Signifyin(g) in Practice
P-Funk on Record and Onstage
by Benjamin Doleac
If funk is the radical essence that underlies every aspect of the P-Funk universe, Signifyin(g) 1 is the rhetorical strategy Clinton employs to bring that essence forth. The group's recordings, live performances, artwork, iconography and mythology are all rife with instances of Signifyin(g); this rhetorical practice is a central facet of the group's radically hybrid identity. Onstage and on record, P-Funk mediates between disparate discursive realms by Signifyin(g) upon a variety of "borrowed" verbal, musical, and visual texts; in doing so, the group brings these discursive realms together and impregnates each with "the Funk."
Signifyin(g) on RecordI am Sir Nose'd D'VoidoffunkThese words open "Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk," track 2 of Parliament's 1977 album Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, part three in the interplanetary saga of Star Child, commander of the Mothership and paragon of all things funky. Our hero at last has a nemesis. Sir Nose, as his name suggests, is entirely "devoid of funk;" the maker of the "Placebo Syndrome" -- a plague that induces passive mass consumption-- he seeks to rid the universe of the unruly Star Child and his gospel of freedom through funk. Yet Star Child gleefully intrudes with an eerily familiar horn figure that enters immediately after the mention of his name. Drums, synthesizer, bass, guitars and a chanting choir enter successively, and before Sir Nose can finish, the band drowns him out entirely. Our hero has strength in numbers. Entering with a rap at 1:20, Star Child seems utterly unfazed by Sir Nose's threats.
I have always been devoid of funk
I shall continue to be devoid of funk
Star Child, [cue horns] you have only won a battle!
I am the subliminal seducer
I will never dance
I shall return, Star Child!2
Both Star Child and Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk are portrayed on record by George Clinton. While the Star Child persona is represented by Clinton's "natural" speaking voice, the "Sir Nose" voice is distinguished by tape manipulation and a grotesque panoply of studio effects. Rudely interrupting Sir Nose's monologue, the horn figure which signals Star Child's presence is a lift from "Merrily We Roll Along," best known to most Americans as the theme for Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies cartoons. As the track progresses, the horn figure returns at odd intervals amidst verbal allusions to children's nursery rhymes and television advertisements, layers of synthesizers, and still more layers of electronically altered voices. Clinton's recorded oeuvre is rife with such collusions of technology and allusion. The Signifying Monkey tales cited by Gates in his work of the same name turn upon the Monkey's proclivity for stirring up trouble through the use of figurative language. Typically, the Monkey starts a conflict by repeating an insult which supposedly originated from the Elephant to his friend the Lion; offended, the Lion resolves to fight the Elephant, who easily beats him. Eager to deflate the Lion's self-proclaimed status as "King of the Jungle," the Monkey repeatedly tricks Lion into fighting Elephant, the true "King of the Jungle," through virtuosic wordplay. Unable to see through the Monkey's lies or, more importantly, to perceive the difference between literal and figurative language, the Lion is fooled time and time again.3 The Monkey, then, is the prototypical trickster figure: an inveterate mischief-maker who, through rhetorical play, is able to thwart his physical betters. As Ayanna Smith writes, "It is superiority in wit that allows the trickster to gain the upper hand."4
A modern-day trickster, Clinton's Star Child shares the Monkey's propensity for oblique insults, rhetorical indirection and intertextual punning. The following example, from "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk," is typical:Has anybody seen ol' Smell-o-vision?Note that Clinton/Star Child never addresses Sir Nose directly; even though Sir Nose may be well within earshot, Star Child's taunts are (loudly) addressed to a third party. Gates calls this form of rhetorical indirection "loud-talking" and identifies it as a common "mode of Signifyin(g)."6 Star Child also draws attention to his enemy's most prominent physical feature through a remarkable pun that conflates two senses; if "Sir Nose" is so named to recall the perception that white people and self-loathing black "sellouts" talk through their noses, Star Child suggests here that his doubly unfunky nemesis actually sees through his nose as well. Star Child/Clinton also draws an implicit parallel between the ersatz cool of Sir Nose and the crass insincerity of television7 and evokes a recent P-Funk maxim: "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." 8 Finally, Star Child offers his retort to the obstinate Sir Nose's song-opening monologue, promising to make the "sucker" dance. Like the Signifying Monkey rapping to the Lion, Star Child caps off a series of playful insults with a direct threat.
