the concept album The Adventures of the Astral Pirates (Elektra 1978), and during his most well-known fusion association with Return to Forever, he and his fellow band members had also turned to science fiction for inspiration. Even earlier, the jazz musician Sun Ra based his own cosmology on a number of themes that would be taken up by Afrofuturists, predating the term and its ideological formation in the 1990s. Hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaata espoused a similar theme of global and extraworldly universalism that included a technologically based utopianism. These proto-Afrofuturist approaches shared a desire to position black bodies within discourses of African cultural legacies, as well as to articulate desires for a place in the future as represented in space exploration, computerized networks, and technological advances writ large. As I will detail later, Herbie Hancock engaged these ideas in his fusion music of the 1970s, intentionally confronting the broken middles among race, genre, and technology.

* * *

As I have noted, although funk may refer to a particular musical genre developed in the late 1960s, funky has long been used to describe various black musics, including jazz. The use of funky within jazz is often traced to its use to describe the pianist Horace Silver and the hard bop movement in which he was first recognized. To give some sense of the relationship hard bop shares with fusion, including both styles’ evocation of “funk,” let us backtrack momentarily to the beginnings of bebop. While big band swing ensembles were giving way to jump blues, at least on black jukeboxes in the late 1940s, what was to become known as bebop was being created by young jazz musicians, motivated in part by the same reason fusion musicians would list a quarter of a century later: a creative urge to revitalize a form of music that had grown moribund and overly commercial (at least, to their ears) but to which they still felt a strong connection. As bebop grew beyond musicians’ jam sessions, its audience, like the earlier “hot” jazz aficionados, seemed more interested in the transgressive social aspects of the music rather than an enrichment or deep appreciation of jazz culture. In reaction, as bebop became integrated into the mainstream of jazz—indeed, as it arguably became the lingua franca of mainstream jazz—a number of jazz artists turned away from the intellectualizations of bebop toward a jazz that was oriented, once again, to black dance floors. David Rosenthal described the predicament many jazz musicians faced in the 1950s: “The problem in the early fifties was: where do we go from here? Bebop, which had begun as a promise of freedom, had turned into something of a straitjacket, an increasingly codified form of expression… R&B might be a source of new ideas, but it was too limited to satisfy jazz musicians as a regular context.”

Many hard bop artists—including Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean, and John Coltrane—had, in fact, first performed professionally in rhythm-and-blues acts. In contrast to bebop musicians’ self-conscious alignments with fine art and their public disdain for commercial considerations, which, as Scott DeVeaux argues in The Making of Bebop, were part of their own mythologizing project, hard bop musicians often performed in both rhythm-and-blues and hard bop jazz groups. Jackie McLean, a self-described bebopper, speaks to the illusory limits of genres: “I played in rhythm and blues bands when I went to North Carolina in 1953 to try to go to school again, and I stayed down there for a year, and yeah, it helped me. It influenced me…  I certainly, myself, thought along heavy blues lines, blues feeling, and my concept of it, so I just think it had more of a gospel feeling to it, a sanctified feeling to it mixed with all the other ingredients that Bird [Charlie Parker, bebop alto saxophonist], Bud [Powell, bebop pianist], Thelonious [Monk, bebop pianist] gave us.”

Artists such as Horace Silver, Eddie Harris, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, and Lou Donaldson responded to bebop’s intellectualism and increasingly rigid codification by creating an instrumental body-oriented jazz that emphasized danceable rhythms. Their blues- and gospel-based melodic and harmonic material was linked to a conscious desire to redirect jazz back toward black audiences, who were seen as abandoning jazz for the pleasures of rhythm and blues. Hard boppers blended the roots of African American musical idioms—the blues, work songs, and gospel, in particular—with bebop’s improvisational innovations.

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