It’s February, the month where we celebrate the lives and times of African-Americans that have changed the historical landscape. During February, In the Key of He will recognize some of the greatest and most stylish black musicians of the modern era.
Our musical journey through the decades wouldn’t be complete without a look at funk and the contributions of George Clinton, founder of P-Funk, one of the most influential groups to come out of the late 60s.
Clinton’s groups, or rather, his funk collective, shaped the world of dance music, hip hop, and disco to a mind-blowing extent – Clinton has enormously affected the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Prince to name only a few huge names in the music industry.
Clinton’s artistry is bizarre and drug-drenched, and his music blends funk, psychedelic rock, blues, soul, and doo-wop. And it will make you shake your rump.
P-Funk, the Godfathers of Funk
The Parliaments, George Clinton’s original group (that later became “Parliament” due to contractual difficulties) modeled themselves after Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Frankie Lymon really could sing and dance - have a look: ”Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” ), but began to weave in some early soul and funk into their doo-wop sound. By “…1967, Clinton began experimenting with new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies that would mark the transition from his Motown barbershop-quartet [The Parliaments] to more extended improvisation around a central rhythm.” (source)
It’s that central rhythm of the bass and drums that make funk what it is. Funk takes the spotlight off of melody and harmony and emphasizes the rhythm of the music. It has roots in West African music and grew out of soul, jazz, and r&b, first done by Little Richard and his 1950s r&b road band, James Brown insists, then molded by Brown who worked the downbeat, handing it off to Sly and the Family Stone who built on that and created their own funky groove with a great horn section. Enter Clinton’s Parliament, with a funk/r&b sound (think Sly Stone + Motown), and also his group, Funkadelic, a funk sound spiked with psychedelics and psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin) eventually melded together and became P-Funk. There have been dozens of artists between and within these two groups over the last 40+ years, some attracting more attention than others (hello Bootsy Collins*), but all contributing to the funky sound that changed the world.
“We were the loudest group,” Clinton recalls during a 2007 GQ interview, ”They used to call us ‘the Temptations on acid’ or ‘James Brown on angel dust.’ “
In an interview with himself, George Clinton explains that the psychedelic sound was a response to being “too white for black folks and too black for white folks.”
My interpretation: anyone with a funky bone in their body would dig this groove. Clinton’s funk back in the day was not classified, it was free to take any shape it wanted to. P-Funk is about freedom and fun, about letting your guard down, feeling the groove, and having a good time no matter what colour you are or what cultural background you come from.
Watch this P-Funk appearance on the David Letterman show where, within 45 seconds, George has the entire audience full of awkward white tourists up on their feet dancing, and two minutes into the song, dozens of them are dancing on stage with Clinton and the P-Funk – amazing!
“I have never seen a goofier bunch of white people in my life,” David Letterman says at the end of the video. He couldn’t be more right, but that’s the cool thing about P-Funk – it makes everyone happy. George Clinton and his P-Funk All Stars, like all of our other musicians in this Black History month series, bridged the colour gap and brought this wonderful, rump bumpin’ groove for everyone to enjoy.
“Funk is fun. And it’s also a state of mind…”
George Clinton really got into the hippy thing during the late 60s. He embraced the freedom of love and peace so much that he “wore a sheet and nothing else in the wintertime.”
I came across a really good blog called Undercover Black Man who posted an interview he did with Clinton from 1997, when George explains the beginning of the costumes: “[We] played pregnant… wigs and shit like that… So we had all of that covered. So when we had to change to Funkadelic, all we had to do was… turn the amps up real loud, put on some robes.”
Robes… an understatement? A euphemism? Clinton and the rest of P-Funk adopted amazing colourful costumes that got weirder and weirder - platform boots, multi-coloured dreadlocks, crazy, oversized hats, colourful, outlandish costumes, and at least one band member wearing a diaper. An amazing display, very theatrical – a super funked up version of Kiss, laced with LSD.
Even their stage shows were weird – sometimes a “mothership” landed on stage and out would step Clinton in a freaky costume. They did bizarre record covers and named their albums strange names like “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” (1970) and “Maggot Brain” (1971). Let’s be clear – among other things, George Clinton took a lot of acid and smoked a lot of crack in his life.
“You know, when you take acid for the first time—I just thought it was heaven,” he says.
Through new musical genres, drugs, and a hippy culture, Clinton opened the door to an artistic freedom that had not previously been enjoyed. Experimenting with sound and drugs made for really interesting music, and the groove that came out of P-Funk made a deep and everlasting imprint on modern music.
It’s funny that I’m writing about George Clinton this week because as of Tuesday, according to allaccess.com, George Clinton, Godfather of Funk, has “fallen on hard times”. He’s trying to save his recording studio and pay legal fees to win rights to his own songs. If you can help him out and “help preserve the Mothership and prolong it’s journey”, here is the link.
Over the series for Black History month, we’ve noted how black music and style provided the sights and sounds of the civil rights movement, profoundly influenced modern music, and touched each and every one of us. From super talented artists like Nat King Cole and Miles Davis who were made to blend in with white society, to Motown, the new and powerful black sound of the 60s, to the period when African-American people and artists shaped their own identity and embraced their African heritage, to the creation of new genres of music through the blending of nascent musical styles that transformed modern music, these African-American musicians and artists have changed our lives, brought us freedom, brought us joy, made us sing and made us move.
Without the contributions of these fantastic artists, my life would be pale, my ears empty, and my soul hollow. I cannot thank them enough.
*The fabulous Bootsy Collins toured and recorded with James Brown in 1969-70, and was a member of Browns’ original J.B.s. Before joining up with Funkadelic and adding the unmistakable funk bassline, Bootsy featured on such James Brown hits as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Super Bad”.
With his ever-present star sunglasses and an exaggerated hat, Bootsy has played in both Parliament and Funkadelic with Clinton, and with many other funk projects over the years, working closely with artists as far apart as Snoop Dogg and the Soup Dragons. Funk brings people together!
Bootsy just can’t keep the funk to himself and decided to create a way to share. Funk University, or Funk U, is an online school for bass players to learn from the master.
Here is Bootsy’s Funk Formula for you aspiring bass players out there – enjoy!