We said, "We gonna be the blackest, we gonna be the funkiest, we gonna be dirty." You turned on a Funkadelic record with earphones on, drums running across your head, panning the foot, we panned everything. Matter of fact, you didn't even have to be high to get off into that. We went to colleges where they wasn't taking anything, but they was tripping on the records. Like I said, (studio) engineers didn't even want to be a part of it, until they saw how it was working.
— George Clinton
George Clinton (July 22, 1940 — )
is a legendary musician, band leader and record producer. Regarded by fans around the world as "Dr. Funkenstein
," his pioneering work during the 1970s in popularizing a variation of R&B
music known as funk
has influenced generations of musicians. While his contemporary James Brown
may rightfully claim the title of "The Godfather of Soul," Clinton's work in forming and guiding his large band of eclectic musicans played an equally important role in shaping the style and sound of modern American music, from R&B and soul, to rap
, hip-hop and even rock. If you're a fan of bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers
or Rage Against The Machine
, you owe a debt of thanks to George Clinton.
Born the eldest of nine children in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Clinton's family moved to Newark, New Jersey when he was still a young child. As a teenager he worked as a barber in nearby Plainfield, where he developed his singing skills and made friends with several high school classmates that would later form the core of his first band, The Parliaments, in 1956. A doo-wop a cappella group similar to many popular acts of the era, they performed around the Newark area for several years, honing their harmonic talents and making a name for themselves. Taking their moniker from a brand of cigarettes, The Parliaments' first record, a song called "Poor Willie," was recorded in 1958.
I started The Parliaments in 1956 in Newark. I couldn't sing for shit. Couldn't but one of the guys in the group harmonize — Charles "Butch" Davis. I was singing falsetto and bass. I saw some pictures of the group not too long ago. Our first day of the seventh grade, I think it was. I talked to Glenn, he said he's still got the sweater. He said, "Man, you really made something out of that shit we was doing back then? You crazy."
In 1963 the group moved to Detroit
in hopes of recording for Motown
, but ended up landing a contract with Revilot Records, a small independent label. Numerous releases came to fruition in the years that followed, including the 1967 hit "(I Wanna) Testify," which reached Billboard
magazine's top five on the R&B charts and top twenty on the pop charts. Clinton also met with commercial success by writing songs for other groups, including The Jackson Five
and diva Diana Ross
. He would later come to regret the fact that part of The Parliaments' contract stipulated that the record label took ownership of the band's name. As a result, he left Revilot in 1968, taking the members of The Parliaments and forming a new group called Funkadelic.
Encouraged by their hit record and riding the cultural shift of American music as the Sixties reached its peak, Funkadelic was the realization of The Parliaments' evolution into a complexly layered psychedelic mixture of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. Putting the barbershop vocal stylings aside for a generous dose of LSD and the new technology of electronic music, Clinton's Funkadelic exploded on to the music scene with wild stage productions, outrageous lyrics and a mind-blowing brass section. Claiming to be black people from outer space, the group's costumes and hair styles during live performances were so over-the-top that their terrestrial origins did indeed seem suspect. The new band signed on with Westbound Records, and a series of successful records followed, starting with their self-titled debut album in 1970.
First we were straight. Straight suits and clean. Then, when the hippies came, we took it to exaggeration. We wore sheets, we wore the suit bags that our suits came in. And it was funny to us, 'cause we came from a barbershop, we knew how to make you look cool, so we never felt uncool. We had fun doing it. Plus, I knew Jimi Hendrix did it. To me, that's the ultimate, Jimmy James. If he done changed to get that deep, "Oh, okay, here's another style."
Clinton filed a lawsuit against Revilot Records in 1969 and won back the right to use the name The Parliaments
, forming a new group called Parliament
in 1970 consisting of the same musicians who were members of Funkadelic. In an ingenious attempt to reach a wider audience, Clinton recorded more "accessible" songs that focused on vocals with Parliament, leaving the heavily drug-influenced instrumental funkiness to Funkadelic. He signed up the "new" band with Casablanca Records
and released many well-received Parliament albums over the course of the following decade. Since the two bands were really one, the term Parliament Funkadelic
, or P-Funk
for short, came into common usage.
Around this time, Clinton's hair style became something of a trademark. Undoubtably inspired by jazz master Sun Ra as well as the psychoactive substances he was consuming, Clinton took to sporting a colorful array of dread locks and braids woven with multicolored ribbons, beads and other accouterments. He has maintained this fashion to the present day, as it continues to make him visually distinctive.
I guess when we took acid, we really did get loony and didn't know it. 'Cause we was goofing for the most part, and then we realized that people was really into it. I didn't never want to be pretentious about shit, so I would always make sure I wasn't being funny. I wasn't no guru, 'cause I'm still trying to get some pussy; I don't want nobody taking me seriously like I ain't. If you catch me smoking a joint, don't fuck with me. A little acid or whatever, you know what I'm saying? 'Cause I ain't said it was all that.
Many famous instrumentalists have been a part of Parliament and Funkadelic over the years, including master of the bass guitar Bootsy Collins
and sax man Maceo Parker
. A number of spinoff groups have resulted from the P-Funk experience as well, several of which Clinton has been a part of or worked with in the capacity of producer.
Following the rapid decline of disco in the early 1980s, the visibility of Clinton's bands began to diminish somewhat, but his influence remained strong. In managing the multitude of splinter groups from P-Funk and their various recording deals, Clinton had his hand in the evolution of the funk through numerous advances in recording technology — most notably that of sampling. By 1989, select bits of his discography with P-Funk found their way into new recordings by rap and hip-hop artists like De La Soul, and most notably on Dr. Dre's 1993 album The Chronic.
Clinton's seminal music style became something of a staple of influence for many bands during the 1990s, and he has appeared as himself in several motion pictures, including House Party and Prince's film Graffiti Bridge. His output of new music has continued unabated, and includes several solo albums during the 1990s as well as production work for a number of popular artists across a spectrum of musical styles.
In 1997, Parliament Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As of this writing, George Clinton lives in Tallahassee, Florida and continues his life's work of bringing the funk to the music world through a variety of new recording and production projects.
I'm glad the rappers kept the funk alive. And I think I've made myself learn how to respect and appreciate what they're doing so I can do it and not seem like I'm trying to be twenty years old. I mean, I can quote "Follow the Leader" from beginning to end, you know what I'm saying? Rakim — that's like Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar the way that boy raps. So they kept it alive, and we're back here ready. Most people are in love with us surviving. They love the fact that we're doing it again. To them, that's like a reassurance to themselves that they can do it, too.
Selected North American Discography
Parliament Funkadelic/P-Funk All Stars
P-Funk All Stars
All quotes in this writeup are from George Clinton.
My mother told me I was born in an outhouse. She was on her way to the bathroom. I almost got wiped out! And that's a true story.
Marsh, Dave (editor). George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History. ©1998 Avon Books, Inc.
"Clinton, George (musician)." http://encarta.msn.com/ ©1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation.
"Atomic Dawg's P-Funk News." http://www.atomicdawg.com/
Rolling Stone Issue 902 (source for exact date of birth).
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