Since 1955, George Clinton (a.k.a. Dr. Funkenstein, the Maggot Overlord, Uncle Jam) has headed a loose aggregation of musicians known variously as "The Mothership Connection," his "Parliafunkadelicment Thang," or "P-Funk All-Stars." Composed of members of two main groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, and various offshoot bands, the organization made some of pop's most adventurous (and sometimes popular) music of the Seventies. Since then, Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic have been felt in the music of a wide range of postdisco and postpunk artists, including Prince, Dr. Dre, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Clinton's music mixes funk polyrhythms, psychedelic guitar, jazzy horns, vocal-group harmonies, and often scatological imagery. His lengthy concerts are unpredictable, characterized by extended, improvised jams. One of his many quotable mottoes is: "Free your ass and your mind will follow."
As a teenager in Plainfield, New Jersey, Clinton straightened hair working in a local barbershop, where he also founded a vocal group called the Parliaments. They struggled through the Fifties and most of the Sixties, by which time Clinton had moved to Detroit to work as a staff writer for Motown. In 1967, the Parliaments had a major hit with Clinton's "(I Wanna) Testify" (Number 20 pop, Number Three R&B), a straight love song. The Parliaments' next charted single, "All Your Goodies Are Gone" (Number 21 R&B), suggested Clinton's future direction. Hanging out with Detroit hippies and listening to local hard-rock bands like the MC5 and the Stooges influenced Clinton's approach to music, and he began to contemplate making a radical change in the Parliaments' sound.
At the same time in 1967, a legal battle over the Parliament name ensued, so Clinton and the group's singers began recording with their backup band as Funkadelic for Westbound Records in 1968. After winning the lawsuit, Clinton would record Parliament (the "s" was dropped) and Funkadelic separately. Initially Parliament was more commercially oriented and Funkadelic more experimental and gritty, though as time went on these distinctions blurred.
Early Funkadelic albums built a cult audience. Parliament/Funkadelic concert appearances featured Clinton jumping out of a coffin, musicians running around in diapers, smoking marijuana, and simulating sex acts. On both Parliament and Funkadelic albums, Clinton wrote about the dark realities of funk—which he had elevated to a philosophy—utilizing negative imagery from the Process Church of Final Judgment and clear-eyed wit. He wrote for denizens of "Chocolate City" surrounded by "vanilla suburbs."
Parliament's 1974 hit on Casablanca, "Up for the Down Stroke" (Number 63 pop, Number 10 R&B), introduced Clinton's concepts to a wider audience and helped Funkadelic, get signed to Warner Bros. Over the years, the group attracted top R&B instrumentalists, including bassist Bootsy Collins (ex–James Brown), guitarists Eddie Hazel and Gary Shider, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, keyboardist Junie Morrison (ex–Ohio Players), and reedmen Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker (ex–James Brown). Parliament's Mothership Connection and gold single "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" (Number 15 pop, Number 5 R&B) made Clinton and company a major concert attraction. With a weird, lengthy stage show that included a spaceship descending onstage from a huge denim cap, the P-Funk crew rivaled Earth, Wind & Fire as black America's favorite band. From 1976 to 1981, Clinton's salesmanship and success landed recording contracts for many P-Funk offshoots: Bootsy's (Collins) Rubber Band, Eddie Hazel, the Horny Horns, Parlet, Bernie Worrell, the Brides of Funkenstein, Phillippe Wynne, Junie Morrison, and Zapp.
Parliament's "Flash Light" (Number 16 pop, Number One R&B)—in which Worrell introduced the synthesized bass lines later imitated by many funk and new-wave bands—and the platinum Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome in 1977, "Aqua Boogie" (Number One R&B) in 1978, and Funkadelic's funk anthem "One Nation Under a Groove - Part I" (Number 28 pop, Number One R&B) in 1978 were Parliament-Funkadelic commercial peaks in the Seventies.
Beginning in 1980, internal strife and legal problems temporarily sapped Clinton's P-Funk tribe of its energy and key performers. And while P-Funk's sound got absorbed into mainstream funk and hip-hop, Clinton's many projects became entangled. Drummer Jerome Brailey left P-Funk to start his own group, Mutiny, which pointedly devoted its first album to imprecations against the "Mamaship." Other ex-sidemen actually recorded as Funkadelic, although their album (the poorly received Connections and Disconnections) carried a sticker to the effect that Clinton was not involved. After Warner Bros. refused to release The Electric Spanking of War Babies (with guest Sly Stone) as a double album, Clinton cut it to a single LP and began proceedings to end his Warners contract. He recorded two singles, "Hydraulic Pump - Part I" and "One of Those Summers," with the P-Funk All-Stars on an independent label, Hump Records. Then he reemerged with a name that was not in litigation—his own—on a George Clinton solo album, Computer Games (1982), which included P-Funk's core members and the hit single "Atomic Dog" (Number One R&B, 1983).
In 1983, Clinton began a six-year sabbatical from the pop limelight, during which time his music showed up (both in spirit and as samples) in rap and hip-hop (as well as on albums of Clinton's collected works). "Atomic Dog" became one of the most-requested dance-floor songs. In 1985 he produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers' second album, Freaky Styley. Clinton returned to music making in 1989 with The Cinderella Theory (featuring guests Chuck D and Flavor Flav) on Prince's Paisley Park label and regrouped the P-Funk All-Stars for concerts.
In the early Nineties, P-Funk's music was the inspiration for the G-Funk sound largely created by Dr. Dre, who heavily sampled Clinton and P-Funk for his landmark 1992 album, The Chronic, and particularly the breakout single, "Let Me Ride." In the "Let Me Ride" video Dre is on his way to a Parliament concert. G-Funk raised Clinton's profile considerably. In 1993 he and P-Funk performed at President Clinton's Youth Inaugural Ball. Later that year he released Hey Man...Smell My Finger (with an all-star lineup of guests including rappers Ice Cube and Yo-Yo and members of the Chili Peppers), and, though the album was not a commercial smash (peaking at Number 145), it appeared as though Clinton's career was back on the upswing. In the summer of 1994, he appeared on the Lollapalooza Tour. In 1997, Parliament-Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A followup album, T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. [The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership], reunited Clinton in the studio with Worrell, Collins, and other original P-Funk sidemen for the first time in more than a decade. The record peaked at Number 121 in 1996 and was followed that same year by Greatest Funkin' Hits (Number 138), which gathered modern remixes of his work and included such guests as Coolio, Digital Underground, and Ice Cube. Two years later Clinton returned with a concept album about dogs and the drug war called Dope Dogs.
The solo albums How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent? and George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love — a covers album featuring Sly Stone, Carlos Santana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — followed in 2005 and 2008, and as the next decade dawned, Clinton continued to tour with the P-Funk All Stars.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.