1975: "Let's Take It to the Stage" by Funkadelic"

50 Years of Hip-Hop
Hosted by Larry Mizell, Jr.

Larry Mizell Jr. revisits 1975 with the track “Let’s Take It to the Stage” by Funkadelic, which featured rap before “Rapper’s Delight.” He'll also give a lesson in etymology that you won’t soon forget.


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Larry Mizell Jr. revisits 1975 with the track “Let’s Take It to the Stage” by Funkadelic, which featured rap before “Rapper’s Delight.” He'll also give a lesson in etymology that you won’t soon forget.

Written by Larry Mizell Jr.

Audio production by Roddy Nikpour.

Transcription below.

If we generally agree that the artform and culture called hiphop started a half-century ago in 1973, and we know that “the first rap record”, “Rapper’s Delight”, came out in 1980, that means that there are seven whole years there in which there are no actual rap records out yet. Right? Well, what you call this?

Everybody funking and don't know how
They shoulda seen the bull when he funked the cow
He funked her so hard they saw some smoke
He said, let's get in the bed and funk like folks
Laughin' at ya (ha!)

See, I call that George Clinton talking some cash shit, right there on the title track to Funkadelic’s seventh (and arguably best) album Let’s Take it to the Stage. He’s unquestionably rapping—check Billboard if you like, who themselves made mention of the album’s ”street raps” at the time. So yes, it’s rap, and yes, it’s a diss track—one of the best, and probably one of the very earliest on wax. I don’t know if “Ether” or “No Vaseline” could’ve been more effective if they’d thrown in some animal imagery or limericks—but it sure worked for the Funk Mob. 

Accompanied by a sticky-icky Garry Shider riff and a technicolor keyboard workout from Bernie Worrell, George takes potshots at a bunch of P-Funk’s contemporaries and competition of the time—“Fool in the Gang”, “Slick & the Family Prick”, and “Earth, Hot Air and No Fire”, just to name a few. This was their bid for the throne, the seat, the very kingdom of the funk.

Funkadelic certainly didn’t coin the term, but had appointed themselves defenders of the realm. While building an army of incredible era-defining superstar musicians, they had arguably done a whole lot to popularize the notion, and managed to exemplify and modernize the aesthetic better than just about anybody, perhaps even the Great One himself, James Brown. By 1975, the Godfather of Soul had entered his dreaded “mustache years”, the beginning of the end of his unquestioned relevance. Conversely, George and the Funk Mob were building a nation, climbing to the height of their powers and feeling themselves—bold enough to talk smack to the man who had minted funk’s transformative power in the first place. “Godfather? Godmother. Grandfather,” they taunted. Cold piece, especially considering that it was James (via Bootsy Collins, formerly of the J.B.’s) who’d transmitted to P-Funk the fundamental organizing concept of “The One”. Every bit as fundamental, as sacred, as the Force is to the Jedi, is The One to the Funk. 

And what is the funk, exactly? Seeing as this early rap track is practicing some serious gatekeeping, what is this concept that they, and we, hold so dear? Well, for starters… Funk used to be a bad word. 

I’m sure at some point there were some prudes, and possibly disc jockeys,  who did in fact mistake the term for another word most profane, which sounds similar enough that it’s been a winking lyrical device for decades. We’ll come back to this.

However, taking it back, the Middle English word funke means simply, “to spark”. Appropriately enough, in the original Latin, fumigare means “to smoke” (an association George wouldn’t mind), just as it does the old French word derived from it, fungier; “to give off smoke, to fill with smoke”, as in the preparation of smoked foods, particularly fromage, that funkiest of foodstuffs à la française. 

Seeing as how regular bathing had fallen out of favor in France and England from about the 16th to 18th centuries—as it was thought at the time that bathing “softens the body and distends the pores, making it easier for harmful miasma to enter the body”, to quote French royal surgeon Ambroise Paré—well, it’s unsurprising that in the 17th century, the English word funk came to mean an unpleasant or even revolting smell.

