Maybe the reason why old dogs can’t learn new tricks is because they’re too busy teaching young pups what they know.
Consider George Clinton, the original Atomic Dog. The ringleader of the Parliament Funkadelic circus, funk’s greatest space case hasn’t released a new album in years. And yet his work continues to echo loudly across modern music. Listening to rap and funk in 2017, it’s hard not to hear Clinton’s influence.
Even if you’ve never listened to a P-Funk track, chances are good you’ve heard the group’s work on rap radio. When Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic (a woolier, rockier sister act) released a string of now-classic albums in the 1970s, they weren’t just dropping a stellar run of amazing cosmic funk music — they were dropping the building blocks for a new genre of music. Aside from James Brown, it’s hard to imagine any other artist who’s been as consistently and widely sampled by rap artists as Clinton.
Without him, there wouldn’t be G-Funk.
The West Coast gangster rap offshoot genre’s two landmark albums, The Chronic and Doggystyle, are powered by dynamite P-Funk quotations. Listen to a few seconds of “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” or “Let Me Ride”and it becomes clear that Dr. Dre got his producing doctorate at the Dr. Funkenstein School of Bangers. You could even make the argument that Clinton taught rappers how to adopt a plethora of aliases. P-Funk albums are full of alternate identities, goofy alter egos, and bizarre name changes. Could the Wu-Tang Clan have ever emerged from the rugged lands of Shaolin without Clinton teaching them how to become someone else?
P-Funk were blasting off into the starry funk heavens around the same time glam was taking rock music to the stars. But their approaches couldn’t have been more different. Spaceman rock stars like Bowie and T-Rex were cults of personality, alien messiahs you were supposed to worship from afar. You could dress up like them, emulate them, adore them ... but you’d never truly be among them.
By contrast, P-Funk were populist alien princes. They wanted to abduct their listeners and audiences into a never-ending space jam. Bowie could sing about the importance of letting all the children boogie, but he never sounded as insistent and personal as Clinton did when he told listeners to “free your mind and your ass will follow.” P-Funk records were all about teaching people that the kingdom of Heaven was within, and the best way to get there was by losing your mind on the dance floor.
It’s that combination of interstellar ambiance and earthy funk that so many modern artists continue to draw inspiration from. Kendrick Lamar’s P-Funk obsession would be obvious even if Clinton hadn’t guest starred on “Wesley’s Theory.” Flying Lotus and Thundercat owe considerable debts to Clinton’s aesthetic. While Lotus makes music that’s more indebted to his jazz background and electronic music, his album covers, videos, and subject matter feel Clintonian. As for Thundercat, his swirling mixture of head-nodding bass lines, lost-in-the-stars vocals, and rapturous live performances makes it seem like he beamed aboard the P-Funk Mothership as a child.
In pop years, Clinton’s one of the oldest players left standing. While other funky godfathers like James Brown and Rick James have danced their way off this mortal coil, Clinton is still touring and tearing the roof off the sucka. Time to check out the old master while you still can.
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic are scheduled to play at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Monday, August 7. Tickets are $37 and up through luckymanonline.com.