George Clinton will never lose the respect of the children of the P, not so long as hip-hoppers continue sampling such Rosetta Stones of funk as “Atomic Dog,” “Flashlight” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” Actually, that isn’t the point at all: his unassailable stature as the primary architect of booty-moving funk is as solid and reliable as the monumental grooves of his music. That’s a given. The tricky bit for an active musical legend like Clinton is staying in the game as a contemporary contender, not just the beloved igniter of an eternal flame. In a culture so dependent on change, there are precious few veterans who can — if they even opt to try — keep doing the hip moves without looking like grandpa in bellbottoms.
This national treasure’s musical concepts are so wide- ranging and generous that he’s needed an entire roster of groups — creating dozens of albums — to work them out. During Clinton’s ’70s heyday, there were two main exponents for his genius. Parliament (an outgrowth of the Parliaments, a doo-wop group dating back to the mid-’50s that had a 1967 hit with “(I Wanna) Testify”), which played idiosyncratic R&B with an initial emphasis on harmony vocals; Funkadelic, meanwhile, played exactly what its name implied — psychedelic funk. Clinton invented the form, and subsequent practitioners of it — from Prince to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose second album Clinton produced) and beyond — are deeply in his debt.
Numerous members of the huge Parliament/Funkadelic crew have also wielded enormous influence. Having reinvented funk bass playing for James Brown in the late ’60s, Bootsy Collins did it again for Clinton, and without keyboardist Bernie Worrell the lexicon of synth bass licks would be substantially thinner.
While Clinton really didn’t distinguish himself as a great player or singer, his ideas (both verbal and musical) have always been audacious, uninhibited and ahead of their time. As the ’70s went on, Funkadelic got deeper and deeper. The classic One Nation Under a Groove (1978) remains a touchstone for many musical cultures. In the meantime, Parliament got sillier and sillier, putting out albums replete with high voices and squiggly sounds. Still, P-Funk (as the whole shebang came to be known) hits — monsters like “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” (now an essential hip-hop sample) and “Flash Light” — are simply unstoppable.
Clinton closed the P-Funk umbrella in the early ’80s, but continued to give up the funk under his own name. Computer Games‘ title gave the nod to the burgeoning wave of techno-funk that was beginning to overtake almost every other form of dance music; rather than reject the new technology, he adapted it here in his own unique way, resulting in the ace hit single, “Atomic Dog.” You Shouldn’t-Nuf Bit Fish‘s title cut refers to the splitting of the atom — a scientific fish that shouldn’t have bit, leading mankind into the terrifying age of nukes. The rest of the record is more lighthearted and dance-oriented and, like all of Clinton’s records, boasts an all-star cast of funkateers, here including former Parliament vocalist Phillippe Wynne.
Clinton briefly convened the P-Funk All Stars in ’83; Urban Dancefloor Guerrillas is a monstrous dance record pretty much defined by its single, “Generator Pump.”
Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends is a likable but fairly undistinguished effort featuring guest Thomas Dolby. What results from the pairing isn’t quite tension, but one does get the sense that while Clinton wanted the (then) hot Dolby for added commercial viability, Dolby would like nothing better than to be Clinton.
R&B Skeletons in the Closet has vocals by ex- Miss America (and soon to be a solo singing star) Vanessa Williams; here immortal phrasemaker Clinton asked the musical question “Do Fries Go with That Shake?” Otherwise, it was business as usual, with very little of the roots alluded to in the title overtly evident in the grooves.
In 1986, Capitol issued an ersatz best-of that reproduced one whole side (but not the title track) of Fish. Unnecessary to be sure, but if it was the only Clinton record available, you’d find it entertaining enough. The Mothership Connection (Live From Houston) pairs a side of vintage live P-Funk with three selections (including “Atomic Dog,” which is also on The Best Of) from the Capitol studio LPs.
After laying low for a while (but doing theme music for The Tracey Ullman Show), Clinton resurfaced to co- produce the Incorporated Thang Band’s Lifestyles of the Roach and Famous with Bootsy Collins. The following year, signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, he made the excellent (and slightly purple-tinted) The Cinderella Theory, with guest shots by such young admirers as Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. (The album includes another canine-based hit, “Why Should I Dog U Out?”) Various co-productions and an appearance on Prince’s Graffiti Bridge soundtrack followed.
Clinton in the ’90s was aided immeasurably by his crazy cool, his easy rapport with rap stars raised on the crypto-spiritual essence of his P-Funk records, the corporate support of an influential fan, the growing knowledge of vintage funk among a wide audience exposed to it via roundabout channels and the election of a president with the same surname. An endless road of muscle- relaxing, mind-boggling four-hour partyjam throwdowns (trimmed back to a mere blip in time for the short- attention-span Lollapalooza crowd in ’94) kept Clinton’s reputation for doing it until everyone’s satisfied intact, while an intermittent flow of reissues (like Tear the Roof Off 1974-1980, an annotated two-CD compilation of classics released in ’93) has made some of his voluminous back catalogue available to those who need it.
The only area where the 1940-born (in North Carolina) titan has slowed way down is in the record-making department. Signing to Prince’s ill-fated Paisley Park label added only two new albums to his discography (which had stalled out with the end of his Capitol deal in the mid- ’80s; Atomic is a cassette of remixes). The Cinderella Theory and Hey Man…Smell My Finger are similar in that they both find room for enormous rosters of celebrity vocalists (given more to do than simply tributary shoutouts) and manage to preserve Clinton’s brightly hued personality and rhythmic primacy in comfortably modern settings. That said, the first is appreciably more self-conscious in its attempt to reassert relevance to the R&B mainstream, while the follow-up shows Clinton’s growing ease in and around hip-hop. (He even does the most conventional thing imaginable: sample old P-Funk jams!)
The Cinderella Theory‘s “Why Should I Dog U Out?” inverts Clinton’s influence on Prince with falsetto vocals and crisp one-chord guitar action, but the whimsical lyrics (and interpolation of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”) are strictly George’s. Otherwise, the album is a bit plain, making a few good ideas go a long way, and relying heavily on Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and Chuck D for the music-analyzing “Tweakin’,” bits of which found their way to Smell My Finger‘s “Paint the White House Black.”
Clinton’s second Paisley Park album is stronger fun, boasting the epic “White House,” the chanted anthem “Rhythm and Rhyme” and the Rodney King-defending “Martial Law.” (It also has “If True Love,” a soggy soul ballad co-written and sung by Clinton’s son Trey Lewd, and “The Big Pump,” a dopey club collaboration with Prince.) Among the cameos popping out of the speakers are Ice Cube, Bootsy Collins, Kam, Dr. Dre, Humpty Hump (Digital Underground), Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Yo Yo. If Clinton sometimes seems to have left the building while his fans do the work (he produced — but didn’t have a hand in writing — all the tracks, and his audible contributions are intermittent), Smell My Finger is nonetheless his record through and through. But then so are plenty of others that were recorded with only his spirit in the house.