"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.