Where is Sir Nose'd?
If y'all see Sir Nose
Tell him Star Child said:
"Ho! Put that snoot to use you mother!
'Cause you will dance, sucker!5"
The comic dialogues, metatextual raps, and discursive lyrical oppositions of Clinton and P-Funk's 1970's albums are matched by equally dialogic music. Led by conservatory-trained keyboardist Bernie Worrell and former James Brown bassist Bootsy Collins, the instrumentalists in the collective fashion a dense backdrop for Clinton's cosmic jive-speak that borrows elements from gospel, jazz, heavy rock, blues, American folk and baroque music. While Parliament's albums are frequently organized around a loose narrative, Funkadelic albums are typically more diffuse, though individual songs often parody particular genres: Funkadelic's "Atmosphere" (1975) undercuts a Bach-derived organ fugue with a barely audible voice delightedly intoning sexual slang, while Parliament's "Mr. Wiggles" (1978) tops an Ellington-style swing blues with Clinton's impersonation of 1950s radio DJ Jocko Henderson and helium-voiced responses from an artificially sped-up chorus of "fool fish."
Examples of verbal quotation, paraphrase and direct allusion are more immediately apparent in the P-Funk oeuvre than instances of musical quotation. While the former are typically supplied by Clinton in one of his various guises, the latter are most often traceable to keyboardist Bernie Worrell. A child piano prodigy and graduate of the New England Conservatory, Worrell pioneered the use of synthesizers in African-American music alongside Stevie Wonder. Whereas Wonder's synth tones often mimicked acoustic instruments however, Worrell explored the capacity of the instrument to channel sounds and voices both earthly and extraterrestrial. In the aforementioned Bach parody "Atmosphere," Worrell's monophonic Moog synthesizer line flutters and dips over and under his own electric organ track, its timbre at once eerily pure and sci-fi freaky. While both the melodic contours and certain aspects of the instrumental tone suggest a flute line, Worrell's synth also strongly recalls the keyboard line from the Ohio Players' 1973 novelty hit "Funky Worm." In its alien purity, the synth signifies both the "white" ideal of technological perfection and the proclivity for rhythmic and timbral eccentricity in "black" funk music (what J. Phillip Rollefson calls "hyperfunk" 9).
In music and in words, P-Funk builds on the work of its Afrofuturist forebears by investing the technological fantasia of science fiction with signs of blackness, establishing a black presence in otherworldly realms where blackness was otherwise conspicuously absent. While the rude eruptions of Worrell's synths and Bootsy's "Space Bass" infuse sci-fi post-humanism with the "funk" of black bodies in motion, Clinton's absurd cosmic narratives and pseudo-scientific jive speech update the "Myth-Science" hybrids of jazz musician Sun Ra.
Clinton's project of reclaiming black spaces both imagined and material -- and refiguring hegemonic concepts of both fantasy and reality in black-specific terms -- was first made explicit on Parliament's 1975 album Chocolate City, just about six months before the P-Funk mythology began to take a definite shape with the Star Child saga on Mothership Connection. The album's title track was a valentine to the growing number of black-majority cities in America which envisioned a slew of black popular icons in the White House and celebrated the power of a black plurality in electoral politics:Hey, uh, we didn't get our forty acres and a muleHere, Clinton inserts the "trace of black difference" by rebranding "D.C." as "C.C.," (an ambiguous abbreviation which could also stand for "Capital City") "First Lady of Soul" Aretha Franklin becomes the First Lady of (black) America (and here Clinton plays upon the popular notion of "soul" as black essence), and, in a paraphrase of a Malcolm X speech ("The Bullet or the Ballot," Cleveland, Ohio, April 3, 1964), the "bullet" of black-on-black crime is replaced by the strength-in-numbers of the "ballot". The album cover, meanwhile, frames the iconic sights of the nation's capital on a chocolate candy coin.
