Funkenstein's monster

George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are a hugely groove-alicious influence on contemporary pop culture. But could anything like Clinton's grand artistic vision -- and inclusive politics -- thrive in today's shallow realm of bling?

Published September 18, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

"The P-Funk clientele has always been a peculiar mix of ages, sexes, races and nationalities, and faiths unified and collectively categorized by a common state of mind. Funk fans knew world order as 'One Nation Under a Groove.'"
-- George Clinton, "Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One"

You might not know it from the mania surrounding thug lifers like 50 Cent, multi-genre salesmen like Ludacris or crossover marketing dreams like Eminem, but George Clinton's fingerprints are everywhere in today's hip-hop landscape -- and everywhere in pop culture. (Consider acts as diverse as Prince, Primus, Lenny Kravitz, the Roots and Public Enemy, to name just a few.)

Created by the mercurial Clinton (who also went by the name Dr. Funkenstein, among others) and rounded out by the irrepressible Bootsy Collins on bass and the amazing Bernie Worrell on keyboards, the Parliament-Funkadelic monolith -- three of whose timeless '70s classics, "Up for the Down Stroke," "Chocolate City" and "Mothership Connection," have recently been reissued on CD by Universal Music -- birthed a heady mixture of party music, democratic optimism and prodigious technical skill that reshaped the consciousness of generations of pop acts and pop fans. And to get specific, next to James Brown, P-Funk's collection of funk classics is by far the most sampled catalog in contemporary hip-hop.

In fact, take a quick look around and you'll find a budding or entrenched Clintonite ready to answer the question found in P-Funk's classic tune "Mothership Connection": "Who wants the funk?" Of course, there's Snoop Dogg, the Long Beach-bred franchise, whose P-Funk worship shows through his stoned paeans to gin and juice, low riders and the ghetto life of leisure. Snoop's antics and music have ignited the imagination of hip-hop nation worldwide -- as well as led to a score of film roles and a new show, "Doggy Fizzle Televizzle," on MTV.

Those who haven't picked up their copy of "Mothership Connection" or caught sight of Bootsy Collins onstage might not realize that much of Snoop's vibe -- from the fur-lined coats and diamond-studded sunglasses to the laid-back raps and musical prowess -- comes directly from Clinton and, especially, from Collins. Snoop makes no bones about his love of P-Funk, and has spent much of his successful career paying homage, either through collaboration or appreciation or both, to its outrageous pioneers.

"Snoop reminds me of me when I was coming up," Collins explains in an interview, "so when we actually played together, we just clicked so much. A lot of the time, we don't even have to say anything. We just feel each other. And it's good to see that spark in the younger generation. Snoop is taking P-Funk to the younger generation in a cool way, in a way that I would have done. There's something special about that to me."

Then there are those funky upstarts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who asked Clinton to produce their second release, "Freaky Styley," and are now rock icons in heavy rotation on both MTV and its sister station, VH-1. Much of the Chili Peppers' music -- and attitude -- has also been structured around the ambitious work of their bassist, Flea, who cites none other than Bootsy for helping him see the funky light.

"Flea will tell them in a minute!" laughs Collins. "Parliament-Funkadelic was one of his major influences. And now all the kids that dig the Peppers connect the musical dots and, the next thing you know, they're picking up a P-Funk record and going, 'Whoa!' To me, it's evolution. The new fans are going to keep taking it to the next level. Kids will say, 'I got into this because the Chili Peppers were doing it' and so on. It's all connected, whether the kids realize it or not."

Yet, though the Red Hot Chili Peppers have spawned legions of similar bands, not to mention countless fans, few of them would recognize Clinton or Collins on the street. In a musical landscape that's more focused on flavor-of-the-month product than ever, it's difficult to entice listeners to dig past the samples and guest turns for some historical perspective. And there are some who feel that problem has more to do with the proliferation of media than the apathy of the beat-addicted public.

