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The Lessons of Dr. Funk

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Detail from the album cover for The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, 1976

In 1976, George Clinton, funk music’s inadvertent impresario, got his spacecraft. On its maiden voyage in New Orleans, the ship, a staggered aluminum cone flanked by eyeball-like lights, emerged midway through a performance by Clinton’s twin bands, Parliament and Funkadelic. Summoned from the heavens by the singing of Glenn Goins, the vehicle’s door opened to release Clinton, a.k.a. Dr. Funkenstein. The timing was a mistake, Clinton realized later, because nothing they did afterward that night could top it. It was also hot under the descending ship, and some of the female singers on stage had to be careful not to get burned. Still, as Clinton recalls in his new memoir, the Mothership came out just the way he had hoped: “like some kind of unholy cross between an American car from the late fifties and early sixties, a piece of equipment from a children’s playground, and a giant insect.”

This kind of sci-fi spectacle was integral to P-Funk, the postmodern and psychedelic brand of funk that Clinton helped innovate. The Seventies was a decade in which popular black music was undergoing rapid changes, and the respectable soul formulas of the past no longer seemed adequate to the times. Spiritual uplift and conventional love lyrics were being supplanted by a music that was more forthright about social anger and despair. “Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers!” goes the intro to a famous Curtis Mayfield song, “Don’t worry… If there’s a hell below, we’re all… gonna go!” The altered situation expressed itself aesthetically as well, with the influence of Sixties rock music on soul, and the arrival of technology that fostered experimentation.

Few acts availed themselves of the new freedoms as wholeheartedly—certainly none as amusingly and outrageously—as Parliament and Funkadelic. The “P” in Clinton’s P-Funk stands, somewhat paradoxically given its mongrel nature, for “pure”; the music is also described as “monster funk.” The most famous P-Funk titles include “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” “Bop Gun (Endangered Species),” and “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.” This is dance music designed to be loud, expansive, and raw: less music for a party than a party unto itself. With all their flamboyant sprawl—at times there were thirty to forty musicians on tour—Parliament and Funkadelic were ill-suited to a contained televised format such as that of Soul Train.

The full title of Clinton’s memoir, written in collaboration with Ben Greenman, is similarly outsize: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? Until recently, written recognition of funk has been scarce. In part, this may be because “funk” has come to connote all that’s comical and dated in urban black music, while “soul” presumes to hoard the reputable. In reality, and despite the break in eras noted above, the two are hard to separate: it usually makes more sense to distinguish between soul and funk records or songs—e.g. Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” vs., say, his “Use Me,” or Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” vs. his killer “Maybe Your Baby”—than between soul and funk performers. For someone like Clinton—who cut his teeth in doo-wop, wrote for Motown briefly, and would later become an influence on hip hop, indeed an enduring part of its sonic and conceptual make-up—the overlap doesn’t even bear a mention. His career crosses musical genres without blinking, and for anyone interested in the evolution of funk music, Brothas Be is an eventful and extremely fascinating story of how these various styles fit together.

Clinton’s ambition was to crossbreed soul with rock music and to out-funk other funk. Between 1970 and 1981, Parliament-Funkadelic released a combined twenty-two albums (not counting the many by spin-off acts), organized around themes ranging from outer space to army recruitment to aquatic life. Some are stronger than others, but what stands out is the unlikely, overall consistency. They were typically conceived of as twins, with the music often recorded during the same sessions, and only afterward assigned to either group based on a given song’s character: on the whole, Funkadelic’s work is darker, more rock-oriented and avant-garde, while Parliament tends to like their sci-fi mythology and spirited party jams.

As for the song formats, they are all over the place. One might have a traditional verse structure and a chorus; another will dispense with choruses entirely; yet another, like “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” will make room for two. In lieu of a chorus, or subsuming a song that begins with one, there might be endless repetition of a refrain—e.g. “Do that stuff!”—sometimes a phrase that Clinton would borrow from the banter of bandmates and lovers, crediting them for writing afterward. The predominant message, if messages can be talked of here, is the saving power of funk, a blissful ideal of getting down to be gestured at with metaphors elemental and mental (e.g. “We’re gonna blow the cobwebs out your mind”), carnal and druggy. Funk is such a force that it generously clones itself for the world’s benefit, and combats its annoying resistors.

Musically, too, the songs are heterogeneous, with different sections taking the lead and others figuring out their places accordingly. The relatively simple “Hit It and Quit It” on Funkadelic’s third album, Maggot Brain (1971), remains so fresh partly due to a little detail, how the female voices act like flutes or whistles, accompanying the central rock guitar riff and spurring it on. Like an even more amped-up “Crosstown Traffic,” the song is threatening to overflow as soon as it begins. On many numbers, Clinton himself narrates with a synthesis of hepcat talk and radio DJ rap. “They say the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill, baby/Call me the big pill,” he says in the tune “Dr. Funkenstein”; periodically he interrupts the refrain, a cartoonish sort of schoolyard or nursery rhyme, with a request to “Kiss me on my ego!”

But there are serious songs too. The affecting “Can You Get to That”—“I once had a life, or rather, life had me/I was one among many, or at least I seemed to be”—walks a tranquil line between personal hopelessness and the larger crumbling of Sixties ideals. “Cosmic Slop” depicts an impoverished mother’s plight, without really yielding to the sentiment you might expect: its dark chorus conjures a dance with the devil. P-Funk has, as well as many songs that are purely loopy and funky, ones that are exalting, romantic, socially prescient, sleazy (jokily sleazy and sleazy-sleazy), and emotionally strange. “There are any number of thoughts and feelings that are valid at any given time, and the goal is to get them all out into the world,” Clinton says in his book. To the horror of soul traditionalists everywhere, he adds, “Smokey Robinson taught me that.”

Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina—according to a tale that is possibly apocryphal but makes mythic sense, in an outhouse. After moving around a bit, his family settled in New Jersey (his father in Newark, his mother in East Orange), a region that in the Fifties was “a breeding ground for the next generation of American music—or more specifically, African American music.” He knew Dionne Warwick and Wayne Shorter when they were kids, saw the Shirelles practice in local apartments, and went with his aunt to concerts at the Apollo Theater in New York. One of his first jobs was sweeping floors at a record store: since returns didn’t exist yet, unwanted vinyl was disposed of in the trash cans out back, a bounty that could be split into piles to keep and sell.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
George Clinton and Garry Shider of Parliament-Funkadelic performing onstage, 1977

The group Clinton joined as a teenager went by the name the Parliaments, after the cigarette brand. Begun as a cluster of Newark-based students, the group sang lighthearted, early R&B songs and gradually became a neighborhood hit. “We were just a bass singer and a bunch of other guys crowding around the same note. But what we lacked in musical sophistication, we made up for in showmanship and enthusiasm,” Clinton recalls. They were still together when he moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, and was supporting a family by cutting hair. His barbershop, the Silk Palace, was “a kind of community center” and looms large in the memoir. It introduced him to new talents, and had a jukebox that let him study the trends. The money it brought in enabled Clinton to make a go of music, and he remained involved with it even as he entered the music industry in Detroit, working first as a writer for Motown’s Jobete publishing company, and later as a jack-of-all-trades for Golden World Records, appeasing a wealthy and eccentric numbers runner.

Brothas Be acknowledges the influence of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, which may not come as a surprise. (With their ingeniously imperfect and loose work in the Seventies, Sly and the Family Stone is one of the few groups that seems close kin to P-Funk; as a God of black rock’n’roll, the Hendrix link feels more symbolic.) But Clinton says he was also looking to Cream, Led Zeppelin (“a sledgehammer with a filigreed handle”), and, unexpectedly, given the distance in their aesthetics and audiences, the Beatles.

One of the most intriguing points to emerge in the memoir is just how consciously Clinton shaped his music, weird and warped that it is, in relation to Motown’s. When the Parliaments auditioned for the powerhouse label in 1962, before Clinton was cherry-picked as a songwriter, he was told that appearances had contributed to their not making the cut:

That unevenness fucked up the sense of visual perfection, and that kind of thing mattered then to Motown, because all kinds of perfection did. The Temptations were all six feet tall and thin and moved together like they were parts of a watch. Motown was a machine and we had a more obvious humanity.

Yet his molding of Parliament-Funkadelic into a carnivalesque collective made of fluidly shifting parts, dropping and picking up members as they went from one album to the next, arose from an original view of P-Funk as a kind of smaller, counter-culture Motown. (And of Motown, in turn, as a single act.) Much of the appeal of Brothas Be is in learning how on Earth it all came together. Eddie Hazel, the virtuosic guitarist and the player of the haunting, Hendrix-worthy solo on the title track of Maggot Brain, was introduced through the barbershop, as was classical piano prodigy Bernie Worrell, central for his keyboard innovations and songwriting role. Before William and Phelps Collins joined—“Bootsy” and “Catfish,” respectively—the brothers had been with James Brown’s band, playing on now classic stompers like “Soul Power” and “The Grunt.” Two of Brown’s key horn players, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, were likewise defectors. On top of playing sax, Parker was a talented and usefully sober and drug-free bandleader. Although the visionary Clinton would become the face of the bands, they were meant to be democratic.

Besides music history, Brothas Be is a book full of sex, drugs, and business strife. Pervasive as drug memoirs may be these days, Clinton is interesting on this front: not out to tell a redemption story, he gives particular drugs close readings. He describes the growing popularity of heroin in the Fifties:

If you went into a diner, into a schoolyard, into a movie theater, you saw people on smack. The local track team, which was one of the fastest in the world, was a spectacle: two or three of the people on the relay were doing heroin, and they would nod out on their knees when they were getting ready to run.

It was common among returning vets, he says, and, once immersed in music, he found that “For some musicians, heroin had a way of making people depressed and pitiful, and making the idea of giving up romantic, somehow.” The indefatigable Clinton was put off. His substances were pot, acid, Quaaludes, which he remembers with particular affection, and, finally, cocaine and crack.

He has funny stories about living under the influence—recognizing him inside a smoke-filled car, a cop once greeted him with “If it isn’t Sly Stone and Dr. Funkenstein”—and, as the title suggests, it’s remarkable that he managed to keep working for so long. But it’s finally a great shame. As the memoir reads, he was wrecked for years. Even leaving personal life out of it, Clinton no longer had the energy or clarity to be the involved diplomat he once was, and though he would re-launch P-Funk in different iterations—he still tours and records today—the celebrated groups disbanded after 1981. Financial problems plagued him; addled by his addictions, he was late in discovering that two separate managers had long been claiming ownership of his masters. (He now advocates for copyright justice for musicians and songwriters.)

Why did Clinton need the Mothership? It was expensive, silly, a lot of effort, and ultimately tautological. An escape for those who had long fled conventions, a crowning spectacle for the already spectacular. Maybe that was the point: it was their big, quixotic windmill, one they aspired to storm and were always storming. The Mothership was there to remind them that outer space was within reach, in a once upon a time called “now.”


George Clinton’s Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir, written with Ben Greenman, has just been published by Atria Books.