Happy 40th Anniversary to Parliament’s fourth studio album Mothership Connection, originally released December 15, 1975.
Although I was born about a decade too late to be directly exposed to Funk’s genesis in the mid 1960s and its exciting proliferation throughout the 1970s, I was eventually immersed in the genre—albeit indirectly at first—as I embarked upon my early teenage years. Indeed, as my passion for hip-hop blossomed in the late ‘80s and became a bona fide obsession by the time the ‘90s arrived, my interest in the artists’ and their respective producers’ crate-diggin’ inspirations—funk or otherwise—grew as well.
Upon unwrapping the latest disc by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ice Cube, Public Enemy or a whole host of other acts, I would scrutinize the liner notes, committing the artists and tracks they inventively sampled to memory. Allowing my unabashed music geekdom to fly free, I made countless mental and written notes to myself to dig deeper into the old-school jazz, soul, rock, and funk lineages and discographies that were revived and reborn through hip-hop. Hence, my invariable introduction to the thrillingly vast Blue Note Records catalog and the recorded repertoires of prolific artists like James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang, Ohio Players, Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, Zapp & Roger, and Parliament-Funkadelic, among many others. For as brilliant as all of these artists undeniably are, it was the latter collective’s unique sound and vibrant aesthetic that most profoundly piqued my interest, seduced my ears, and confounded my senses.
The story of Parliament-Funkadelic began in Plainfield, New Jersey in the late 1950s, when a then-teenaged George Clinton helped form the doo-wop troupe The Parliaments. Throughout the 1960s, the barbershop-bred quintet evolved beyond their original doo-wop pedigree to embrace the burgeoning soul and funk styles of the decade, but ultimately found little success recording for a handful of small-scale record labels.
In 1967, The Parliaments finally tasted success with their first hit single “(I Wanna) Testify,” which reached #3 on the Billboard R&B charts. Inspired by the single’s popularity, Clinton launched a tour for the group, expanding the lineup to ten by hiring five backing musicians to accompany the five vocalists on the road. Meanwhile, their label Revilot Records filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter, and due to contractual snags, Clinton ultimately lost the rights to the group name “The Parliaments.” Clinton then renamed the 10-person strong ensemble Funkadelic and began promoting the group as a funk-rock band.
A few years later in 1974, Clinton resurrected The Parliaments as the singular Parliament, comprised of the same ten members in Funkadelic, but positioned as the more soulful and jazzier strain of funk compared to its sister group’s more rock & roll imbued foundations. As Clinton explained to Rolling Stone in 1990:
No psychedelic guitars for Parliament and no horns on Funkadelic. We broke those rules a couple of times, but for the most part, that was the main difference. Funkadelic was the rock & roll band, with guitars dominating, the crazy stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Parliament was going to be as close to structure as we could get. I later used a lot of Funkadelic theory to do Parliament, but it was more structured. There were melodies, real songs, a straightforward message.
Parliament’s cast of musical characters would undergo several changes throughout the ‘70s, but Clinton scored major coups by wooing bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley—all former members of James Brown’s band—to join the P-Funk fold. Already including the gifted keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and the stellar guitar triumvirate of Garry Shider, Michael Hampton, and Glen Goins, Parliament’s revamped personnel oozed expert musicianship of the highest order by the middle of the decade. And in the form of their bugged-out supreme leader, Prime Minister of Intergalactic Funk Clinton, the band boasted one of the most dynamic personas and visionary masterminds in the history of popular music. In other words, Parliament was stacked with talented tunesmiths.
Though Parliament unveiled their debut album Osmium on the Holland-Dozier-Holland founded Invictus Records in the summer of 1970, it was their next few albums released by the Casablanca label that finally garnered widespread attention for the ambitious band. Whereas Osmium has more in common with the crunchy rock-driven funk of Funkadelic early LPs, Clinton and his comrades began to distinguish Parliament’s R&B imbued sound by the time they released their acclaimed sophomore album Up for the Down Stroke (1974) and its follow-up, the Washington DC inspired Chocolate City (1975).
The critical and commercial momentum the group had been cultivating on the strength of these long players finally came to glorious fruition on their breakout fourth album. Released as 1975 drew to its conclusion and the first Parliament LP to feature the contributions of Parker and Wesley, the intensely imaginative Mothership Connection earned media accolades galore and remains the band’s most universally revered and best-selling studio album to date.
A drug-fueled concept album predicated upon the spaced-out P-Funk mythology personified by a group of fictional characters united in their mission to bestow the funk—and nothing but the funk—upon the people of the earth, Mothership Connection is a revelatory, soul-shaking mélange of cosmic funk, soul, rock, jazz, and gospel infused grooves driven by an idiosyncratically leftfield charm. An artifact from the 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still now enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Clinton-piloted mothership featured on the album’s front cover made for an indelible symbol of Parliament’s otherworldly funk and interstellar dispositions.