But we did get you, CC, heh, yeah
Gainin' on ya
Movin' in and around ya
God bless CC and its vanilla suburbs
Blood to blood, players to ladies
The last percentage count was eighty
You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot
Are you up for the downstroke, CC?
Chocolate city, are you with me out there? 10
Kathryn McKittrick and Clyde Woods write in Black Geographies and the Politics of Place that "essentialism situates black subjects and their geopolitical concerns as being elsewhere (on the margin, the underside, outside the normal), a spatial practice that conveniently props up the mythical norm and erases or obscures the daily struggles of particular communities." 11 On "Chocolate City" and on the Afro-futurist concept albums that followed it, Clinton transported black subjects and their struggles from the margins to the center, constructing a revisionist political/mythic discourse to replace the old norm. With the lyrics to "Chocolate City," Clinton invokes the modernist ideals of progress and mobility in order to construct a counter-narrative and mount an insurrection on the geographic and psychic space of hegemonic (white) culture and discourse. While social scientists of the postwar era had told a story of divestment and decay following the exodus of whites from America's inner cities, Clinton vaunts black political gains and cultural achievements. "Can't you feel my breath, all up around your neck," raps Clinton, emphasizing the physical presence of blackness that drove whites to the "vanilla suburbs" in the first place.
Behind Clinton's verbal insurrection on "Chocolate City," Parliament launches a musical insurgency, engaging themes of black presence, black plurality, pre-modern "soul" as cultural essence, the progressive ideal of movement as musical and political principle and the postmodern, anti-essentialist fantasia that Kodwo Eshun calls the "futurhythmachine," 12 using guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer, drum machine, horns and a chorus of supporting voices. The instrumental backing starts sparsely with stabs of guitar, bass and piano, building with the sustained notes of horns and strings as Clinton's monologue unfurls. About 45 seconds in, Clinton gives marching orders to the chocolate masses with the exclamation "To the capital!" and the groove kicks into action. A backing choir of voices chants "Gainin' on ya," while Bootsy's bass and Worrell's piano begin to fill in the remaining empty spaces, and the cross-talk of horn and brass instruments is underlain by a clockwork drum-machine rhythm. In short, the musical space becomes more populated and more kinetic at the same time, with several "chocolate" voices giving forth around Clinton's declamations. Bootsy's liquid "space bass," Worrell's soaring string synthesizer and the churning robo-industrial drum machine rhythm all hint at the blurring of alien, posthuman (post-racial?) fantasy and corporeal reality evident in the "Myth-Science" musico-philosophical hybrids of Clinton's spiritual forefather Sun Ra and explored more fully on Parliament's subsequent space-opera concept albums.
Clinton introduced his wrinkle on "Myth-Science" with Parliament's Mothership Connection in 1975, "an outer-space opera centered on the conflict between the Protectors of the Pleasure Principle and the Perpetrators of the Placebo Syndrome." 13 The mad scientist Dr. Funkenstein and the interplanetary dance-floor missionary Star Child represent the former; Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, introduced in the song that bears his name, embodies the latter. Crucially, the three central characters -- each a distinct manifestation of the Myth-Science hybrid -- are portrayed by Clinton himself. Like Esu-Elegbara and all other trickster figures, Clinton "escapes pigeonholing" and succeeds as a mediator by multiplying his subjectivity14. The protagonist of Clinton's space opera, Star Child, is introduced in the guise of a radio DJ -- a technologically mediated presence who soon emerges as the master of his own multiple mediums. Star Child is a literal mediator between worlds, an extraterrestrial Christ figure (the savior of humanity, an "Endangered Species" according to one song title) whose Mothership touches down on Earth to "reclaim the pyramids" and carry the "Citizens of the Universe" to space. Where Star Child is a hybrid of Judeo-Egyptian mythology and science fiction, his Mothership is a loan from black Muslim theology (see Elijah Muhammad, "The Mother Plane"), which held that "a select group of black people are in fact superhuman and will be saved from Earth by a ‘mothership' as the white race perishes in flames." 15 Rollefson suggests that Dr. Funkenstein, who brings to life an army of clones, is a composite of Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein and the Nation of Islam's evil Yacub: a literal hybrid of black-nationalist and European post-Enlightenment fictions 16. Dr. Funkenstein is P-Funk's creator figure, the God to Star Child's Christ, a keeper of the Funk mythos who multiplies his own subjectivity with the aid of science17.
P-Funk's mastery and inversion of both rationalist and nationalist discourses, techno-utopianism and racialized naturalism, myth and science is borne out through their music. Gilroy writes in The Black Atlantic that African-American musicians have been dogged by disputes over racial "authenticity" since the heyday of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late nineteenth century18. In the popular discourse, racial authenticity is embodied by the word "soul"; referring to a musical genre and an implicitly black cultural essence, the word encompasses those reified constructs of racialized authenticity and naturalism that characterize the black nationalist and white imperialist positions alike. In P-Funk's music, it is the rhythm section -- bass, drums and rhythm guitar -- which typically provides a quorum of musical "soul," establishing and maintaining a heavily syncopated 4/4 groove with a pointed emphasis on the first downbeat (in the manner of James Brown). Representing the techno-utopian paradigm of the anti-essentialists, Worrell's synthesizers and various electronic audio effects evoke the cyborg fantasia of science fiction (alongside its musical corollary in sci-fi film soundtracks and Anglo-American "progressive" rock). Yet on close inspection, the divide between the two positions is illusory. Bootsy's bass guitar is patched through numerous effects pedals which alter the sound so radically that it effectively becomes a new instrument (the credits of Collins' solo albums referred to it as "Space Bass"). Worrell's synth tones seem almost an affront to the organic "soul" ideal, but the syncopations, ornaments and stylistic flourishes of his playing evoke jazz and gospel as much as classical and film music. Every instrument, every new piece of technology, every musical genre and every borrowed musical or literary text carries with it a set of historical and cultural associations, and it is through the interplay of these associations that P-Funk produces new, frequently ambiguous meanings. By way of musical and lyrical quotation, technological mediation, revision and recontextualization, Clinton and his cohorts create a music of "unashamedly hybrid character… [that] confounds any simplistic (essentialist or anti-essentialist) understanding of the relationship between racial identity and racial non-identity, between folk cultural authenticity and pop cultural betrayal." 19 It is the group's use of musical quotation that I wish to address presently.
Musical quotation is hardly novel to P-Funk or to the musical traditions of the African diaspora. The practices of quotation and revision-as-commentary have an established history in Western art music: Agawu writes in Music as Discourse that "In the nineteenth century, the common practice of paraphrasing existing works suggested transformative rendition (saying something differently), such as is evident in Liszt's or Paganini's paraphrases of music by Beethoven and Schubert. 20 Quotation-and-revision is simply one rhetorical tool in a Western canon that prizes individual compositional genius above all else, however; quotation-repetition-and-revision (hyphenated because it constitutes a single discursive act), by contrast, is the formative gesture of African-American expressive culture. For P-Funk's Worrell, who has a foot in both Western classical and African-American vernacular musical traditions, quotation is a spontaneous gesture that is often driven by a desire to de-center the canon:Being trained classically and with the strict -- I can't take too much of that, I gotta lighten it up, and that's why I like to interject something serious, and then all of a sudden left-turn... because I was turned off back in the days when I was training and whatnot, the way they would put classical music on a pedestal, like "this is the highest form." That's bullshit. Everything is equal... so I did it on purpose just to say, "Yeah, right, now check this out." 21Musicologist Christopher Ballantine writes that musical quotation works on three different levels of identification and signification for the critical listener. The first is chiefly concerned with formal musical relationships in a work and does not encompass extra-musical or socially understood meanings; the second level includes musical gestures that listeners may understand to convey a specific meaning. The third level is described by Kevin Holm-Hudson as "a knowledge…that the meaning [of the piece] is constructed not only by its individual melodic or stylistic references, but by a new, cumulative meaning constructed from the interaction of those references." 22 While Ballantine was writing specifically about Charles Ives, his analytical schema might be applied to any instance of musical quotation.
