Back in high school my English teacher told me about a guy named Aristotle, who divided literature into two categories: comedy and tragedy. Maybe I misunderstood what he was talking about, because I have a very hard time finding the tipping point. Look at Comic Slop by Funkadelic, if you can classify that album you’re thinking too hard and not listening closely enough.
Funkadelic, the sister group of Parliament, was born from the backing band for George Clinton’s Doo-Wop group, The Parliaments. Clinton had a knack for finding the most interesting and bizarre musicians, and a reputation for losing them as quickly as he found them. But in 1973, when Cosmic Slop was released, the line-up was impeccable. The chemistry between “Tiki” Fulwood’s drums and “Boogie” Mosson’s bass is undeniable. At their worst they’re tighter than most other rhythm sections, and when they gel, they’re a force to be reckoned with. The straight man of the group was Bernie Worrel, whose arrangements kept Funkadelic’s otherworldly sounds grounded in reality. The combination makes it hard to decide whether to dance or genuflect.
Cosmic Slop is ahead of its time in the subject matter it covers. Since the advent of hip hop, visceral descriptions of ghetto living are commonplace, but in 1973 most songs used a much lighter touch when describing poverty. Funkadelic goes against this grain in the title track, where a mother asks god for forgiveness for having to prostitute herself to feed her children. It comes from the perspective of her son, who hears her “calling out to god” when she brings her johns home. It’s the kind of song that really cuts deep, it doesn’t offer any advice, it just makes it clear that there is a problem. What’s confusing about the song is the funky, uptempo pace. It’s talking about a tragic situation, but still compelling you to tap your foot and shake your ass.
The same goes for “Trash A-Go-Go”, another song about prostitution, this one from the perspective of a pimp, who is standing before his conscience anthropomorphized in the form of a judge and jury. Their verdict?
They say exploiting your lady,
Just for a payday is a sin,
And you will pay,
But when getting over is high above your head,
And getting high can get you dead,
What are you supposed to do?
It’s another song that doesn’t have a solution. The situation is so fucked up, that it’s hard to blame anyone for their trespasses. The beat this time is more militant, almost a death march, heavy eighth notes on the bass drum and an unrelenting snare make dancing feel less like a choice and more like the only option.
It’s desperation at its most desperate, but it’s also a good time, an unavoidable groove. This is why I have a hard time finding the line that Aristotle drew. The sadness and despair is the problem and the way out is provided, in the grooves of the record. People can’t suffer exclusively, the tragedy forces the comedy.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org