I remember seeing George Clinton on David Letterman’s NBC show when I was younger, and I was not sure what to make of him. I knew he was supposed to be cool. He had an interesting look. I did not know any of his songs, well, nothing with P-Funk, anyway. I knew The Parliaments’ “(I Wanna) Testify,” but I didn’t know George had anything to do with that.
Chocolate City is not the first Parliament/Funkadelic/whatever album I bought, but it’s my favorite. Until I started writing my thesis about rock and roll and race relations a few years ago I had only listened to it maybe once. And though it was released in 1975 and was beyond the time frame my thesis covered (1952-1966) it did give me a good perspective on how music and race collided in the years following the black militancy of the late 60s. As funny as a lot of these songs are, there are some great messages and ideas on this album, starting with its title track.
The term “Chocolate City” in this context refers specifically to Washington, D.C., which was the first major city to have a black majority. Back in the day it was the spot to be if you were black and looking for a good job, great school, affordable housing, and a hip music scene. D.C. was the first place to recognize the genius of Funkadelic.
But Parliament gives shout-outs to Chocolate Cities Newark and Gary, too, and let us know that they were working on Atlanta. L.A. and New York, they are told, may have been recently chocolatized as well.
Gainin’ on ya, get down
Gainin’ on ya, movin’ in on ya
Gainin’ on ya, can’t you feel my breath, heh
Gainin’ on ya, all up around your neck, heh heh
Look out, white folks! They comin’ ta getcha! I love this kind of shit. And they did not receive their promised 40 acres and a mule, so the Chocolate City will have to do for now.
Gainin’ on ya, movin’ in and around ya
God bless CC and its vanilla suburbs
A lot of what I wrote in my thesis was about perceptions of race, and how rock and roll—music created by black people—influenced young white people’s ideas about race. My favorite story from one of my interviewees is from my friend’s dad who grew up on the at-the-time all-white white east side of Cleveland.
When black families started moving closer to the all-white area, he remembers, “for sale” signs cropped up on every white family’s house. He and his friends collected the signs because they did not want their parents to move for fear of breaking up their friendships. “So our thought was, get rid of all of these signs,” he says. “But that didn’t work.” The neighborhood was eventually integrated, and his family was one of the last to leave. He understood that his parents’ reasons for wanting to leave the neighborhood were racially motivated. The actions of him and his friends were based on their desire to maintain their circle of friends, however, and not on any ideas about living in an integrated neighborhood.
The racial balance was shifting in many northern cities after World War II, and it was making a lot of white people uncomfortable. “Chocolate City” is a celebration not just of the fact that whitey was running farther away from the city because of the big scary Negro—well, okay, maybe it is a way to have a good laugh at silly white folks who felt that they should always be the majority. I laugh when I listen to it, but I also cheer for the black people who were brave enough to move their families into tense and often dangerous situations in these neighborhoods where so many people were trying to keep them out.
Some stuff in this song is more interesting now that we have a black dude in the White House.
They still call it the White House
But that’s a temporary condition, too, can you dig it, CC?
I know that’s right! And I do indeed dig the following lines:
And when they come to march on ya
Tell ’em to make sure they got their James Brown pass
And don’t be surprised if Ali is in the White House
Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure
Richard Pryor, Minister of Education
Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts
And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady
Hell. Yes. If only President Obama’s cabinet were so funky!
Speaking of funky, “Ride On” is a funky masterpiece! It’s exactly what you want when you need to get your shit together.
It ain’t what you know, it’s what you feel
Don’t worry about bein’ right, just be for real
Those are wise words. Don’t be a fake-ass bitch; just be yourself and all will be well. I am considering getting these words tattooed on me.
The rest of this album is equally funk-filled and ferocious. “What Comes Funky” and “Big Footin’” are two of my favorites of these amazing tracks. “Let Me Be” is a little weird but good, and “I Misjudged You” is what Parliament would sound like if they had a baby with The Chi-Lites. The CD I have contains an unreleased song called “Common Law Wife,” and I just cannot say enough about it. That’s my jam! “Parliament Does Curtis Mayfield” is the best way to describe it. It’s about a woman who is happy being in a common law marriage with her man, despite what all the catty girls with the gold bands on have to say about it.
Go on girls, flaunt your synthetic securities
My lady said, that’s the way it’s gonna be
She said if common law is good enough for her man
Common law is the way it’s gonna be
She’s my common law wife, and she’s proud of it
She said if her man likes it, don’t you know she loves it…
I put this album right next to Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand! when it comes to records that are significant in both musical and social terms. I was originally going to use Stand! in my thesis, but it came out in 1969, and I ended my paper in 1966. I would like to pursue another avenue of research that includes these two albums, because they really do represent a new style and attitude in black music. All that shit started with James Brown singing about being black and proud. George Clinton adds a delicious sense of humor and multi-colored weave to what Brother James began.