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Top Dog

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia