[10 June 2003]
Parliament, along with its alter ego Funkadelic, defined funk in the 1970s. The group delivered a series of classic albums, among them Mothership Connection and Up for the Down Stroke. Its work has also been anthologized on excellent single-disc and double-disc compilations: Funked Up: The Very Best of Parliament and Tear the Roof Off: 1974-1980. So why, you may ask, would you want to buy this new reissue of Chocolate City?
For one, this CD contains many worthwhile songs not on Parliament compilations. Plus, the album hangs together as a coherent, cohesive statement. Like many R&B albums of the ‘70s (but not the ‘60s or ‘50s), it is more than just a collection of singles. In fact, the album charted higher than either of the singles it contains. This record, like many Parliament albums after it, has a guiding concept, an overarching theme: the life and times of African-American Washington, D.C. in the ‘70s.
Another selling point for this package is surely Tom Terrell’s fantastic liner notes, which explain what D.C. meant to Parliament. According to Terrell, “D.C. was the first major city to give George Clinton’s Parliafunkadelicment Thang mad love.” Terrell points out that many of the songs on Chocolate City echo D.C. sounds - such as “Let Me Be,” which draws on ‘70s D.C. Gospel, and “I Misjudged You,” a homage to smooth D.C. R&B balladeers The Unifics.
The two singles released from this album, though neither broke the R&B Top 20, are both memorable. The title track stands as a moving, honest political statement, something that became increasingly rare in R&B as the ‘70s progressed. With “Chocolate City”, Clinton turns the tables on white society, which had begun to see inner cities as God-forsaken ghettos and the suburbs as the Promised Land. Though African-Americans didn’t get their “40 acres and a mule”, they did get the “chocolate city”, which Clinton calls his “piece of the rock”. Expressing love for “chocolate city”, he posits it as central, dismissing the whiter areas surrounding it as mere “vanilla suburbs”. With a wink and a nod, Clinton even predicts that African-American artists like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin will one day fill the top positions in the Federal government. Musically, the spoken-word vocals of “Chocolate City” predict hip-hop, and the song’s amalgam of funk and jazz stretches musical boundaries. The second single from the album, “Ride On” is a monster funk dance jam powered by a savage, distorted bass line - courtesy of the legendary William “Bootsy” Collins—tied to some heavy cymbal work on the one.
The remaining songs on Chocolate City also offer much to enjoy. All of them feature the ace team of musicians and vocalists that composed Parliament, including, among others, “Bootsy” on bass, Bernie Worrell on keys, Tiki Fulwood on drums, and Gary Shider on guitar, with Calvin Simon, Fuzzy Haskins, and Grady Thomas joining George Clinton on vocals. “Big Footin’” comes down on the one like “Ride On” and features the catchy refrain, “I know what you can do, let us lay some funk on you.” “Together” shares the heavy Funk sound of “Big Footin’” and “Ride On”, but its choruses feature smooth soul vocals and beautiful harmonies. Like the title track, “Let Me Be” draws on jazz, but it also calls on gospel vocals and baroque classical piano as well, creating, in the process, a distinctive mix.
How is this reissue of Chocolate City different than the original album? The remastered sound here, the work of Ellen Fitton, is excellent, and the package contains three bonus tracks. Though alternate versions of “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It)” and “I Misjudged You” don’t really add much to the originals, the third bonus track—a previously-unreleased recording of “Common Law Wife”—is a barnburner. It features nasty, syncopated horn lines, a gorgeous falsetto vocal, and topical lyrics. Like “Chocolate City”, “Common Law Wife” seems to express pride for where African Americans were in the ‘70s, though that place may not have been where they wanted or expected to be.
If you already have a copy of Chocolate City, it may make sense to forego this reissue, despite its superior sound, its great liner notes, and its inclusion of one great bonus track. If you have no Parliament at all in your collection, I suggest starting with a compilation such as the aforementioned Funked Up: The Very Best of Parliament. But if you have some Parliament at home and do not own Chocolate City, I recommend picking up this new reissue. If you do buy it, put it in your CD player, go to the second track, and follow Clinton’s call to the dance floor: “Put a hump in your back, shake your sacroiliac, and ride on!”