In 1975, George Clinton made the album that he still considers the breakthrough of his career: Chocolate City, with his band Parliament.
Chocolate City's classic title song was not only an obvious precursor to hip-hop (with Clinton smoothly talking over a repetitive rhythm track) but it was also an alternative state-of-the-union message for post-Watergate America, with Clinton conjuring up a nation where Muhammad Ali was president, Reverend Ike served as secretary of the treasury, Richard Pryor was minister of education, and Aretha Franklin was first lady.
More than two decades later, in his own surreal, deliberately absurdist way, funk's commander-in-chief still speaks the truth as he sees it, often persuasively enough to make you wonder if the wrong Clinton is in the White House. Clinton is rarely at a loss for words or opinions, so it's hardly a surprise that he has a definite take on the endless Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga.
"Sex and lying go together; I thought everybody knew that," Clinton says while chomping on room-service breakfast, moments after waking up at 2 p.m.
George might be alone in arguing that the country benefited from the scandal. "I'm glad it happened," he says, "'cause a lot of good things happened when [Bill Clinton] was trying to keep his head above water. He had to do a lot of good things just to keep the people on his side. So it was the best thing that could have ever happened for everybody."
Clinton has always been relentlessly prolific, but he tends to reserve his major statements for what he considers to be epochal periods. His latest album, Dope Dogs, feels like such a piece of work. Working with the unbeatable P-Funk All-Stars, Clinton takes on animal testing with "Just Say Ding (Databoy)," crack addiction with "Help Scottie, Help (I'm Tweaking and I Can't Beam Up!)" and America's drug policies with several tracks. And he manages to do it all by using the trusty dog metaphor that brought him a hit in 1983 with "Atomic Dog." The album's even released on Clinton's own Dogone Records label.
To Clinton, the use of canines to sniff for drugs in people's posteriors is symptomatic of America's institutional stupidity and cruelty. As usual, though, he puts these messages across with on-the-one rhythmic command and wild nursery-rhyme profanity.
"It's the millennium album," he says. "We did it a long time ago, but we knew it was going to take a long time to push it across, so we're not gonna stop playing for that one for a whole year or two. It's not a matter of it going up the charts or down the charts or nothing. It's something we're gonna stick to."
Clinton's fascination with the coming millennium is such that he plans on playing a New Year's Eve gig at the Fiji Islands, to allow him to usher out 1999 from the last time zone to make the change. At the same time, he professes little concern for the much-hyped Y2K computer virus.
"We're gonna be working on batteries," he says, laughing. "If we're the last ones to leave here, we'll make sure we're all on the one."
The 58-year-old Clinton's perpetual openness to new ideas has allowed him to remain vital long after most of his contemporaries became relegated to the nostalgia circuit. In a way, it's fitting, because Clinton was a late starter. In the late '50s, he got a doo-wop vocal group together in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, after being inspired by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
In an effort to jump-start a foundering career, he moved the group, called the Parliaments, to Detroit with dreams of recording for Motown. The group had to settle for the independent Revilot label, and aside from a minor 1967 hit, "(I Wanna) Testify," had little success. But Clinton started to take note of acid rock and tried to figure out a way to meld it with his group's R&B roots.
"We just had to change, do something different, so we would have no competition," he says. "That's when we decided to do something like speeded-up blues or slowed-down rock 'n' roll. Once we did that, we were able to take our time and go through the years like I wanted to."
Beginning in 1970, with the renamed Parliament, he went on a decadelong streak of amazing productivity. In addition to Parliament, he devised the trippier Funkadelic, and a parade of offshoots like Brides of Funkenstein.
By the mid-'70s, the masses started to catch up to Clinton's dense, mind-expanding funk, and his live shows took R&B into new realms. Band members were alternately decked out in space suits or diapers, and Clinton's shows stretched to four or five hours, usually beginning with the landing of a mock spaceship.
"I knew we were with a company [Casablanca Records] that was gonna promote us, so I took the time to organize things, and give them a real concept that we could hold onto for a while: the mother ship, the clothes and all that," he says. "I had it in my mind for a long time to do the whole mother ship thing, but I had to make sure I had enough promotion there. To be able to follow through with the concept album, so it'd be like Tommy, a rock opera, or Hair.
"We had seen Tommy work in rock 'n' roll, and Hair was all our friends who we went to school with. We saw them rehearse that. They started dressing like us. We were clowning with the hippie thing. We were way out with it, and we'd interchange costumes with each other every night. They kinda did the same thing with the first crew of Hair in New York. So we influenced them a lot."
Everything came crashing down at the beginning of the '80s, as he got into a legal wrangle with Warner Bros., Funkadelic's label, and Casablanca was sold to PolyGram. Clinton was stuck without a major-label outlet and could no longer meet his massive payroll. Conventional wisdom has it that Clinton had overextended himself and burned out by taking on too many projects at once. In typically contrary fashion, he tends to believe that his assortment of groups actually lengthened his career.
"We call it playing obsolescence," he says of this low period. "It's the time when things are supposed to become obsolete. We thought it was kinda late. We were suspecting it long before that. But we kept getting hit records, 'cause we had so many different names. When one would be over, the other would still be getting a hit record, so we were actually allowed to hang around a little longer than we thought we were supposed to hang around.
"They were catching on to one group at a time. By the time they got all the way around to everybody, we had been there long enough. So we were really ready to change things up, or go fishing, to take a rest. When 'Atomic Dog' hit, we were ready to come back, and they said, 'No, shit, you just left here. You all go back and sit down some more.'"
In the '80s, Clinton once again connected with a new generation, producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and becoming, along with James Brown, the primary source for hip-hop samples. Unlike many whose tracks were sampled, Clinton always seemed to welcome it, believing that it would give his music extra life. With Dope Dogs, he samples himself, using old P-Funk live tracks and outtakes from vintage albums like One Nation Under a Groove. He feels that Dope Dogs marks the point where he fully mastered sampling's potential.
"We learned what to do with the samples, and how to make them different to even what hip-hoppers do," he says. "We'd sample and then play on top of it.
"Right about now, they're catching hell, 'cause they hate to keep sampling old tired people's loops. So why sample that when they can sample some new stuff? We used samples and played over the top of them, which I think is gonna happen for a lot of groups, 'cause I liked Public Enemy and Anthrax when they were together. I like rock 'n' roll and hip-hop together."
Another maverick with eclectic tastes, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, has collaborated often with Clinton, and the two men plan to record together again later this month in Minneapolis. When asked what it's like to record with the Artist, Clinton merely says, "Quiet," and laughs. But his awe for the former purple monarch's talent is clear.
"He's a bad little motherfucker," Clinton says. "I mean, believe me, he knows what the hell he's doing. He's loaded with energy. You think I've got energy? This motherfucker will stay up all night long, go to sleep a couple of hours, wake up and put a fresh suit on. I ain't got enough energy to put on no fresh suit.
"He's just now getting hip to the social thing. He's just now realizing he's black, so he's getting really political now. I told him, 'Now don't get too mad, 'cause if you get too mad, you're gonna fuck up. Take it as a joke, and keep moving.'"
Clinton displays a similar mix of affection and irreverence for one of his primary musical influences, Sly Stone. "I talked with him two weeks ago," he says. "His publishing reverted back to him, so with the Toyota commercials he's got big bucks in his pocket. And he never stopped recording, he just won't put the shit out. I think he's scared. He wants to be assured that he's number one. I told him, 'You don't even go to clubs, how do you expect to be number one?'"
Citing Stone's penchant for profane, cutting studio banter, Clinton says, "He'd have no problem being down with the hip-hop crowd. He'd have to work on his Ebonics, but his tone would let you know that your feelings are supposed to be hurt."
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Unlike Stone, Clinton seems comfortable in the role of an underground music figure. Alone among rock and R&B artists of his age group, he seems forever fascinated by new sounds, grizzled but oddly childlike in his openness to ideas. He's excited about the Internet's potential to market music (he says he encouraged the Artist to go that route) and he seems well versed on the latest happenings in the worlds of hip-hop and rock.
"My theory has always been, anytime I hear somebody say, 'I hate that, I wish they'd stop doing that,' I gravitate to that," he says, "'cause that's the new shit."
"When I heard people talking about how they hated hip-hop, this is the shit I'm gonna be up on because kids love what their parents hate. And they love to piss them off. It seems like that's their duty to piss your ass off every five years."
George Clinton and The P-Funk All-Stars are scheduled to perform on Monday, March 22, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 7 p.m.