On Parliament's "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk," individual musical and lyrical references are explicit (i.e., they are meant to be recognized by the listener) and often pointedly disjunctive, providing a level of narrative commentary but remaining as textual fragments. In fact, the relatively unharmonious juxtaposition of borrowed texts -- the nursery rhymes "Three Blind Mice" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and the composition "Merrily We Roll Along" -- serves first to emphasize the received social and cultural meanings of each. Only upon repeated listens do the group's textual alterations become fully apparent. With each alteration -- each "repetition with a difference" -- Clinton signifies, producing new meanings from old texts. The lyrics of "Three Blind Mice" are quoted almost verbatim, though they are sung to a different melody and a markedly syncopated rhythm. "Baa Baa Black Sheep," chanted rather than sung, is perverted through a drug reference ("Baa baa black sheep have you any wool?/Yes sir, yes sir, a nickel bag full" 23). The group's usage of "Merrily We Roll Along," the theme of the Warner Brothers cartoon series Merrie Melodies, is perhaps subtler.
Clinton doesn't so much upend the "Looney Tunes" theme as adapt it to his own uses; the meaning of the original theme is not subverted but is instead compounded and expanded upon through its employment in a new context. The opening melody line of "Merrily We Roll Along" is redeployed throughout "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" in snippets, entering at unexpected times and often clashing tonally with the rest of the track. The rhythm of the theme itself is unchanged, but through each iteration it is subtly reharmonized, at times pointedly discordant and at other times, relatively harmonious both internally and in relation to the other instruments. The theme is never fully assimilated to the surrounding tonal and rhythmic material; it is always somehow at odds with the basic groove. The theme first appears immediately after the unaccompanied Sir Nose first mentions Star Child, thereby operating as an aural sign for the latter character; it is also the first tonal material introduced in the song. Consisting of a trumpet , a saxophone and a trombone, the horn section enters and exits with the first few notes of the theme in under two seconds (from approximately 0:18 to 0:20), following with a three-note fillip. All three instruments play variations of the melody at dissonant intervals from each other.
The near-simultaneous entry of drums and the horn theme acts as a sharp, wicked retort to Sir Nose's preceding declaration: "I will never dance!" Together, the steady, "on-the-one" drum pulse and the frantic horn figure encapsulate the song's meld of groove and cacophony; the irritatingly sharp trombone provides an unruly edge to Star Child's already impolitic interruption. With the eighth-note pulse of the high hat in place Sir Nose's cries spiral upward in pitch (more studio trickery) and downward in volume (ditto) while Worrell teases atonal squelches from a Moog synthesizer. Sir Nose continues to protest that he will never dance, but his cries grow weaker as bass and guitar enter with the main groove at the 55 second mark.
Above this groove, which will underlie every subsequent iteration of the "Looney Tunes" theme, a choir chants: "Syndrome, twiddly dee dum. Humdrum, don't succumb." Music and words serve as another firm rebuke to the weakening Sir Nose, whose unfunky placebo is no match for the insistent rhythmic force of Star Child and the clones of Dr. Funkenstein. The groove which is established at 0:55 (and fleshed out with the entrance of piano and the full backbeat at 1:17) -- what I will call Groove 1-- is characterized by the "more or less swung sixteenth notes" which funk scholar Anne Danielsen writes "are almost always present in a funk groove." 24 The "One" – the heavy downbeat -- which Clinton invests with near-mythic significance (cf. such song titles as "Everything is On the One") is conspicuously absent from the bass-and-guitar riff itself. Here, the "One" is instead provided by a cymbal crash of the drums – otherwise playing a slowed-down variation of the standard disco rhythm (bass drum on beats 1 and 3; snare on beats 2 and 4; high hat on straight eighths, dropping the "on" beats on some measures) -- on every other downbeat. As on many other P-Funk songs, time almost seems to stop just before each iteration of the One; here, however, the first two notes of Groove 1 fill in the space just before the One, threatening the absolute dominance of the downbeat.
