According to George Clinton, the chief architect of funk, the definition of funk is "to do the best you can in life and after that, funk it." Considering his reputation, it's ironic that Clinton's first band was a doo-wop-style group modeled after Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
“The whole doo-wop thing was to make it to Motown Records," Clinton says. "By the time we got a hit record with 'I Wanna Testify,' it was 1967. That style was peaking and the British invasion was happening and all that. We had to make sure we didn't look like the Ink Spots. We had to turn around midstream, throw our suits away and start wearing flags."
His change in musical taste birthed Parliament, which was quickly followed by the Funkadelic. A melding of rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel and psychedelic rock, the music was extremely innovative at the time. Each group had a distinct identity and alternated releases into the late '70s on a variety of labels, with Clinton dividing his time between the two. Parliament was essentially a horn-based soul group and Funkadelic was a guitar-driven rock group, but both were built on the foundation of funk. Now almost 70 years old, Clinton is still touring, which is a feat in itself.
“Funk has its own built-in energy. It starts you up when you want to sit down. I got too much funk left. I’ll play until they pull the plug. After that, I’m ready to go in outer space for real. If you see an alien, that’s probably me,” he says matter-of-factly.
Clinton’s raspy voice has clearly taken a beating over the years. It’s not surprising, given his age and the endless touring he’s done since the 60’s. His long career with Parliament Funkadelic paid off in 1997 when the group was inducted into Cincinnati’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When asked what made them a permanent part of music history, his answer was simple.
“Evolution. We always try to change. We pay attention to whatever new is coming out. We found a way to pick up on the kind of music kids love and parents hate,“ he says. “We’ve been lucky enough to use that as a barometer. Our shows are a like a circus show now. We have grandchildren and great-great grandchildren all coming out to the shows. I have a granddaughter in my band.”
“We’ve had enough time to do all kinds of music. We took advantage of that from rock-n-roll to doo-wop to pop to rock to Motown to the kind of rock-n-roll we did at the end of the 60’s,” he continues. “That was Funkadelic. We did stuff with Sly Stone and Bootsy Collins then moved on to hip-hop in the 80’s and the 90’s.”
Hip-hop almost single-handedly kept the heart of Parliament Funkadelic beating. Clinton and company currently encompass a musical empire that has spawned an entire movement in pop culture. The pioneering work of Parliament/Funkadelic in the 70s - driven by Clinton's conceptually imaginative mind and the band members' tight ensemble - prefigured everything from rap and hip-hop to techno and alternative rock. Rap artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Souls of Mischief, Snoop Dogg, Outkast, 2Pac and, most recently, WuTang Clan, have repeatedly sampled Clinton's work and credit him as one of their main influences. In fact, Clinton is second only to James Brown as the most heavily sampled artist.
“Funk got that doo doo in it. It’s the shit [laughs]. We’ve always liked all kinds of music. I can see people liking it because we incorporate everything that’s around us. It’s easy to get into it. All you have to do is sample a little of it. That’s why they call it dope. Hip-hop kept it alive. Now everybody samples it. Everyone started sampling my stuff in the early 80’s so we took a break [laughs]. The booty will betray you if you don’t dance.”
As odd as that may sound to some people, he’s got a point. The world would probably be a much better place if we all just kept it one nation under a groove and danced a little. The Red Sky Festival will provide the perfect opportunity as Clinton is one of the headliners.
“I think now we need to get one planet under the groove and we’ll be alright,” he concludes.