"People are fans of the medium now," asserts Davey D, an Oakland-based hip-hop historian and DJ who's been in the rap game almost as long as Eminem has been alive. "They're not fans of the artist. If it ain't on the radio, it doesn't exist. I recall one time at KMEL, James Brown stopped in but they wouldn't put him on the air. I'm going, 'James Brown? The Godfather?' He didn't fit the format. We have to look at how there isn't an appreciation for the past. The past is undermined, sometimes intentionally or sometimes unwittingly, to the point that it's very hard to build off of the legacy that was left behind. It's even hard to get people to respect it."

Indeed, if today's hip-hop medium, or format, has a message, some would argue that it's removed from the spirit behind the funk on which it was built. Take, for example, the bling-bling contingency, whose videos -- featuring a non-stop medley of Bentleys, ice, pool parties and phat ass -- are still using the mode of expression that Dr. Dre's party music adapted almost completely from Parliament's "Mothership Connection."

As author, DJ and music historian Rickey Vincent -- who (literally) wrote the book on funk when he penned "Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One" -- explains, it was Dre's sampling of "Mothership" that gave his seminal release, "The Chronic," its sonic identity, even down to the "Mothership" title track's melody in the Grammy-winning hit, "Let Me Ride."

"'Mothership Connection' is probably the most important funk album there is for West coast hip-hop," says Vincent. "Dr. Dre recognized that on 'The Chronic,' which itself is probably the most important West Coast hip-hop album there is. See, East Coast hip-hop really developed around the beat -- the turntable, the scratch, the breakbeat. But West coast hip-hop has always been more oriented towards the funk bass. And 'Mothership Connection' is scripture for people who want to know the roots of all funky things. If you're going to study jazz, then you're going to make your way to John Coltrane and 'A Love Supreme.' And if you study funk, you're going to make your way to P-Funk and 'Mothership Connection.' End of story."

When "The Chronic" won a Grammy, the mainstream music industry's doors blew open to hardcore rap, after several years of exclusion. Only a few years earlier, Public Enemy's brilliant but controversial "Fear of a Black Planet" had lost out to the lightweight Young MC, just as Spike Lee's film, "Do the Right Thing" (built primarily around P.E.'s rallying cry, "Fight the Power") had been passed over for an Oscar in favor of "Driving Miss Daisy." But it is now no secret that "The Chronic" was a watershed moment for hip-hop, and gangsta rap in general. After all, the television and music industry is currently saturated to excess with black and white Dre and Snoop wannabes. But without George Clinton and his seminal Parliament releases, "The Chronic" would be nothing more than, if you'll pardon the phrase, a pipe dream.

"Four or five years ago, when Vibe did their top 100 albums of all time, they left 'Mothership Connection' out entirely," says Vincent. "Meanwhile, 'The Chronic' is somewhere high up on the list. And 'The Chronic' wouldn't be there if it wasn't for 'Mothership Connection.' I think people need to know this. Cornel West actually wrote about 'Mothership Connection' during the early '80s. He compared P-Funk to bebop, and said both forms were grand creative breakthroughs that brought a different sensibility to a whole new generation. And when that hip-hop generation got to the sampling stage, they went straight for the funk. Once samplers hit, it was James Brown and P-Funk."

But P-Funk's sample library doesn't begin or end with Dre and "The Chronic"; that album was simply the apotheosis of years of P-Funk musical tradition. Before Dre, or Ice Cube for that matter, had ever left N.W.A., hip-hop standouts like De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Digital Underground, Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature, Kool Moe Dee, A Tribe Called Quest and countless others were mining Dr. Funkenstein's coffers for addictive beats, maddening bass hooks (courtesy of the legendary Collins), dirty keyboard riffs (courtesy of the equally legendary Worrell) and more for albums on end. A single immortal Parliament track, "Flash Light" (from "Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome"), was sampled by everyone from Ice T and Ice Cube to Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Run DMC. As Vincent writes in "Funk," Digital Underground "went literally overboard with their allegiance to P-Funk," doing everything from citing Parliament's "Aqua Boogie" on "Underwater Rimes" to naming their album "Sons of the P" in honor of the P-Funk aesthetic.