Over Groove 1 (with bass, guitar, drums, piano and Worrell's synthesizer ornamentations), Star Child and a choir begin to sketch out a context for the Looney Tunes quote. Between 1:46 and 2:10, the choir sings the familiar children's song "Three Blind Mice" to a new tune while Star Child offers playful commentary (with Star Child's comments in parentheses):Three blind mice (let me put on my sunglasses)"I love those meeces to pieces," Star Child/Clinton finally says of the titular mice, repeating and revising a catchphrase from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks. Unlike cartoon cat Mr. Jinks, who would say, "I hate those meeces to pieces," inveterate mischief-maker Star Child identifies with the mice of the cartoon (and those of the song). Like the Signifying Monkey, both Star Child and the mice delight in stirring up trouble and outwitting their oppressors. Explicitly referencing and implicitly identifying with cartoon characters that would likely have been familiar to P-Funk's late-1970's audiences, Clinton makes plain the purpose of the Merrie Melodies lift: Bugs Bunny (himself an update of 19th century trickster Bre'r Rabbit), Tweety Bird, Pixie and Dixie and other cartoon characters all thwart their antagonists through wit rather than brute force, making fools of their oppressors in the process. The cartoon theme, then, is a symbol of modern-day tricksterism, the aural signature of a hero who sows creative chaos behind the backs of his joyless oppressors.
See how they run (so I can see what they ain't lookin' at)
They all ran after the farmer's wife
Turned on the fun with the water pipe
Have you ever seen such a sight in your life? (ho!)
Those three blind mice (yeah)
Those blind three mice25
With a few small interpretive leaps and the appropriate store of pop-culture knowledge, anyone parsing the lyrics of "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" might find the same parallels I have suggested. While the signification of each musical and lyrical quotation depends on an awareness of its original context, Star Child/George Clinton offers interpretive clues -- and additional layers of allusion -- through his own spoken asides. Agawu writes in Music as Discourse that "music cannot interpret itself;" only through an external verbal supplement can its meaning or "truth content" be divined26. On Parliament and Funkadelic's recordings, narrator Clinton provides that supplement. Like the sacred texts of the Yoruba, P-Funk songs contain their own "discursive metalanguage." Star Child's interpretations (like Esu-Elegbara's) are presented as riddles, leaving additional interpretive work to the listener. The significance of the Merrie Melodies lift on "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" emerges only through layers of textual signification and allusion. In my next example, both the received and revised meanings of the quoted musical material (the military bugle call "Reveille") are apparent even on first listen. The title, lyrics and music of Funkadelic's 1979 song "Uncle Jam" comprise an extended riff on U.S. military iconography and rhetoric. "Uncle Jam" is the centerpiece of the album Uncle Jam Wants You (a subversion of U.S. army icon Uncle Sam, under whose picture it reads "I Want You for the U.S. Army"). The cover photograph, which depicts Clinton seated in a wicker chair, flashing a peace sign with a smiley-faced nuclear warhead next to him and the P-Funk "One Nation Under a Groove" flag draped behind him, parodies a famous portrait (Fig. 5-4) of Black Panther party founder Huey P. Newton. 27 Clinton signifies here by reclaiming items of military recruitment and Black Power propaganda and remaking them in his own hybridized image. On the Uncle Jam cover (Fig. 5-5), Newton's spear and rifle, both weapons of war and/or violent resistance, are replaced by the peaceful tools of dance-floor revolution: on one side, "the Bomb" of uncut funk and on the other, the Bop Gun.
