Music News


It's hard to believe that in 1906, the term "funk" referred to sexual body odors, and only some 50 years later to a music that sounded just as dirty.

No one in yer grandma's lifetime has done as much as George Clinton, the Parliament/Funkadelic kingpin, to supply a soundtrack for doing the nasty. Only James Brown equals Clinton and company's role in saving the 70s black-music scene from completely drowning in the lameness of disco. Parliament and Funkadelic perfected the recipe for unadulterated funk: heavily syncopated drums, a slippery bass line and a repetitive lyric so simple, it begged to be chanted by the congregation of funkster converts.

Drugs and lawyers long ago grounded the original Clinton clans, but the funk lives on. Clinton and the P-Funk bunch are blatantly worshiped by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and Living Colour. Prince, who snatched up Clinton for his Paisley Park record label, has openly milked that Funkadelic thing as far back as his 81 album Controversy. (Check out Prince's costume in the song "I Would Die 4 U" on his recent greatest-hits video. It's P-Funk Halloweenery all the way.)

But Clinton's groove has cut a path into music that goes far beyond radio rock and R&B dance floors. Clinton's music has become the mother lode for hip-hop's sample-happy generation. To head off the stampede to reduce his work to sound bites--and to collect some long-overdue royalties--George has launched a how-to-sample-Clinton series.

The first disc in the series, Sample Some of Disc Sample Some of Dat (Music of Life), may be the first 99-track CD. The lengths of the bites range from a few seconds to a few minutes. The disc comes complete with an instruction sheet on how to license samples from the CD. Four more discs, featuring another 400 samples, are in the works.

Although its impact on jazz has not been as all-consuming as its influence on hip-hop and rock, P-Funk's music has made a lasting impression on the jazz world. It's no surprise that trumpeter Miles Davis, who has always lent an ear to nonjazz influences, was the first to drag funk, la Clinton, into jazz. Ironically, there was never a period in Davis' career in which his music was as universally "dissed" by both audiences and critics as when he released his funk albums, Big Fun and On the Corner. Both were incredibly dense mixtures of funkadelica and free jazz, with a wah-wah-pedaled trumpet trading licks with a Bootsy Collinsish bass line over a hailstorm of African percussion. The equally funky Black Beauty and Dark Magus were considered by Davis' record company to be so eccentric that they were not released in the U.S. Although those albums did not sell, Davis' pianist, Herbie Hancock, embraced the new Miles feel, and recorded a handful of very successful funk discs under the name the Headhunters. Hancock kept the groove and the African drums, but dropped the pandemoniac (a Clinton adjective) space-jazz. The Clintonesque sessions remain the best of Hancock's otherwise-gutless post-Miles electric-keyboard sessions.

Other jazz players also took note of Parliament's ballsy new politics of funk. Saxophonist Michael Brecker and his trumpeter brother, Randy, became disciples for a time. The funk they played as the Brecker Brothers from 75 to 82 was downright nasty. Guitarist John Scofield corralled former P-Funk drummer Dennis Chambers for a slew of fine, below-the-belt jazz discs. Bassist Jaco Pastorious grew to legendary status by mixing funk and jazz, adding the hip-thrusting element to Weather Report. Trombonist Joseph Bowie, brother of jazz trumpeter Lester, formed the unfortunately overlooked band Defunkt.

The circle was completed this year when Foley, Miles Davis' last bassist, cut 7 Years Ago . . . Directions in Smart-Alec Music with Clinton, the P-Funk Horns and Funkadelic guitarist Gary Shider on board. Miles would have approved.

Meanwhile, ex-Clinton horn men Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley continue to release discs dripping with firsthand Clinton funk. Speaking about his recent disc, Life on Planet Groove, Parker said, "We like to do 2 percent jazz and 98 percent funk." Most recently, a handful of young saxophonists sharing a love for both the work of John Coltrane and of Clinton's masterwork, One Nation Under a Groove, developed an exciting, funk-jazz mix called M-Base music. The releases of Gary Thomas, Greg Osby and Steve Coleman pay homage to the man with the rainbow dreadlocks. Clinton's beat is the trampoline for their sky-high wailing, and the Funkadelic sci-fi obsession shows up on Coleman's Black Science.

During the time jazz was paying attention to Clinton's free-your-mind-and-your-ass-will-follow message, a bearded and heavyset white bass player was becoming the unlikely connection between Clinton's funk and the outer fringes of progressive rock.

The radical New York bassist-producer Bill Laswell, who once said of modern music that "the only interesting thing in the last 50 years is noise," has worked with Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Public Image Ltd. and his own band, Material. Laswell's most recent major project was the founding of Axiom, a recording label with a taste of P-Funk on nearly every experimental disc released. A man after Clinton's heart, the producer admits to preferring a nasty groove over a well-written song, as all of Laswell's rambling but funky productions prove.

Ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker cut a superb 1990 session, Middle Passage, under Laswell's direction, with P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell plowing out a significant contribution on organ. Laswell and Worrell together produced this year's Blacktronic Science, an outstanding Worrell session so filled with familiar names that it could be a P-Funk disc. Both Clinton and bassist/P-Funk vice prez Bootsy Collins appear, as do vocalist Gary "Mudbone" Cooper and the Horny Horns of Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. The innovative producer's most outrageous release ever--and there have been some strange ones--is this year's Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), recorded by a band named Praxis. Bootsy and Worrell are two-fifths of this amazing, funk-noise-jazz venture. The Praxis guitarist is a masked oddball going by the name Buckethead, who has recently released a Japanese-import double-disc of thematic funk called Bucketheadland. The faceless ax man supplies one disc of great playing and one of grating verbal play--with Bootsy Collins (P-Funkishly referred to in the liner notes as "the Bootzilla Smashasaurus") producing and Worrell pounding out dirty lines on the keys.

Laswell, P-Funk testifier extraordinaire, has even rescued his own band, Material, from its 80s synth noodling by snagging Collins, Worrell and Cooper for some much-needed testosterone on his The Third Power. It used to be that Casablanca and Westbound, P-Funk's previous homes, were the recording labels for the funk-hungry. Laswell has stretched and improved on the genre with Axiom.

As for the two Masters of the Funk Universe, Bootsy Collins and George Clinton have been comfortable merely guesting on the discs of others. It's been three years since Bootsy took to a stage. Clinton's own Cinderella Theory, which remained a pumpkin both critically and commercially, was released four years ago. Even Clinton's son, Trey Lewd, cut a passable funk disc since his dad recently took to the studio to cut Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger under his own name.

These days, George Clinton is relying heavily on the feel of hip-hop, a funk grandchild that will assure him radio play and an introduction to the fans of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, both of whom show up on Clinton's new disc. Older fans will hear the funk elsewhere, be it in the diluted presence of Bernie Worrell in the Late Show With David Letterman band or in Worrell's and Bootsy's dirtier work on the new release by avant-funksters Golden Palominos. Be you teenaged, tame or temerarious, you can run from the funk, but you cannot hide.

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Dave McElfresh