Time and rhythms are fluid for George Clinton. His clock and metronome have always ticked at speeds different than the remainder of humanity's.
"Damn, was 'Up for the Down Stroke' 20 years ago?" the father of funk asks by telephone from the Detroit studio where he's producing a duo of white rappers. "Seems like that was just the other day. I must live backwards."
It's no wonder time slips away for the man who invented funk. The last time we saw George Clinton, it was 1980, and his once-boundless creativity was being smothered under a mountain of bankruptcy filings, angry ex-sidemen, runaway drug habits and the disheartening knowledge that the musical mainstream had co-opted all of his best moves.
Estranged from his record label, Warner Bros., Clinton lighted a fat spliff, raised his middle finger and released his nastiest single, "Atomic Dog." After that there was silence.
But Clinton never stopped making albums. While his solo albums contained flashes of the old magic in hits like "Do Fries Go With That Shake," from 1986's R&B Skeletons in the Closet, none approached the influential discs he made as leader of the twin funk projects Parliament and Funkadelic. But as Clinton's bearded, dreadlocked countenance faded from view, his musical reputation grew, to the point where it now dwarfs even the Mothership--the flying saucer that was both a stage prop and the symbol of his musical vision. Clinton's work with Parliament and Funkadelic has become the basis for everyone from De La Soul to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One hip-hop historian finds him to be "the most-sampled artist in the history of popular music."
When asked to explain how he felt about Uncle Jam (one of Clinton's many jive nicknames) for a recent Clinton profile in Option magazine, rapper Ice-T replied: "No word could explain his contribution to music. Well, on second thought, let's try this--God.'"
After admonishing that "one should never jump to conclusions about a hairdresser" (Clinton's profession before music), ex-Talking Head David Byrne called him "further proof that enlightened thought, sex, money, funk and joyful confusion do belong together." Best comment of all was from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who, in the kind of overstatement his band has made a career of, gushed, "George Clinton influenced me so deeply that it's a part of me--like my kidney or my liver." It's a good thing Flea's vital organs have such a pedigree. Otherwise, he and his overhyped, undertalented band would have gone into renal failure long ago. The fact that bands like the Chilis wouldn't exist if they didn't have Funkadelic albums to steal from was driven home at this year's Grammy Awards ceremony. There, Clinton gave the Chilis the ultimate gift: He joined them for a performance. Why Clinton decided to sink that low is a mystery. The impending release of his new album, Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger, obviously had something to do with it. And Clinton's always had an affinity for the Chilis--he even produced their second album.
On the Grammy show, he looked like a shaggy old man lost in his worst punk nightmare. In its heyday, his P-Funk conglomeration, which often numbered 50 or more players, was filled with the cream of the funk crop: tenor player Maceo Parker, bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarists Eddie Hazel and Gary Shider and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. From Maceo and Bootsy to Flea and Anthony Kiedis? Please. How far the mighty has fallen. Clinton looked stoopid, and the Chilis suddenly, briefly, looked cool.
His bad taste in imitators aside, Clinton is undoubtedly the father of modern funk. Egghead academics--musicologists by trade--would probably award that honor to the rhythms of a certain African tribe. And there's a significant minority for whom funk comes down to a set of initials: J.B. It's true that no single gesture embodies the essence of funk music better than one of James Brown's patented, jump-up-and-down splits. But while Brown and his one-chord workouts gave funk life, it took Clinton to mold it into an unruly adult. In American popular music, Clinton ranks with Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra in terms of distinct style and widespread influence. His body of work is large and diverse. While the quality varies, it's never been less than interesting. Without his rhythmic experiments, his antiestablishment attitude and his albums to sample from, there would be no hip-hop. Without his pioneering, metal-funk grooves to light the way, there would never have been a Bad Brains or a Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Perhaps the most amazing part about Clinton is how he did it. Never a great singer or instrumentalist, Clinton became rock's most flamboyant impresario and entertainer. Next to his inventive rhythms and boundless capacity for musical experimentation, Clinton's greatest skill is entertaining. His 70s P-Funk concerts were a mix of Disneyland extravagance, Las Vegas glitz and Kiss fire and brimstone. Players, dancers, orators, a cadre of female back-up singers (called the Brides of Funkenstein) and cartoonish characters in their birthday suits came and went at Clinton's command. Despite all of this activity, the music never stopped. Clinton concerts are one long, nonstop groove.
These days, however, no one holds such a simultaneously exalted and obscure position in popular music as George Clinton. Even though he shares a surname with the current president, has been sampled to death and has more funk in his pinkie than the Chili Peppers have in their wettest dreams, Clinton's is both the puppet master and another face on the street. It's a conundrum that doesn't get him down.
"I know as well as anyone that there comes a time when they think you're finished and they want you to get the hell out of Dodge. But, hey, I don't know nothin' else," he says. "I haven't cried while we've been down. When we didn't have a hit record, when we weren't happening, I was the first one to say fuck me--fuck me!
"The thing is, though, that no one expected this shit to get this popular again. No one thought One Nation [Under a Groove] would ever be worth anything, let alone enough to steal." Part of his anonymity is because of the fact that Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic glory days are nearly 20 years in the past. That's right, children of the 70s, it's time to count those fingers and toes. Next year will, indeed, mark the 20th anniversary of Parliament's first big hit, "Up for the Down Stroke."
Clinton himself started much earlier than that. According to his self-created and -promoted legend, George Clinton was born in 1940 in an outhouse in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Raised in Washington, D.C., Clinton moved to Newark, New Jersey, with his family when the future Atomic Dog was still just a pup.
Even longtime Parliament/Funkadelic fans are surprised to learn that Uncle Jam began his musical career in earnest at the Uptown Tonsorial Parlor, a New Jersey barbershop where Clinton, like Chuck Berry before him, made a living as a hair bender. Clinton's musical career had begun in high school with a group called the Parliaments. But it took the barbershop's money ($700 to $800 per week, according to Clinton) and connections (all the local doo-woppers came in for a trim) to set Clinton on the fast track. Photos of Clinton from that time are shocking. It seems impossible that the painfully straight geek in the photos--complete with pompadour, skinny tie and Frankie Lymon grin--could someday become a 70s psychedelic trendsetter who favored metallic space suits, three-cornered hats and platform-heeled hip boots.
Clinton's transformation into the acid-soaked, funk-psychedelia king, Dr. Funkenstein, began when he and the Parliaments moved to Detroit in the mid-'60s. Earlier in that decade, the group had fulfilled a dream by cutting demos for Berry Gordy's Motown label. While Motown never got behind the group wholeheartedly, Clinton came away impressed by the sense of family that Gordy nurtured in his artists. It was the genesis of Clinton's own musical family to come. In 1967, just as he was about to give up music and return to the barbershop full-time, Clinton and the Parliaments recorded his original "(I Wanna) Testify" for a small Detroit label, Revilot Records. The record hit, and revived both the group and the label. Revilot owner Lebaron Taylor immediately took the band back into the studio and cut another batch of singles, including a long-out-of-print cover of the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" and a tune called "Good Old Music" that was the first to list "the Funkadelics" as co-writers.
The sound that Clinton's ever-enlarging group began to develop countered Motown's smooth soul. It took many of its cues from Detroit's other musical revolution--led by proto-metal, prepunk bands like MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. From these all-white, Ann Arbor-based groups, Clinton learned about stacks of Marshall amps and screaming guitars. In a reverse of the usual black-white trend, Clinton took the best parts of this white music and used it to improve his own already potent brew. In 1969, when Taylor split with the band's money and the legal rights to its name, Clinton simply began using the name Funkadelic. When he regained legal title to the Parliament name a few years later, the two-name, two-band concept was born.
The original plan was for Parliament to be the hit machine, the group in which dancey, mainstream singles would reside. Funkadelic was to be the experimental vehicle, dedicated to serious influences like jazz and the then-emerging electronic technologies. Early Funkadelic albums, like the self-titled debut and its follow-up, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (which was recorded and mixed in one day), followed this formula. The album to own from these early years is 1971's Maggot Brain, on which Clinton's psychedelic-funk-metal formula first began to jell. Eventually, though, the lines blurred, and both bands, which had always shared personnel, came to be called the "Parliafunkadelicment Thang" (Clinton's term), or the P-Funk All-Stars.
Although it made an album, Osmium, for the tiny Invictus label in 1970, Parliament didn't really kick into gear until "Up for the Down Stroke" hit in 1974. Signed to Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records, the Parliament crew continued a gold-and-platinum run that included albums like Chocolate City, Mothership Connection, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome and Gloryhallastoopid--or Pin the Tail on the Funky. Along the way, it invented its own silly, space-jive lexicon. When the single "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" from Mothership Connection rose to No. 15 on the pop charts, Clinton and his herd were the most popular funk act in America, their only rivals being Earth, Wind and Fire. Parliament's success convinced Warner Bros. to sign Funkadelic, which proceeded to change course and go mainstream. Funkadelic's next four albums, Hardcore Jollies, Uncle Jam Wants You, The Electric Spanking of War Babies and, particularly, One Nation Under a Groove, were all classics. Out of print since their release in the mid-'70s, these albums have recently been rereleased by Priority Records in a move Clinton says is piracy. The label says it has a signed contract. Clinton, who owns the master tapes, says he's going to put the albums out on his own One Nation label early next year.
The end for the P-Funk clan came in 1980, when a variety of evils--many self-inflicted--silenced Funkadelic and made Parliament look and sound silly.
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Today, the question remains: Does the 52-year-old Clinton still possess his once-overflowing talents, and, if so, can he make himself relevant in the 90s? This puzzle was brought into sharp relief this month, when both his new album and the four "lost" Funkadelic albums were released within weeks of each other. Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger, Clinton's new release on Prince's Paisley Park label, is a solid, modern, hip-hop/funk album, which is not much of a compliment when you're talking about George Clinton. Now, instead of setting trends, he's following them. "Wherever hip-hop is going, I'm going with it," he says quickly, not liking the question. "I always took what was happening and moved a step faster. Hip-hop is just a new way of doin' it. It's a different route, but, man, it's still funky." Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger does have a huge, accomplished cast, headed by many of the old P-Funk faces--Bootsy, Gary "Mudbone" Cooper and Robert "Peanut" Johnson--and spiced with younger Clinton devotees like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Ice-T. The Purple One himself gets into the act, playing bass on several cuts. Working with Prince makes Uncle Jam chuckle.
"He's so quiet. I mean, the dude is bad," Clinton says, laughing. "He expect everyone around him to be bad, too. He'll look at you and say, 'What, you surprised that you did it that good? Shit, that's what you here for.'" Clinton says his plans for the future are modest. No Motherships, no dual bands, no all-night parties. Yet from the outside, his current tour looks a lot like the old days. The band he'll bring to Phoenix this week has 37 players. The set list includes both old and new material. Clinton says he doesn't want to talk about the past or the future. He only knows the present.
"Man, who knows? Many lawsuits as I've been through, I could be gone soon. Right now, I just want to get the band rollin', get out and get jammin'.