Figure 5-4: "Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense" (unknown artist, 1968). Figure 5-5: Cover photograph, Uncle Jam Wants You (Warner Bros., 1979).
"Uncle Jam," the song, refigures the same act of reclamation and revision in musical terms, opening with a four-note quotation from the military bugle call "Reveille." Instead of a bugle, the instrument playing "Reveille" here is a synthesizer, its pitch quavering rather than steady. As with the Merrie Melodies theme in "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk," the "Reveille" quote in "Uncle Jam" is framed by an unlikely musical context and is seemingly at odds with the underlying rhythm. "Reveille" is written in 2/4 march time, with emphasis on the first beat of each bar; while "Uncle Jam" begins with the drummer playing an apparent march beat, the rhythmic pulse is thrown off by a gliding bass line which alternately emphasizes the downbeat and the upbeat. The synthesizer subsides and when the theme is reintroduced by a guitar at 0:22, the drums clearly emphasize beats two and four of a 4/4 bar – the "backbeat" of most rock and soul music. To further complicate matters, the bass line returns at 0:32 with a strong emphasis on the downbeat of each bar.
Having different instruments emphasize different parts of the beat is quite common in funk and other African-American derived forms of popular music, with each instrumental line defined by its relationship to the underlying pulse. The melody line and implied rhythmic pulse of "Reveille" is familiar to most us before we even hear "Uncle Jam," however, so its juxtaposition with a shifting and ultimately opposing pulse is vaguely disorienting. Through rhythmic displacement and timbral alteration (in the substitution of an electronic synthesizer for the usual bugle), the military bugle call which symbolizes order and obedience is made to represent its funked-up flipside -- just as Uncle Jam is the pointedly black-identified obverse of Uncle Sam.
Like Star Child and the Signifying Monkey, Uncle Jam is a merry prankster who frequently and intentionally flirts with chaos. He resists the oppressive order of belligerent American patriotism just as surely as he evades the grip of militant Afrocentricism. His only mission is to "Rescue dance music from the blahs." 28 Troping on popular associations of dancing with "work" and "funk" with the foul body odor that hard work produces, Clinton disarms the drill sergeant archetype by turning him into a dance instructor: "All right you mugs, this is Uncle Jam's Army, see? And we're on groove maneuvers, see? And I don't wanna see nobody sweatin' ‘til I tell ya!" 29 One might argue that, in both the Signifyin(g) tradition and the Afrofuturist paradigm of the P-Funk universe, meaning is in fact fixed; listeners and audiences know what Esu-Elegbara and Uncle Jam stand for, and their discursive practices depend upon the ability of the audience to connect the signifier with specific signifieds. Yet in neither discourse is meaning fixed in a way that is commensurate with European reason. Both the Signifying Monkey and the Afrofuturists are explicitly opposed to the rigid binarism that characterizes the essentialist and deconstructionist perspectives alike. For Derrida, each signifier is defined in relation to its opposite; in the semantic universe of Esu-Elegbara, each signifier contains both a signified and its opposite simultaneously. According to Tony Bolden, a signal characteristic of black American expressive culture is its aversion to binary oppositions: "An essential characteristic of [African-American] stylization is the capacity to resolve antinomies and resist simplistic either/or logic." 30 This tendency -- basically an expression of the same ethos Gilroy labels "anti-anti-essentialism" -- Bolden finds particularly prominent in funk music:[The] proclivity for fusing oppositions seems to be a fundamental quality of the funk, enhancing its capacity to refract as it reshapes and reformulates, transposing ideas so that blacks can effectively utilize them for their "own use." Thus Clinton riffs on "psychedelic" to create "funkadelic," and fuses "funk" with "intellect" and "technology" to create "funkintelechy." (sic) 31While Clinton's lexical inventions have a contorted but fluid rhythm of their own, P-Funk's music is generally messier and harder to parse: overstuffed, pointedly eccentric and often radically poly-textual, it foregrounds verbal and musical oppositions rather than subsuming them. Joyfully evading full comprehension, it is a disruption of reified musical and cultural notions of "soul" just as surely as it is a confirmation of the playfully oppositional tropes embedded within the black vernacular. Chief among these tropes, of course, is Signifyin(g), a form of rhetorical play which serves as the sustaining principle of the P-Funk universe. By playing with meaning, P-Funk produces an endless supplying of new meanings. Clinton laid out the P-Funk program of reproduction through play on the opening track on Funkadelic's 1970 debut album, previously quoted at the outset of this thesis:Loan me your funky mind, and I shall play with it- George Clinton, from "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?"