More than a few scholars and funk enthusiasts contend, however, that the mothership’s metaphorical significance extends much deeper than the playful imagery displayed within the album’s artwork. Some have suggested that Parliament’s celestial aesthetics and lyrics simultaneously reflect an Afrofuturistic perspective of Black Nationalism and an endorsement for cross-racial unity that has eluded us here on Earth. To reference the title of Funkadelic’s most popular album and song, Mothership Connection is indeed replete with the band’s allusions to the realization of a utopian “One Nation Under a Groove” beyond the stars.
The mothership also holds considerable iconographic weight within the Black Muslim community, as Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad was known to refer to it on occasion. In a 1997 issue of Cornerstone magazine, Eric Pement explains that “One of [Fard’s] more exotic stories was about the ‘Mother Plane’ or ‘Mother Ship,’ an aircraft built by black scientists in Japan many thousands of years ago. This aircraft, undetectable by radar, still circled the earth and carried powerful weapons which would be used on white America if she dared to harm the members of the Nation of Islam.”
The in-depth analyses of Mothership Connection’s cultural and spiritual significance are worthwhile reads, for sure. But even Clinton is wary of the over-intellectualization of his band’s music, arguing that “Funk is something that one feels, and everybody has the ability to feel it. The more one thinks about it, the harder it is to get the feel of The Funk. It’s just done.” Regardless of one’s interpretation, it would seem that Clinton and Parliament’s real mission in blessing the world with Mothership Connection—and all of their and Funkadelic’s music, for that matter—was to craft timeless songs that move bodies, stimulate minds, and stroke imaginations.
Comprised of a lean seven tracks with a total running time just shy of forty minutes, Mothership Connection is the epitome of filler-free recording, a cohesive and endlessly rewarding listen. Arguably Parliament’s magnum opus and the greatest single encapsulation of funk ever committed to wax, the album is a masterpiece for the ages that offers you no choice but to surrender your soul to the funk.
Below is a brief track-by-track rundown, including the most notable artists and songs that have sampled the respective tracks, followed by a handful of classic videos and the full Spotify stream for your aural pleasure. Enjoy!
01. “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”
Serving as the band’s grand call-to-action for listeners to “improve your interplanetary funksmanship,” the laid-back, horn-drenched album opener commences the proceedings in magnificently melodic fashion. Clinton convincingly articulates the manifesto of P-Funk through his bugged-out spoken word musings, while the rousing chorus offers an irresistible invitation to lose your inhibitions and “get funked up” as the remedy to whatever your troubles may be.
02. “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”
Arguably the highlight-heavy album’s standout track, the sprawling title track introduces Clinton’s interplanetary alter ego, Star Child, and interpolates the American Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” within the chorus. A vital composition in the history of Black people in America, “Swing Low” was a coded song used to alert the enslaved to prepare for the Underground Railroad (“the chariot”) which would pick them up from the south (“swing low”) to transport them to freedom in the North (“coming for to carry me home”). Parliament’s references to the song in this context allude to the Mothership as the metaphorical chariot that can help the Black populace escape its earthly strife to realize the dream of a better life beyond. Those familiar with Dr. Dre’s Grammy Award-winning 1993 single “Let Me Ride” will be well acquainted with the title track’s smoothed-out, brass-heavy bridge that kicks in at the 2:08 mark.
03. “Unfunky UFO”
Glen Goins, Garry Shider, and Clinton exchange lead vocals across this propulsive track that finds the band confronted with an extraterrestrial force that has arrived on Earth to “save a dying world from its funkless hell.” Founded upon an Independence Day-like premise for the funk generation, the Unfunky UFO threatens to strip the band of its greatest resource, demanding that the band “give up the funk, you punk.”
Most notably sampled by: Ice Cube “Dirty Mack” (1992)
A grand showcase for Bernie Worrell’s synthesizer magic and Bootsy Collins’ throbbing bass licks, this headnod-inducing jam that resides at the album’s midway point positions Parliament as the grand purveyors of the funk, feeding people’s addiction just as their trusted drug pusher would.
Most notably sampled by: Ice Cube “How to Survive in South Central” (1991)
A funkdafied exploration of the extremes that some men feel compelled to explore when the threat of their woman’s infidelity surfaces, Clinton boldly confesses in the song’s final verse that “I don’t care about lookin’ like some kinda chauvinistic whatever / All who call me that can go to hell / If I find that I need some help / Gonna put on my chastity belt.”
Most notably sampled by: Ice Cube “Bop Gun” (1993)
06. “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”
The second single released from the album is a sure-fire party starter with an unforgettable sing-along chorus that repeats throughout the song’s duration. Interpreted in some circles as the band’s attempt to assert their legitimacy in the face of record industry powers-that-be who weren’t completely sold on their viability, this still stands as one of Parliament’s finest moments on record.
Most notably sampled by: Heavy D & The Boyz “More Bounce” (1989) | Snoop Doggy Dogg “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” (1993)
07. “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples”
Primarily an instrumental track with the repeated chant of “I am up / we are high” and nonsensical caveman-like incantation of “Gaga googa ga ga googa / Ga ga goo ga ga”, the album’s closing tune is also its most left-of-center composition.
My Favorite Song: “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”