Like Black Sabbath, Parliament-Funkadelic was a remarkably groundbreaking unit that released multiple classic albums in 1970, including Funkadelic’s self-titled debut and Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow and Parliament’s debut, Osmium. Here we discuss their late, great drummer Tiki Fulwood with super-fan Philip “Fish” Fisher and longtime P-Funk drummer Benzel Baltimore.
Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood was the original drummer in both Parliament and Funkadelic, the George Clinton-led funk, rock, R&B, and soul groups that inspired countless bands and musical styles. Though album credits are somewhat confusing and memories become hazy fifty years later, it is Fulwood’s distinct drumming approach that stands out on several albums and numerous tracks from this fertile period in those bands’ history.
Fulwood was born in Philadelphia in 1944 and eventually became the house drummer at the city’s Uptown Theater, where he would cross paths with future bandmates guitarist Eddie Hazel and bassist Billy Bass Nelson. Hired by Clinton to back the vocal group the Parliaments, the three musicians expanded the sonic palette past simple support of doo-wop singing and into something more raw and wild, and eventually morphed into the unit known as Funkadelic.
Soon there would be two groups, Funkadelic and Parliament, touring and recording albums under the leadership of Clinton. Both groups featured basically the same members but were marketed as two different kinds of funk, Funkadelic being a more rock-oriented, psychedelic band than its sister group. Fulwood laid it down hard and heavy for both collectives. Notable for his 16th-note hi-hat attack and tough, syncopated bass drum work, Fulwood appeared on classic albums like Funkadelic’s 1970 self-titled debut, 1970’s Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow, 1971’s Maggot Brain, and 1972’s America Eats Its Young.
Philip “Fish” Fisher, drummer for legendary ska/funk/rock group Fishbone, recalls being exposed to this new music as a youngster. “My earliest memory of hearing Tiki’s playing was at my Aunt Jackie’s place in Compton, California,” says Fisher. “It could’ve been 1971 or ’72, which would make me four or five years young. My older brother and I wandered into a room lit by black lights, posters on the walls, and lava lamps. Coming through the speakers was Funkadelic’s ‘Wars of Armageddon’ [from Maggot Brain]. Then when I was seven, I heard America Eats Its Young. Needless to say, it blew my young, funky mind. I listened and looked at the double album and was transported into a world of intrigue. It was spooky, exciting, humorous, nasty, and enlightening, and it was going way out of the box lyrically, musically, and in its overall concept from what was being played on radio at the time.”
Fisher outlines what makes Fulwood’s contribution special on those records. “Tiki is the first drummer that I attempted to learn what his drum music really is,” Fisher says. “His bass drum work definitely influenced me from a very early age, before I even knew exactly how unique it was. The grooves and patterns got me first, the speed secondary. Tiki could throw an unexpected bass drum lick into any rhythmic template without forsaking the groove. The freedom and spontaneity he possessed baffled and mesmerized me. His playing was rowdy and aggressive in a way his contemporaries’ playing wasn’t. Like how revolution music is supposed to feel—just the type of energy a kid like me needed to be inspired. I strive to do similar. I’m very proud to have been given the last drum of Tiki’s that original Funkadelics Eddie Hazel and Billy Bass Nelson had in their possession. It’s a Rogers bass drum. I keep it on a pedestal. Playing along to Tiki’s drumming since I was a kid has served me beyond measure.”
Benzel Baltimore, aka Benjamin Cowan, is the current and longtime drummer in Parliament-Funkadelic, Clinton’s catch-all combo group that’s been playing that music for decades. The son of P-Funk trumpeter Bennie Cowan, Baltimore had to closely study the drumming of Fulwood, who is still held in high regard by group members. “Tiki was one of George’s favorite drummers,” says Baltimore. “When I was eleven or twelve years old, one of the first records I ever practiced to was Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young. Everyone will tell you that John Bonham was the first to do those [bass drum triplets], but Tiki Fulwood was the first person I heard do that, and Dennis Chambers said that as well. That was a Tiki signature. And his sound was the same sound I like. Almost rock-sounding drums. I heard he might have used a 24″ bass drum. I also heard, because his foot was so heavy, he would take an old bass drum head and cut out a piece and place it on top of another bass drum head. Basically a head on top of a head, a two-ply head so it wouldn’t break.”
