Taken from Indy Week (Apr 26, 2017)
Onstage or in a Museum, George Clintonâ€™s Cult of Personality Keeps on Funking
by Brandon Soderberg
Photo by William Thoren
It wasn't a national election year, but in 1975 George Clinton was campaigning with a whole new plan for the country.
On the title track to Parliament's Chocolate City, over an instrumental brimming with black music history, past, present, and futureâ€”searching Coltrane horn-drone, Thelonious Monk-like piano-pounding, Nina Simone-like wails, James Brown-tightened soul, and futurist synthesizersâ€”Clinton cooks up a whole new cabinet: Muhammad Ali is the President, Reverend Ike is Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Pryor is Minister of Education, Stevie Wonder is in charge of the arts, and Aretha Franklin's the First Lady.
"They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition," Clinton quips early in the song. And later on, "We didn't get our forty acres and a mule, but we did get you CC."
Here, Clinton and company celebrate a majority black city, a glimmer of hope in the hangdog seventies, and make it empowering, silly, and literal: Chocolate City's cover art shows a coin featuring the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building all drenched in chocolate.
"One day, sitting around the house, I heard someone on the news saying that Washington, D.C., was eighty percent black. A little light went on in my head," is how Clinton describes Chocolate City's concept in his 2014 autobiography, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?: A Memoir.
More than all the great songs and all the great songs that sampled or swiped moves from P-Funk, the most lasting legacy of Clinton, who headlines Art of Cool this weekend, is the way in which he cultivated a cult of personality and a radical prism through which his many fans might better understand the world, find some hope, and fit in.
You see Clinton's world building in Beyonce's Beyhive, in Lady Gaga's Little Monsters, and in whatever it is Lil B has kept going for a decade. It's in those listeners who dissect the nooks and crannies of every Kendrick Lamar song, and in any number of scenes or political factions demanding full-stop dedication, for better or worse. Really, the whole Internet full of subcultures and communities leaking into real life feels rather P-Funkish, a too-much-at-once maximalism that we all live now, thanks to the Internet and late-capitalist chaos. Clinton captured it decades ago when sensory overload was an everyday happening for young black men and women bombarded by racist contrarianism, micro-aggressions, macro-aggressions, and threats of violence.
Born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Clinton jumped to Philly then Jersey, then Detroit, Michigan, (another chocolate city) where he constructed warped takes on Motown by way of his disheveled doo-wop crew, the Parliaments. His integrity and hardheadedness were so strong that he didn't know how to go pop on anybody else's terms. Hip to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone's political rock squeal, Clinton founded the hard-rocking Funkadelic and, later, the hard-funking Parliament. These two sonically distinct outfits mostly shared members and became the new vanguard of black music. Bass hero Bootsy Collins left James Brown's band to join Parliament because, increasingly, he couldn't get down with J.B.'s despotic utopianism musicâ€”especially once LSD showed up and broke Bootsy's brain into a thousand puzzle pieces. P-Funk was a better fit.
Fully operational, the P-Funk cult strutted through the seventies, cranking out bouncing hits and a wild live show marked by out-there costumes and characters, and a mother ship that would fly off to a better world at the end of their concerts. Because great things can't last forever, P-Funk collapsed due to record-label nonsense in the eightiesâ€”Clinton still had hits, especially 1982's "Atomic Dog," but something was lost in the music that followed. From there, Clinton became a uniting figure for generations, influencing everything, inspiring crowd-surfing frat boys, grown folks at fests like Art of Cool, and cosigning fellow pop freaks such as OutKast and Kendrick Lamar.
Clinton's influence is so wide-ranging that nearly every performer with a touch of rhythm in them, including most at Art of Cool, wouldn't be around without him. The Art of Cool performer most similar to Clinton, however, is activist minister Reverend William Barber II. Clinton "thr[ows] the standard gospel-soul formula ('We Shall Overcome') on their heads," Rickey Vincent writes in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. Barber, though a touch more grounded, pretty much does the same. He'll be speaking at Art of Cool about HB 2 before Common's performance Friday night.
And at the Democratic National Convention, where most non-North Carolinians first encountered Barber, he presented a reading of Christ that, for many, might be as out-there as Clinton's funk-ified biomythography making,
"Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken, and the bruised and all those who are made to feel unaccepted," Barber declared not long before Hillary Clinton closed the DNC.
"In Chocolate City, we had imagined a black man in the White House," Clinton writes in his autobiography. "That would take thirty-four years to come true."
Two years after Chocolate City though, Clinton warned of the whitelash, as it were, on 1977's Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome. There, he demanded everybody arm themselves with "the bop gun," turning funk into a literal weapon to combat squares and assorted honky bullshit. The bop gun was mostly aimed at Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, a whiny square who wouldn't give up the funk.
Chocolate City feels like it's run by a cavalcade of Sir Nose D'Voidoffunks these days. The gag on the song was how outrageous of an idea a White House stacked with likeminded radicals from the fringes of the mainstream would be; now we have a reality show president and number of nutbars from racist corners of the Internet consulting him.
But not too far from the White House, on the top floor of the newly opened National African-American Museum of History and Culture, P-Funk's mother ship is parked. The original mothership got scrapped back in the eighties when P-Funk's money was a mess, so the museum item is a replica. But it's still soaked in plenty of funk from the nineties, when George Clinton's star rose again. It's not the Clinton-appointed cabinet imagined back in 1975, but a gesture toward something restorative nonetheless.