black history month: george clinton, the king of funk (re-issue)

February 3, 2012

What makes an artist part of the Afro-punk community should be pretty self-explanatory; it’s right there in the portmanteau. But the complicated truth is that there as many different ways to define racial identity as there are ways to define genres of music. The roots of Afro-punk predate the first slave to sing in defiance and continue through modern artists who may not have ever heard a note of Bad Brains. That is to say; what makes an artist Afro-punk exists in how they look at the world, and their commitment to standing tall and declaring “fuck it, I’m going to make my art on my own terms.” In celebration of Black History Month, Afro-punk is spotlighting artists who may not be punk in the strictest definition but who posses that ineffable spirit of rebellion and artistic adventure.

Words by Nathan Leigh

It’s possible in one light to view George Clinton and Funkadelic as the antithesis of punk. His songs are long and sprawling and put an emphasis on musical virtuosity generally absent in punk. Hell, his band’s name is literally synonymous with an entire genre of music. But the fact remains that there are few artists who have achieved so much and influenced so many without ever compromising his need to make his art his way. The mastermind behind the supergroup Parliament-Funkadelic (now known as the P-Funk All Stars), Clinton released 19 albums from 1970 and 1981 that defined funk and kickstarted the Afrofuturist movement. In a career that’s spanned over 50 years, he’s influenced everything from NWA to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, from Fishbone to the Big Boys, and been sampled by nearly every hip hop artist in the history of the genre.

The 70’s were a hard time for most people. The US was mired in an endless conflict in a nation most Americans couldn’t find on a map, while our government was embroiled in corruption scandals. Gas prices skyrocketed while unemployment did the same. Dance music and arena rock became homogenized monoliths making it nearly impossible for innovative musicians to compete. It was basically nothing like things are now. For the black communities in America especially it was a time of massive disenfranchisement. While the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s had succeeded in ending legislative discrimination, it hadn’t done anything to alleviate the ingrained institutionalized racism or the ghettoization of American cities.
The same way white kids in Manchester and New York were defiantly embracing and externalizing their feelings of otherness with dyed spiked hair and torn clothes, Clinton and company took it one step further. If they were to be treated as outsiders in American society, then they’d take it to the logical extreme. They weren’t just outsiders in America, they were from another planet.

After nearly a decade of failing to find success with his doo-wop band The Parliaments, Clinton relocated to Detroit in the late 60’s, finding work as a writer for Motown. The Parliaments had a minor hit with (I Wanna) Testify in 1967, but during contract negotiations with their label Revillot Records, Clinton lost the rights to the name The Parliaments. Clinton moved forward with the 5 piece backing band he had put together for The Parliaments in ’64 and dubbed them Funkadelic.

The new group released their self debut in 1970, a mix of psychedelic blues, RnB, soul, and prototypical funk. It featured the backing band with the Parliaments singers on backing vocals. The album owes a heavy debt to Hendrix’s more acid tinged experiments with bits of Sly and the Family Stone mixed in for good measure. With heavily effected vocals, an impossibly deep groove, and Clinton’s meandering lyrics, the album might as well come with a few tabs of acid. Meanwhile the same personnel released the album Osmium in 1970 under the name Parliament.

Where Funkadelic explored the wide open spaces and surreal corners of funk, Parliament was a (comparatively) more straightforward pop band. The major difference was that Funkadelic was about the band, with the singers only there for ambiance, where Parliament was a more vocally driven band. The sonic experiments were minimized, and the songs had more traditional structures. Clinton envisioned the two bands as representing two different approaches to funk. Unfortunately contractual issues again forced Clinton to abandon the name Parliament after their first album.

For the first half of the decade Clinton toured with Funkadelic with the Parliament singers functioning as back-up singers, releasing a steady stream of acid-fried blues and funk. The epic guitar solo Maggot Brain in particular bears little in common with what most people think of as funk, but has remained one of Clinton’s most enduring songs. During the Funkadelic period, Clinton was often associated with guitar driven fellow Detroit acts like the MC5, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and Iggy Pop. Iggy’s manager even went so far as to promote a mock marriage between Clinton and Iggy. (Sadly it never ended up happening. Try to imagine a party featuring the godfathers of funk, punk, and metal all hanging out in one room and tell me you don’t go all fanboy for a second.)

In 1974 Clinton regained the rights to the name Parliament and released the album Up for the Downstroke. The album prominently featured Clinton’s newest band member, bass player Bootsy Collins, and bore all the hallmarks of funk. A rubbery bass pushed up to the front of the mix, a simple danceable groove, wah guitar, slithering sexy horns, big group chants, and all the hand claps you could ever want. This wasn’t party music, this was political music you could dance to. Clinton wanted to inspire positive social change with his music at the same time that he made you dance. With Up for the Downstroke and its’ follow-up Chocolate City, Clinton and company created the sonic blueprint for funk, but it was Parliament’s fourth album that defined Clinton’s legacy.

Inspired by sci-fi and Sun Ra’s “Black Noah,” Parliament and Funkadelic concocted an elaborate and bizarre mythology over the course of their next several albums telling the story of the Star Child (played on stage by Gary Shider), a servant to Dr. Funkenstein, the master of intergalactic outer space Funk (the source of all of life’s energy). The two fight against Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk and his ally Rumpofsteelskin. The band members adopted stage names and wore increasingly silly costumes (the Star Child uniform was made from bed sheets and crayons) with a large stage prop of the Mothership that would fly in during their classic song “Mothership Connection.”

As an indisputable indication of Clinton’s influence on the last 40 years of music, a replica of the original Mothership was recently acquired by the Smithsonian for inclusion in an exhibit on African American music. The mothership most definitely has landed.

In the late 70’s, original members of both the Parliaments and Funkadelic began deserting the band citing complaints about Clinton’s management. Meanwhile contractual difficulties again forced Clinton to abandon the name Parliament. He redubbed the band the P-Funk All Stars and continued to tour and record. His debut solo record Computer Games was released in 1982 spawning the hits “Atomic Dog” and “Loop Zilla.” Nearly every track on Computer Games has been sampled and recycled into hits for hip hop artists. Snoop Dogg’s first single “What’s My Name?” makes extensive use of “Atomic Dog’s” chorus.

It’s impossible to overstate George Clinton’s legacy. Dr. Dre’s entire 90’s career consisted of sampling P-Funk riffs and adding an 808 beat to it. Hence the term G-Funk. Every single bass player and drummer since 1972 has at one point or another busted out their best Bootsy Collins impression. It might just be simpler to make a list of people George Clinton had no influence on. So here goes.

People George Clinton didn’t influence in any way:

1. The dude from Nickelback
2. Karl Rove

In many ways Clinton’s Afrofuturism is the opposite side of the same coin as punk rock. Both are reactions to hardship that seek to embrace otherness, while championing social change. The big difference is punk’s nihilistic streak vs. funk’s optimism. Where punk decrees “everything sucks, nothing matters, let’s get fucked up and have some fun!”, George Clinton’s funk believes that while things may be hard on this world, somewhere out in space there’s an endless party. Somewhere in the infinite reaches of the galaxy, there’s a black planet where things must be better than they are here. And through Clinton’s ridiculous costumes and silly mythology is the desperate need for a world like that to exist. That relentless optimism in the face of everything else is what makes Clinton a beloved cultural icon. We don’t just want the funk, we need the funk. Gotta have the funk.