“Heavy” is an apt description of the loud and aggressive sound of the early Funkadelic records. Those expecting the slick dance-floor ready action of future hits like Parliament’s “Flash Light” will be in for a rude awakening when exposed to the sheer volume and rock power of Fulwood and company. But Fulwood was always in control, never letting the music fall apart around him, even while everyone was turning up.
“One of the standout things about Tiki’s playing is the solid dynamic drive and repetition of hi-hat patterns,” Fisher says. “The placement of open hi-hat is to be noted in these patterns, but also the opening and closing within the given groove give greater depth to the layers of rhythm he created. Tiki’s bass drum work is unique to him, and the approach isn’t easy to come close to, due to his ability to turn the beat upside down or go on a creative tangent, which happened often at the end of songs. He was known for having the fastest feet of his time; his doubles were swift in the groove and solid at any tempo.”
Baltimore echoes Fisher’s comments on Fulwood’s hi-hat and kick innovations. “Tiki was the ‘down south hip-hop’ drummer of back in the day,” he says. “He was one of the first guys to play heel/toe [bass drum technique]. The foot patterns he played are what’s played today. His playing was in between a little bit of chops and a little bit of groove, as opposed to a Tyrone Lampkin, who came right after Tiki, and who was more of a marching band drummer. What I learned from listening to Tiki all the time was to be able to play 16ths on the hi-hat for a long time, and being able to do various foot patterns under the 16ths for a long time. That was a challenge of that music—playing the syncopations and still driving the pocket, but you might play some weird foot fill. But you don’t do too many foot fills because it’s so based on groove, all bass, snare, hi-hat. ‘Loose Booty’ (from America Eats Its Young) is really heavy on the foot, though. It’s like the first go-go beat, actually, and a huge inspiration on Washington D.C. It’s like a funky Purdie shuffle with more foot in it. That beat is legendary. We’re rehearsing now and we’re playing ‘Hit It and Quit It’ [from 1971’s Maggot Brain]. That’s Tiki.”
Then there are the drummer moves you’ve done and heard a million times, but somehow are traced back to Fulwood, like a standard floor tom/snare build. “Another Tiki thing is sometimes George would want me to do a 16th-note unison crescendo with two arms, on floor tom and snare,” says Baltimore. “You can’t do it with just your hands because it’s not loud enough. It has to be done with your arms. It took me a long time to get that. It’s not super fast, but it is super hard.” Fisher points to it as well: “One of my favorite Tiki licks is his snare with floor tom flams, which are present throughout his body of work. Funkadelic’s ‘Super Stupid’ and ‘Red Hot Momma’ and Parliament’s ‘All Your Goodies Are Gone’ are good examples.”
Both drummers also acknowledge Fulwood’s influence on not only themselves, but a whole generation of players. “After being on the road with [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Chad Smith, I realized that when I was growing up playing drums, I was adapting that style because it was funk-rock,” says Baltimore. “When I heard [Chili Peppers’] “Give It Away,” that was a mixture of the funk and the rock. And I feel like Tiki inspired Chad, because Chad loves Funkadelic. All of the Chili Peppers love Funkadelic. Tiki is on “Super Stupid” [from Maggot Brain], and you can hear more of that foot thing. More of that double thing.”
Fisher adds, “Tiki’s influence is spread over many genres and generations, either directly or indirectly by his recordings in and outside of Funkadelic. No matter what genre one mainly plays in, creative musicianship will turn your head and get you open. Tiki is the archetype of what it is to be Funkadelic funky, and that means to be unapologetically, raw, uncut, and supernaturally funky. Like the drumming on ‘Hit It and Quit It,’ ‘Wars of Armageddon,’ and ‘Funky Dollar Bill.’ He’s one of those cats that are often imitated and also sampled. His influence was immediate on those that would become his contemporaries, and from countless bands to hip-hop artists that have had hits from using his beats. Like how he’ll do an 8th-note fill from snare around to floor tom. It’s a basic thing, but it’s the groovy, bombastic swag he puts on it, as he displays on Fuzzy Haskins’ ‘Tangerine Green.’ Tasty ear candy that never loses its flavor. He was able to authentically adapt musically, and he had his own identity. He unapologetically demonstrated his own brand of creativity and silence of time and space while laying the foundation, being so free, serving the music, yet taking personal artistic chances.”
Fulwood would go on to play with Tyrone Davis and Chairmen of the Board and form his own band, Tiki, before succumbing to stomach cancer in 1979. But his funky body of work lives on for every new generation of searching drummers to discover.