Mothership Connection

Banging hip-hop from worlds away

Mothership Connection
Illustration by Nathan Jensen

"The present wheel-shaped plane known as the Mother of Planes, is one-half mile of a half mile and is the largest mechanical man-made object in the sky. It is a small human planet made for the purpose of destroying the present world of the enemies of Allah."

Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America

Sun Ra didn't hold ties to the Nation of Islam. The jazz bandleader never claimed Islam membership or prayed to Allah. He avoided outright political controversy, a method Muhammad practiced religiously. Likely, Ra paid no mind to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad; he was already 50 in 1965 when Muhammad's Message was published. More likely is that Muhammad was a student of the Alabama-born pianist, who was the first to hint at an extraterrestrial origin for the black race.

1952 was the year that Herman "Sonny" Blount denounced his birth name and emerged Le Sony'r Ra, a name that soon molded into Sun Ra. The spiritual awakening that led to his name change also kick-started the Arkestra, Ra's ever-experimenting jazz collective also known as the Solar Myth Arkestra and His Cosmo Discipline Arkestra. He declared his 1914 Birmingham, Ala., birth a myth, proclaiming himself a native of Saturn, thus connecting percussion and stringed instruments to the cosmos for the first time since Gustav Holst wrote The Planets in 1894.

Intergalactic Projection Screens

By the 1970s, blaxploitation films had begun traveling to the far reaches of our galaxy. Statements of a counter-segregation, these depicted the black culture as an independent one. They promoted and idealized a departure from the politically, culturally, and socially white world. Again, Ra lit the cosmic fuse. 1974's Space Is the Place plots the Arkestra lost after a 1969 tour, only to arrive and settle on an unknown planet. Content with the new digs, Ra sets out to bring all the still Earth-dwelling African-Americans to space, his vehicle being music.

A decade later, John Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet dropped a three-toed African-American mute in the middle of Harlem. Played by Joe Morton, the brother was chased through New York by two white agents trying to return him to his native planet.

While Space's soundtrack relies heavily on Arkestra songs, many blaxploitation films, The Brother From Another Planet included, were platforms for soul and funk music back on Planet Earth. 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song launched Earth, Wind & Fire; the infamous Isaac Hayes stepped into the limelight after Shaft. Once dominated by Ra's jazz, the soundtrack for the new black world had developed a mean backbeat.

'We Have Returned to Claim the Pyramids'

The opening lines from Parliament's "Mothership Connection" didn't bother hiding the group's interstellar fixation. George Clinton's brainchild elevated funk to inconceivable levels of popularity and further encouraged its cosmic relativity in the 1970s. Mothership Connection, 1975, rode in on an absolute party, making outer space one happenin' place. In a 2006 interview with Cleveland Scene, Clinton explained, "I was a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac, and we did all these James Brown-type grooves, but with street talk and ghetto slang."

It would become one of the defining albums in the development of hip-hop.

By the early 1980s, Bronx hip-hop culture was in full swing, spinning DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Grand Wizard Theodore, and a grandiose community leader named Afrika Bambaataa. They'd pull their breaks off funk records, from James Brown drumbeats, and from Isley Brothers hooks. Bambaataa took noted interest in Clinton's work. Emerging as Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Bam dropped 1986's Planet Rock, a nod to Clinton's Afrocentric festival. The album led the public to dub Bambaataa "The Father of the Electro-Funk Sound."

'Louder Than a Bomb'

Though not first in hip-hop's history, Public Enemy can surely be held responsible for providing the genre with its biggest bang. When the dust settled there were very few acts that could capture the political pulse Public Enemy grabbed. They'd learned from Sun Ra and Elijah Muhammad's NOI ideal, pulling together the Bomb Squad and Terminator X (production), Professor Griff (minister of information), and MCs Chuck D and Flava Flav to dub hip-hop "the black CNN," thus creating a renewed sense of the two races living worlds apart.

1990's Fear of a Black Planet moved PE into the extraterrestrial. With its cover art depicting a black planet eclipsing Earth, PE's message wasn't Space Is the Place-ian in its desire to export blacks into outer space. Chuck and Flav wanted to bring them back: "It's pretty simple. Three stones from the sun, we need a piece of this rock."

'Throw Yer Hands in the Ayerrr'

Clinton's interstellar party may not have touched down with Public Enemy, but its out-of-this-world resonance shook down to the turn of the century, when, in 1995, the fascination reached a renaissance. Cali's alternative hip-hop movement, a response to Dr. Dre's G-Funk by Delicious Vinyl heads Souls of Mischief, Dilated Peoples, and Hieroglyphics, took off upon the Pharcyde's release of LabCabinCalifornia. The Jay Dee-produced album cued a departure from the chaos surrounding the Bad Boy/Death Row rivalry. Hip-hoppers across the country took note.

Sending oneself into orbit was option B to the more popular and controversial gangsta rap. Outkast dropped 1996's ATLiens, music's most obvious attempt at interstellar funk since Clinton himself. The Roots built on Sun Ra's jazz stylings with Illadelph Halflife that same year. De la Soul dressed the part for AOI: Bionix (2001), while Del the Funky Homosapien joined DJs Dan the Automator and Kid Koala and jumped into the future for Deltron 3030's self-titled album, released 1,030 years in its own past.

The trend continues today, on Planet Earth and beyond. Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III rolls "Phone Home," Wayne playing the role of E.T.: "We are not the same, I am a martian." His mixtape classic, "I Feel Like Dying," speaks of "sittin' on the clouds" and mingling with the stars while throwing a party on Mars. The oh-so-down-to-earth Kanye West first touched off with 2004's "Spaceship," and his current Glow in the Dark Tour pits him as an interstellar explorer whose spaceship crashes on an unknown planet. Reports from Houston suggest the wreck interrupted the Arkestra's set.

Sun Ra Spaces Out

Angels & Demons at Play (1956)

The Nubians of Plutonia (1959)

Rocket Number Nine (1960)

We Are in the Future (1961)

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (1961)

The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1965)

Astro Black (1972)

What Planet Is This? (1973)

Modern Mysticism

De la Soul, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000)

MF Doom, Live From Planet X (2005)

Del the Funky Homosapien, Both Sides of the Brain (2000)

RJD2, Deadringer (2002)

9th Wonder, The Dream Merchant 2 (2007)

George Clinton's Intergalactic Kegger

Funkadelic, Cosmic Slop (1973)

Parliament, Mothership Connection (1975)

Parliament, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976)

Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove (1978)

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