Taken from Chicago Tribune (May 14, 2015)
George Clinton’s bottomless well of funk
by Steve Knopper exclusive for Chicago Tribune
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic band perform on stage at the 26th Bluesfest in Byron Bay, Australia on April 6.
Over 10 minutes, Funkadelic's "Baby Like Fonkin' It Up" throws in about 17 different types of melody — horns play jazz, singers trill familiar-sounding "da da das," a rapper demands to "promise you'll keep the funk" and George Clinton's unmistakably hoarse baritone cackles and spews out a nonsensical rhyme ending in "till you hiccup." These melodic chants and choruses have been key to Clinton's bandleading empire, which includes Parliament, Funkadelic and an amalgamation of the two known as P-Funk, since he began reinventing funk music in his own cartoonish image in the late '60s.
"I said, 'The only thing that'll make a difference to what James Brown is doing is put a lot of melody on top of it,'" Clinton says, in a phone interview, from a tour stop in Pensacola, Fla. "It was basically James Brown playing jazz, but when you put the melodies of Motown (on top), we could do anything we wanted to do."
At first, Clinton was a singer in a doo-wop band, which spent much of the '50s performing at a New Jersey barbershop where he straightened hair. Inspired by like-minded Motown stars such as the Temptations and the Four Tops, Clinton drove his band to Detroit and failed an audition at the famous soul-music record label. But he stuck around Detroit, landing a freelance contract to write songs for the label's founder, Berry Gordy Jr., and a hippie-ish subculture of his own in the city's Plum Street neighborhood. In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Clinton called Motown "sophisticated," but said his bands were "trying to be as gross as possible ... going in the opposite direction."
Clinton and his dozens of musicians soon evolved into something looser and more outrageous. You can hear a hint of this anarchy in the band's first hit, 1967's "(I Wanna) Testify," full of voices and horns marching at cross-purposes. "We got out of that bag after 'Testify' — we didn't have to go back in a bag after that!" the amiable Clinton recalls, in his deep, hoarse and sometimes incomprehensible voice. "We did such a wide range of things, you didn't really know what our bag really is."
Inspired by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Sly and the Family Stone and, above all, LSD, Clinton built a new band, Funkadelic, into something unprecedented in pop music. He hired mainstays in Brown's bands, from trombonist Fred Wesley to bassist Bootsy Collins, and gave them a respite from the Godfather of Soul's legendary discipline and strictness. Shifting to a second band, Parliament, Clinton came up with smash funk hits such as "Up for the Down Stroke," "Flash Light," "Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" and "Chocolate City"; the bandleader expanded the band's mythology with elaborate props and characters, including the massive Mothership (now in the Smithsonian), Dr. Funkenstein, Sir Nose D'voidoffunk and a guitarist in a diaper.
In those days, the band was hyperaware of its reputation in contrast to James Brown (whom Clinton says he met "a couple of times," mostly through Collins). "We laughed about it all the time," he says. "But even though they say how hard he was, every one of them got that discipline from him, so they could run your operation so easy. They had to love it, because they were an extremely tight band in an extremely tight situation."
Parliament's hits continued through the early '80s, and Clinton continued to run P-Funk as a popular touring operation — just as younger stars such as Digital Underground, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were lionizing Clinton as an important pioneer. (His 1993 solo hit, "Paint the White House Black," includes hilarious cameos from numerous stars, including Dr. Dre, who signs off with "peace and hair grease.")
But some 30 years ago, Clinton also developed a crack-smoking habit. Although he kicked it in 2011, after an emergency LA hospital visit, Clinton won't say much about his drug history, but he insists that he's forcing himself to stay clean in order to fight a company called Bridgeport Music Inc., which owns most of his publishing copyrights. "I'm going to keep it on the front burner until I can get a federal investigation," he says. "That's what it needs. It's not something unless it gets a lot of attention."
Clinton has been intensely busy in recent years — in 2014, he put out Funkadelic's 33-track album "First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate" (which contains "Baby Like Fonkin' It Up" as well as a collaboration with reclusive friend Sly Stone) and his autobiography "Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?" He's also an owner of MixMine.com, which helps DJs get the rights to remix old hits into new tracks, and is working on the new "Medicaid Fraud Dog," which he plans to release later this year. "I have to keep my career strong if I'm going to keep fighting for this copyright issue. I've got to make my presence brand new. I can't rely on what I've done," he says. "I've lost about 80 pounds. It's a workout. I'm getting in shape for whatever it's going to