Pedro Bell, otherwise known as Sir Lleb, is the artist largely responsible for the iconic album art and liner notes of Funkadelic, among others. In fact, Bell penned much of the mythology and conceptual narrative that accompanied the Parliament/Funkadelic revolution, expanding upon existing P-Funk ideologies and spinning his own. His self-proclaimed scartoons are deft satirical fun. They sprawl across the covers and gatefold spreads, a delirium of 70s psychedelia filtered through the Black urban experience. Bell humorously combines subversive, political, social consciousness and esoteric undercurrents with the blatantly erotic, galactic and wonderfully ridiculous. There is joy to be had in living the funk life. Squares and frigid folk beware.
Upon first hearing “If You Don’t Like My Soul I’ll Suck Your Motion or something like that…” over the airwaves of a local Chicago independent radio station, Bell was left awestruck: “What the hell is that?” and who the funk is Funkadelic? Immediately, he tracked down Westbound Records to Detroit where he sent out one of his infamous psychedelic, custom-made, art envelopes to get the band’s attention and let them know he would be down to do artwork and liner notes. When asked about the appearance and content he no longer remembers. Reports say it had something to do with the American flag. Whatever it may have been, he heard later that an official the “equivalent of the FBI” stopped by Westbound Records to notify them about a conspiracy claim. Westbound Records said not to worry “it’s just a fan”. Eventually, in ’73 the likes of George Clinton, Eddie Hazel, Grady Thomas, and Bernie Worrell came by Bell’s place and somewhere along the way, Bell went from being a fan to having artistic licence on Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” album cover, liner notes and beyond. The rest is P-Funk history.
On living the Parliament/Funkadelic life, Bell reflects: “It was exotic.” As member of the P-Funk inner circle he says he “dressed for the occasion” as you do in “a day-glo wig and psychedelic clothes top-to-bottom”. The Parliament/Funkadelic era was one of creative experimentation and wild abandon. When asked about freeing his mind and awakening his Funkadelic third eye, he answers: “Like everybody else I smoked reefer.” When pressed further, Bell says, he would rather not to say; he had company when we spoke.
Back in his school days, Bell liked to “take advantage of fraternal slumming” choosing to make no particular allegiance; he played rival fraternities off against each other trading his creative talents for perks. In ’71, the counterculture bible “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman and illustrated by Robert Crumb was published. Considered a beacon for social change, it offered a radical, fuck-the-system guide to finding free goods, housing, clothes, food, and entertainment, along with providing useful DIY know how. It was illuminating. “I was at a book store and the sales girl said: ‘Can I help you?’ I said: ‘Not really. Actually I was thinking about stealing this book.’” Bell laughs, “she said: ‘we were thinking about doing a logo for our bag, would you be interested in doing that?’ I said: ‘Yeah! No problems, but I’ll steal the book anyway.’” he laughs. Hoffman’s concept connected Bell with the music and creative industries; he started out writing record reviews in trade of 12-inches. The idea to get freebies the likes of free concert tickets and free records inspired Bell to get creative with his art envelopes. Besides Parliament/Funkadelic, Frank Zappa and Big “Daddy” Roth were among notable recipients.
The indie element has always been strong in Bell’s work. He merged the underground comic style of the day, notably the work of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and the cover art of Frank Zappa records, with Chicago street jive and The Process Church. “The Process Church is kinda weird because their mythology gives props to God and Satan. They were the creators of original bizarre. I was pushing The Process Church to abandonment,” he laughs. Bell ran with the existing Parliament/Funkadelic ideology, expanding on the lyrics and whisking the narrative off to another dimension with a massive dose of galactic edge. He is credited with consolidating and expanding the Parliament/Funkadelic mythology and conceptual force. Bell aligned the P-Funk revolution with his own blend of Afrofuturism, to which he attributes the profound influence of Sun Ra. “The P-Funk universe was preceded by Sun Ra. Back in ’58, I went and saw a Sun Ra concert. It was pretty deep for my creative,” Bell recalls.
Bell portrayed the members of Funkadelic as “The Invasion Force” a technicolour assortment of alien super heroes, afronauts, mutants and cosmic warriors. Their mission was to fight the good fight, “to rise and prevail” in the ideological and musical “Funk Wars”. Bell says it had much to do with Clinton’s resentment of Motown. Disco also got a bad rap. According to Bell’s liner notes, Funkadelic was “the rescue dance music from the Blahs’ Band” here “to restore Order within the Universe” and to joyfully live the funk. “[…] I further proclaim it to be the right of the noble followers of FUNKADELIA to counteract the inane, infantile antics of those pimpatory, sapless stooges and exploitive ecdysiasts of evil. FUNKADELIA IS UPON THEE!” The complete Invasion Force mission concept, Bell says, is detailed in a 15-page zine called Plilmore Magnetic.
Through his graphics, liner notes and comic strips, Bell gave a voice to the Black urban perspective living it large and streetwise in the alternative fringes of the 70s and early 80s. In the “Parliament-Funkadelic: One Nation Under A Groove” documentary, Overton Loyd says: “Pedro Bell is a paradigm shifter. In other words, before he came along we were trapped in a certain box of language. He opened up the possibility of empowering the way black people talk. […] Just to know I had permission to write that.” In response, Bell says “that hip talk” had already filtered down in pop culture references such as “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando. However, Bell credits Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his hot rod character comics as the main source “responsible for bringing that by” him. He just added his own spin. “I was trying to get the fans to go ahead and acknowledge Zeep Speak as the language of the future,” Bell says, “So I was quite surprised and disappointed that Ebonics came in play. It was a step backwards for me.”
On a side note, for those people theorizing about the crystal skull connection in the Funkadelic logo and the elongated, earth-shaped alien skulls scattered throughout his work. Bell acknowledges the theory and the source but says the original idea for the logo skull actually arose from a NASA image of a bird’s-eye view of a skull with the NASA logo superimposed. It appeared in Playboy magazine and was sent out to him from Westbound Records as art direction inspiration. The idea went from there.
As for the ladies, much has been made of the representation of women in his art. His depictions, generally hyper-sexualized, fall somewhere between intergalactic, ghetto mutants, erotic sirens, and those of Mother Earth who is often times ravaged, but always with a fit body, pert bosoms, and a generous backside. “Electric Spanking of War Babies” hit a raw nerve. The phallic space ship transporting a naked siren strapped down in the main shaft with what appears to be metal clamps gripping her bottom was deemed too controversial and Bell was forced to censor it. The controversy, Bell says, was a direct reaction to the furore stirred years earlier by the Rolling Stones advertising billboard for their record “Black and Blue”. It showed model Anita Russell looking “sexy”, bruised and bound with legs spread wide open alongside the text: “I’m ‘Black and Blue’ from the Rolling Stones – and I Love It.” Outraged, American feminist group Women Against Violence Against Women set in motion protest and boycott campaigns to pressure big labels to stop the use of images that glorify and sexualize violence against women in marketing stunts. Bell says they “blackmailed Warner Bros., threatening to sue” unless the cover was censored. Bell, however, was not fazed: “It doesn’t matter ’cause it [the original version] was duplicated on the inside anyway.” He was paid to stay out in LA to work on multiple revisions. “Well, I got paid,” he laughs: “That was my best album as far as the money.”
Unaware that “Cosmic Slop” and “Hardcore Jolies” had once been voted in the Rolling Stone magazine top 100 best album covers of all time (compiled by their writers back in 1991), he jokes that where he now lives, in assisted care, is “not prison but it may as well be”. Despite being legally blind and suffering from health issues, his mind is sharp and his humour is still next level. Drawing might be out of the question, but he says he can still direct, working together with trusted art co-conspirators Seitu Hayden, Tym Stevens and Stozo. There is talk of a book in the works to reveal the insights behind the covers and liner notes. When asked about the woman on the cover of “Cosmic Slop”, her animalesque face and Mother Earth reference, he answers with a hint of amusement: “It could have been…” He’s not giving away the game secrets just yet. Fans will have to wait for the book.
Words / Amber Grünhäuser
Art by Pedro Bell
Images courtesy of Pedro Bell, Seitu Hayden, Charly Records, Steven Koress Archives