Now look. Hopefully we’re all adults here. Since we’re talking about a P-Funk song, we’re gonna have to mix the profound with the profound—or, really, divine.

See, I first read it in a brilliant 2010 book called Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá—that the word  “funky is derived from the Ki-Kongo (word) lu-fuki, meaning “positive sweat”, of the sort you get from dancing or having sex.”

The person they got that understanding from was the famed Yale University African art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who in his 1984 book, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, said this: 

“Kongo presence unexpectedly emerges in the Americas in many places and in many ways. Take, for example, vernacular English and singing. In the South of the United States, important Ki-Kongo words and concepts influenced black English, especially the lexicons of jazz and the blues, as well as of lovemaking and herbalism. The word "jazz" is probably creolized Ki-Kongo: it is similar in sound and original meaning to”...well, the American vernacular for semen. And (that word)... appears to derive from the Ki-Kongo verb dinza, "to discharge one's semen." Dinza was creolized in New Orleans and elsewhere in black United States into”...well, some other j-words you’ve probably heard before. See? Jazz used to be a bad word too.

George was probably trying to tell us all this when he dropped this verse in a live version of “Let's Take it to the Stage”, with a limerick that characteristically blends the cosmic with the puerile:

There once was a man from Peru
Who went to sleep in his canoe
He was dreaming of Venus, he took out his penis
And woke up with a hand full of goo

Rock and roll is no different. Ryan and Jetha tell us that “cultural historian Michael Ventura, investigating the roots of African-American music, found that rock 'n' roll was a term that ori
ginated in the juke joints of the South. Long in use by the time Elvis appeared, Ventura explains the phrase "hadn't meant the name of a music, it meant (have sex).. 'Rock, by itself, had pretty much meant that, in those circles, since the twenties at least." By the mid-1950s, when the phrase was becoming widely used in mainstream culture, Ventura says the disc jockeys "either didn't know what they were saying or were too sly to admit what they knew."

But back to Mr. Farris Thompson: “The slang term "funky" in black communities originally referred to strong body odor, and not to "funk," meaning fear or panic. The black nuance seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, "bad body odor," and is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, "aroma of food and wine," in French Louisiana. But the Ki-Kongo word is closer to the jazz word "funky" in form and meaning, as both jazzmen and Bakongo use "funky" and lu-fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art, for having "worked out" to achieve their aims.

“In Kongo today it is possible to hear an elder lauded in this way: 'like, there is a really funky person!--my soul advances toward him to receive his blessing. Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a leading native authority on Kongo culture, explains: 'Someone who is very old, I go sit with him, in order to feel his lu-fuki, meaning, I would like to be blessed by him.' For in Kongo the smell of a hardworking elder carries luck. This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the positive energy of a person. Hence, 'funk' in black American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals."

That word funk, as thrown about by African-American jazz players since the earliest days of the 20th century, did not only describe the thick body-smell of a particularly banging dance night at New Orleans’ Union Sons Hall (aka Funky Butt Hall)—their exhortations at each other to “put some stank on it”, to “funk it up”, was a challenge, a call to improvisational excellence. In other words; take it to the stage, sucka.

Because if you don’t, your art form will be watered down and co-opted, as it certainly has with rock, and for a while, jazz—though notably, not so much the funk. Perhaps that’s due to the scores of rappers, particularly gangsta rappers, who sampled Parliament-Funkadelic, keeping the funk danceable, sexy, and above all, dangerous to the squares. So I understand why George Clinton had to wake everybody’s game up and encourage a little friendly competition. So: keep it funky, or else. Shake it, don’t break it.. In other words, if you ain’t gonna get it on, take your dead ass home. 

(Laaaallala, lalalala) Those Crazios (Crazios!)
New type thing (New type thing)
Brand new funk (Brand new funk)
Ha! Crazier than a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a credit card!
Say it loud, I'm funky and I'm proud (doing it to death!)
Say it loud, I'm funky and I'm proud (ha ha ha!)


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