Happy 40th Anniversary to Funkadelic’s eleventh studio album Uncle Jam Wants You, originally released September 21, 1979.
In the world of hip-hop there have probably been two artists who have been sampled more than any other: The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and Dr Funkenstein himself, George Clinton. As was often the way I got introduced to many of the grooves and melodies of both artists through Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Eric B. & Rakim and countless others, long before I knew the source material.
It was only in my late teens that a friend of mine introduced me to the motherload of funk that was the Parliament-Funkadelic hybrid of George Clinton and his band of merry funkateers.
With Parliament (originally known as The Parliaments) initially the more doo-wop, soul, and funk oriented outing, Funkadelic was more free range, allowed to wander the fields of rock, psychedelica, prog rock, funk and soul making for a more varied, and sometimes less cohesive, collection of songs on their releases dating back to their eponymous debut effort in 1970.
These sonics began to cross-pollinate as Parliament grew in popularity and the era of parallel releases gave birth to the reign of P-Funk. With One Nation Under A Groove (1978), Funkadelic delivered a crossover smash with its mix of dance-pop-funk. And its follow-up Uncle Jam Wants You gave birth to a more electronic influenced reimagining of the funk that would inspire a generation of rappers.
With a mission to “rescue dance music from the blahs,” Uncle Jam Wants You is a heady mix of funk, soul, and rock set against a militant sensibility with drum corps rhythms and call-and-response chants.
Side A kicks off with the smooth groove of “Freak Of the Week,” which details the allure of the seductive moves laid out on the burgeoning disco dancefloors. With soulful undertones and seductive high notes, the track is layered in a multitude of percussion, wah wah guitars, ascending and descending melodies, and the compulsive chants that hook the ear as soon as you hear them. It’s a smooth, wavy ride that carries you along, as it sits back and chills.
As I mentioned before, many of the key grooves of Funkadelic first found me through the sampling efforts of other artists. “(Not Just) Knee Deep” is a perfect example of this, first invading my ears courtesy of De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I.” Even in a short 7-second sample, the synth melody hooked me. “Knee Deep” would pop up countless times again as artists borrowed and stole from its richness, including Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Digital Underground and Bobby Brown.
But the myriad of samples and interpolations fail to do “Knee Deep” the justice it deserves. A true funk opus, “Knee Deep” is the perfect encapsulation of the p-funk sound. With jagging piano riffs countering a slivering bass synth and squeaking synth runs, the track just chugs along with a straight-ahead groove and jabbering talking drum percussion. With a running time of 15-plus minutes, you’d think the track would peter out or bore the listener. But the opposite is true. With each passing bar, you become more entrenched in its funk. Multiple vocal hooks, layered harmonies, and catchphrase call-and-response chants interplay with each other in a way that puts you in a funk trance. At the mid-point, the track ascends to another level with the introduction of a scorching guitar solo that pulls you in deeper. As the song reaches the 15-minute mark, it begins a slow fade out that makes you wonder just how long the original groove kept going in the studio.
Side 2 introduces the concept alluded to in the album’s title with the military inspired snare drum rolls and synth rendering of “Reveille” of “Uncle Jam” as you are invited to “join Uncle Jam’s army if you want to dance.” Conscripted to “groove maneuvers,” Clinton takes on the persona of Uncle Jam, a funk drill sergeant who will get those feet stepping.
Together with the rocking “Field Maneuvers” and the national anthem inspired “Foot Soldier (Star Spangled Funky),” which itself borrows from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the songs carry on with the philosophy of “One Nation Under A Groove,” presenting the idea that funk can set you free from your mental constraints and unite a diverse nation.
The only misstep on the album is “Holly Wants To Go To California,” a drawn-out piano soul ballad that feels misguided against the more upbeat grooves of the album. Interestingly enough Clinton would revisit the character of Holly more convincingly on “Hollywood” from his underrated Hey Man, Smell My Finger project from 1993.
With its nod to Black Panther imagery on the cover, the album set the stage for a more militant and political Funkadelic, but as this album proves, they didn’t give up the funk in the process. With George Clinton currently on a farewell tour filling arenas with funk, it’s time to dust off the cover and fall in to the sounds of Uncle Jam Wants You all over again.