For nothing is good, unless you play with it
And all that is good is nasty!
Fly on, baby. 32
1. The practice of appropriating a sign, icon or trope with an already-established meaning and investing it with a different and often opposed meaning to produce a sign that retains both its original and revised meanings is one example of what Henry Louis Gates calls "Signifyin(g)." In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), Gates writes that "the process of semantic appropriation" which occurs in black Signifyin(g) "has been aptly described by Mikhail Bakhtin as a double-voiced word, that is, a word or utterance… decolonized for the black's purposes ‘by inserting a new semantic orientation into a word which already has – and retains – its own orientation.'" [i] By coining a new variation on an established term (of European origin) to describe the practice, Gates himself Signifies; by capitalizing the first letter and bracketing the letter g, Gates is able to represent both the "white" term and the "black" variation (spoken by black people as "signifyin'") simultaneously. The absent g, Gates writes, "stands as the trace of black difference" (The Signifying Monkey, 46).
2. Parliament, "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M)," Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, 1977, Casablanca Records 824 501-2.
3. Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 55-56.
4. Ayanna Smith, "Blues, Criticism, and the Signifying Trickster," Popular Music 24, No. 2 (2005), 179-191.
5. Parliament, "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M)."
6. Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 82.
7. Mark Willhardt and Joel Stein, "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication: George Clinton Signifies," in Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics, ed. Kevin J. Dettmar and William Richey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 145-172.
8. Bootsy's Rubber Band, "The Pinocchio Theory," Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby, 1977, Warner Bros. BS 2972.
9. J. Phillip Rollefson, "The ‘Robot Voodoo Power' Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith," Black Music Research Journal 28, No. 1 (Spring 2008), 83-109.
10. Parliament, "Chocolate City," Chocolate City, 1975, Casablanca Records 836-700-2.
11. Kathryn McKittrick and Clyde Woods, "No One Knows the Mysteries at the Bottom of the Ocean," in Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, McKittrick and Woods, eds. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2007).
12. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet Books, 1998), ii.
13. Willhardt and Stein, "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication," 147.
14. Willhardt and Stein, "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication," 150.
15. Rollefson, "The ‘Robot Voodoo Power' Thesis," 98.
16. Rollefson, "The ‘Robot Voodoo Power' Thesis," 97.
17. Willhardt and Stein, "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication," 152.
18. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (New York: Verso, 1994), 92.
19. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 99.
20. Kofi Agawu, Music as Discourse: Semiotic Adventures in Romantic Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 17.
21. Bernie Worrell (P-Funk keyboardist), telephone interview with author, July 23, 2010.
22. Kevin Holm Hudson, "Quotation and Context: Sampling and John Oswald's Plunderphonics," Leonardo Music Journal 7 (1997), 17-25.
23. Parliament, "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M)."
24. Anne Danielsen, Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), 134.
25. Parliament, "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M)."
26. Agawu, Music as Discourse, 28-29.
27. Richard Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 100.
28. Album cover text from Funkadelic, Uncle Jam Wants You, 1979, Warner Bros. BSK 3371.
29. Funkadelic, "Uncle Jam," from Uncle Jam Wants You.
30. Tony Bolden, "Theorizing the Funk: An Introduction," in The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture, ed. Bolden (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 13-29.
31. Bolden, "Theorizing the Funk," 18.
32. Funkadelic, "What is Soul?" Funkadelic, 1970, Westbound W-2000.
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