"Hip hop saved funk," Clinton told the Independent from his studio in Florida last week, where he's recording his forthcoming album.
Clinton, leader of the multigenerational, cosmic funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic, explains that his newfound popularity depends largely on hip-hop's growing fan base. Although he has been bringing one nation under his groove since the '50s, dance music aficianados are as likely to recognize his signature sounds from rap recordings as they are from the long-playing releases on which they debued.
Typical of my generation, the first Clinton lick I heard was a "Knee Deep" sample on the tripped out hip-hop trio De La Soul's "Me, Myself and I." That snippet sparked me to listen to Clinton classics such as One Nation Under a Groove and Mothership Connection.
I became an immediate fan, surprised that music from back in the day could sound so inventive, with the power to make me want to drop everything and shake a serious leg. But way back in the mid-'80s, Clinton's career was on the wane. One of the originators of American funk, Clinton had not enjoyed commercial success since the single "Atomic Dog" reached number one in 1983 (when I was 11-years-old).
During the rise of hair rock and super glossy R&B, Clinton's P-Funk was nearly forgotten. But as the '90s rolled in, hip-hop traded the hooptie of urban notoriety for the rimmed-up Benz of mainstream popularity-and Clinton's career was reborn. As the sample-heavy age dawned, it was clear already where hip-hop's main musical inspiration was coming from; before the current bubblegum disco renaissance, there was no escaping Clinton's raunchy loops, who surpasses Godfather of Soul James Brown as the most sampled artist around.
"Ice Cube told me, 'We them Clones of Dr. Funkenstein you was talking about," Clinton says, referring to the 1976 Parliament album by the same name.
Clinton goes on to say some expected him to be angry that his music was forming the backbone of hits by rap superstars ranging from Public Enemy to MC Hammer, and others, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Ice Cube. But being a shrewd man, he formed an alliance with the rap world instead, collaborated with many and set a whole new generation of booties quaking.
Clinton founded The Parliaments in the late '50s. After a copyright dispute, the band changed its name to Parliament and scored their first hit with 1967's "(I Wanna) Testify."
Influenced by Jimi Hendrix and the Detroit proto-punks MC5, as well as the later Black Power movement, Clinton started Funkadelic around 1970, emphasizing instrumentation over vocals. Parliament took a back seat to his new project, but together Parliament and Funkadelic have always been interrelated collaboratives shaped by Clinton's chaotic, imminently danceable sensibilities.
Keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell joined Funkadelic shortly after the first album was released. A musician trained at the New England Conservatory, Worrell's melodies helped raise the band to a higher funk sphere. Legendary bassist Bootsy Collins and under-appreciated guitarist Gary "Starchild" Shider (that's Shider on "Maggotbrain") were also soon added to this increasingly innovative mix. Saxophonist and James Brown sideman Maceo Parker provided a new horny dimension, ushering in the re-birth of Parliament.
The bands' politics and intricate cosmology led to concept albums with connected characters and themes. Although many of the characters had cartoonish names like Starchild, Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose, the meaning behind the lyrics was often deeply political. Black pride messages like the ones in "Chocolate City," an ode to getting the vote out, were coupled with inclusionary anthems like "One Nation Under a Groove." The resulting tunes took the project to yet another new level
Clinton describes funk as "music, theater, a way of life.... basically, anything you need to survive." In other words-in Clinton's words, in fact-free your mind and your ass will follow.
The success of P-Funk driven rap has led Clinton in a different direction for the better part of a decade-in particular, creating music for the Funk-Hop Generation, a new vision still on point and in effect. With a fresh Funkadelic album in the works as well, featuring his 20-year-old granddaughter Shouda rapping, Clinton says: "Now, we're sampling the people that sampled us."
It's a lovely relationship: funk gives birth to hip-hop, hip-hop inspires a comeback.
For the P-Funk All-Stars stop in Missoula, Clinton says, a four-hour show is planned, with as many as 22 musicians on stage at any given time. Core members of the band, such as Shider and Mike Hampton, will be on hand-along with Mud Bone and P-nut, members of the Bootsy Collins' band. Clinton says Bootsy suggested P-Funk stop here in the first place.
Those of us at the 1994 Bootsy's Rubber Band show knew intuitively we were being considered for recruitment in Uncle Jam's Army.
At that show, Missoulians went all out, proving they were willing to get funked up. The crowd turned out in its finest freak-of-the-week gear, and the dancing was non-stop. I remember the surprise in Collins' voice when he told the audience we had contradicted his unfunky notions of Montana.
Perhaps he hadn't realized how fully primed and ready most of us were after incessantly listening to Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Snoop's Doggystyle. After getting teased by such albums, we wanted our funk uncut.
George Clinton wouldn't have it any other way. As funk's elderstatesman, he says, he sees advantages to newcomers discovering his music through modern re-workings rather than hearing it on tired compilations. "Kids don't always want to hear their parents' music. It's better for them to hear it through sampling than on some K-Tel collection they see on TV," he says.
George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars play the UM Fieldhouse, Wednesday, April 1, at 8p.m. Tickets, $20, available at all TIC-It-EZ outlets, call 1-800-Montana. Photo by Marcy Guiragossian.