To most people, funk is a style of music, the sassy, electric Seventies stepchild of classic R&B. To George Clinton, it is “anything it need to be to save your life.” “You can get so frustrated in life that you just want to jump out the window,” he declares with a messianic gleam in his eye. “Funk tells you, Go ahead, man, but nobody gonna pay you any attention if you do.’ It’s a way of getting out of that bind you get in, mentally, physically.
“It’s loose it ain’t that fuckin’ serious,” he continues, running a hand through his trademark coiffure — shoulder-length braids laced with long strands of Day-Glo thread. “To me, funk is ‘Okay, let’s start jammin’,’ and people just follow.”
He should know. Clinton has been promoting “party” politics onstage and on record for more than two decades with the expanded family of singers, musicians and associated celebrants that originally composed his two main groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, and that now operates simply as the P-Funk All-Stars. During the Seventies, Clinton transformed black popular music with a propulsive, flamboyant mélange of locomotive polyrhythms, screaming Hendrixian guitars, sharp R&B vocal harmonies, acid-damaged rapping and jazzy brass that married the anarchic spirit of psychedelic rock with the good-foot properties of James Brown’s down-home soul. (To fortify the funk, Clinton hired a number of former J.B. sidemen, including Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and William “Bootsy” Collins, who went on to solo fame.) Over that already explosive mix, Clinton preached his singular gospel of mind expansion and sexual liberation, using a potent mix of ghetto realism, ribald wit and P-Funk slang. For visual sizzle, he took the glitter-rock look totally over the top, culminating in the 1976-77 Mothership Connection tour, which featured Clinton descending from an enormous spaceship.
The result was a long series or musically visionary and commercially successful albums by both groups — among them, Parliament’s Up for the Down Stroke (1974), Mothership Connection (1976) and Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1978) and Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (1970), Maggot Brain (1971) and One Nation Under a Groove (1978). Today, the entire P-Funk catalog is being sampled silly by young rap stars like De la Soul, Digital Underground, Jungle Brothers and Public Enemy, while the black-rock movement spearheaded by Living Colour and Fishbone is taking Clinton’s original electric R&B concept to a new futurist plane.
Born in North Carolina, the teenage Clinton formed the original doo-wop version of the Parliaments in the mid-Fifties in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he ran his own barbershop. During the mid-Sixties, Clinton landed a staff writing gig at Motown Records, where, he admits, he picked up a lot of his tricks. “I learned how to write with clichés, puns and hooks,” he says. “So when I got Parliament-Funkadelic, I just went stupid with it. Instead of one or two hooks, we’d have 10 hooks in the same song. And puns that were so stupid that you could take ’em three or four different ways.”
The Parliaments finally went Top Twenty in 1967 with the gritty soul classic “(I Wanna) Testify.” When Clinton became embroiled in a court battle over rights to the Parliaments’ name, he simply realigned the group, bringing the backing band up front and calling it Funkadelic. In 1970 he won the legal battle and started recording Parliament (he dropped the s) and Funkadelic, beginning a decade of extraordinary productivity that included numerous splinter groups and offshoot productions signed to a multitude of record labels. Financial and legal complications forced him to put P-Funk on ice for a few years, but he returned to the charts in 1983 with the hit single “Atomic Dog.”
Being a crucial influence on rap and pop music in 1990 doesn’t take up all of Clinton’s time. Now 50, he’s working on a new solo album for Prince’s label Paisley Park (he released The Cinderella Theory last year), and he is featured in Graffiti Bridge. He recently produced an album by the First Family of Funk — essentially the P-Funk All-Stars fronted by Clinton’s longtime singer-guitarist Gary Shider. There is also a feature film in the works based on the Parliament albums Mothership Connection and Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.
Clinton also keeps touring, doing marathon four-hour shows with P-Funk for his still-growing rainbow coalition of fans. “It’s like a religion,” he says proudly. “At the same time, though, I’m sayin’ it ain’t nothin’ but a party.”
How do you feel about the resurgence of interest in and rampant sampling of the old Parliament-Funkadelic records?
I love it. In time, everything comes back around, and I was getting ready to fight nostalgia, make sure that people weren’t coming from that point of view. And I didn’t even have to fight it because with sampling, it sounds like brand-new music. When De la Soul’s record got real big, this lady we know, her son is 10 years old, and she kept telling him that “Me Myself and I” was really P-Funk. And he said, “You think everything is James Brown and P-Funk!” So she went and got a copy of “(Not Just) Knee Deep” [Uncle Jam Wants You, 1979], and since De la Soul used so much of it on the track, he heard it and fell in love with it. The lady says she can’t keep the kid out of her records now. And now you got M.C. Hammer using “Turn This Mutha Out!” [“P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” Mothership Connection]. Kids come up to me and say, “Man, he’s ripping you off. They payin’ you for this? That ‘Humpty Dance,’ ain’t that yours?” Yeah, it is [laughs].