On more than three dozen virtuosic, genre-blurring studio albums released from 1970 to 1982, George Clinton and the members of his rollicking Parliament-Funkadelic collective shaped the backbone and shook loose the booty of modern groove. Formed by singers in the orbit of a New Jersey barbershop in 1955, the group started as a Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-style doo-wop act before leaning into Detroit soul. Ultimately they absorbed the culture of the late ’60s like sponges.
The Parliaments transformed from a Motown-aspiring, matching-tie-and-handkerchief vocal group into tripped-out hippies in bell bottoms, headdresses and the occasional American flag diaper. They were turned on by psychedelic rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Cream; they hung out with punks like the MC5 and the Stooges; they enjoyed Black Power, free love and underground comics. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” they famously sang. “The kingdom of heaven is within.”
However, Funkadelic’s third album, “Maggot Brain,” wasn’t a Technicolor romp. It was the sound of the Woodstock dream deferred. The band emerged screaming from the shadows cast by Vietnam, the racial uprisings in their old home of New Jersey and their new home in Detroit, a heroin epidemic, poverty, Kent State and the death of Hendrix himself, whose passing was rife with symbolism.
The album arrived 50 years ago, in July 1971, during a summer bookended by the release of two other ambitious masterworks of protest-soul: the introspective reportage of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and the brooding disillusionment of Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” But “Maggot Brain” exists in a different astral plane. It is unleashed id refracted through the lens of LSD: 36 minutes of swirling jams, apocalyptic sound effects, heavy metal riffs, hard funk and lyrical mash-ups of the Beatles and Martin Luther King Jr. The album art is provocative — a screaming Black woman outside the gatefold, and inside, text from the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the religious group rumored to have ties to Charles Manson.
The work that Clinton and his band released in the next decade would transform the base of modern hip-hop: You couldn’t turn on a radio in the ’90s without hearing a slow-rolling rap song built on a P-Funk sample. But “Maggot Brain” holds a unique place of influence among rock bands, R&B songwriters and jazz artists thanks to its Blacker-than-Sabbath atmospheres and transcendent soloing. In 2021, its legacy is felt even stronger, in the ever-evolving protest music of artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, Solange and Brittany Howard.
Here’s an audio guide to the album’s seven songs, plus what came before, and what came after.
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Read More: Before & After Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’