What was it about P-Funk's music that dug so deeply into the minds of music fans, two to three generations removed from Clinton and company's reign in the '70s? It's that potent combination of intimidating talent and perfect timing.

"First of all, you have one of the greatest ensembles ever," explains Vincent. "You've got Bootsy Collins on bass, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Jerome Brailey, who's very underrated; he's one of the greatest drummers of all time. You've got Eddie Hazel on some tracks, and then Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, who were the glue for all of James Brown's '70s funk. You have musical mastery and George Clinton at his creative high point. You have this creative peak from a collection of musicians who were untouchable, plus great timing. They were able to fuse the raw street sound with the latest technology and get as futuristic as they wanted. And people are still trying to figure that out.

"There are those who come from music school and are slick and try to get funky, and then there are those who are raw, self-taught talents who have a hard time getting sophisticated. P-Funk could outdo either extreme, and 'Mothership Connection' is one of the best examples of that. So hip-hop artists can find samples that are as raw as they need them to be, as well as samples that are chilly, creepy and can get you what you need."

But it seems that few of Funkenstein's current monsters have imbued their take on the P-Funk tradition with George Clinton's optimistic and inclusive worldview. Where Parliament talked about "One Nation Under a Groove," 50 Cent's Escalade-frenzy video for "Wanksta" seems to be interested in separation and difference. Where Parliament was interested in gathering the people of the universe (literally -- Clinton and Bootsy came up with "Mothership Connection" after claiming to see a UFO following them from Toronto to Detroit) together under a single funky umbrella, the bling-bling set seem more possessed with initiating beefs or smacking down all comers. Why the conceptual shift?

"Some of today's hip-hop content is narrow because I think that certain things are underplayed," explains Public Enemy's Chuck D. "I mean, shit, you got to have a topic. You can't just write. I think a lot of times it's safer searching for similarity. But young people need guidance and leadership. And sometimes, when it comes to music, there is no direction. The companies are all just out for the bottom line."

More often than not, that corporate bottom line has spent an inordinate amount of time pushing sensationalist product rather than keeping Clinton's progressively political spirit in the public view. 50 Cent is just one in a long line of gangsta fairytales involving bullet holes, manhood insults and fast-lane living; he is anything but unique. Whereas, even now (but especially when it landed), Clinton's booty-movin' Mothership was more about singularity than the "similarity" that Chuck D mentions. As volatile as the music industry was when the Funk Mob were ascendant (Clinton was involved in a slew of tiresome legal battles with his labels -- and still is as of this writing), it has since become a more homogeneous environment, largely uninterested in musical history and tradition. In fact, looking back is the last thing the industry wants to do.

"Listeners don't know that they're missing history when radio stations go, 'Let's take it back to the old-school,' and play something from four years ago," says Davey D. "There's a premium on what is new and what can be marketed. Knowing your history goes against the grain of businesses that sell culture. So they make culture disposable, and the way to do that is to cut out history so there's no connection."

It is that crucial connection between not just musical histories and traditions but also disparate styles and genres that Clinton and the Funk Mob negotiated to a stunning degree. They had a knack for letting it all hang out on a record -- and especially in their mind-bending live concerts -- and were unafraid of trying something radical, if only because it had never been done before. In fact, part of Clinton's funk aesthetic was based on pushing artistry's conventional envelope; sounding like the next man was anathema to P-Funk's sense of mission. That method of constant risk and exploration can get lost in translation to newer generations, who look at Parliament's finest work on "Mothership," "Down Stroke," "Chocolate City" and other albums as one extended sample database.

"That's what a lot of this is -- really shitty rap music on top of hittin' beats," says Vincent. "Some joker will come along with a weak rhyme and get paid for taking a song that someone spent a career working their lives toward and finally got recorded. These samples come from human beings who have laid out careers blending jazz and gospel, rock and soul into this form of music that everyone wants a piece of. P-Funk knew they were building a library of sounds, songs and sensibilities; they always covered a wide range of tones and moods. George Clinton has such an expansive brain; he could take doo-wop and make it psychedelic. But 'Mothership Connection' was a moment in time when all of those high standards for great music fell into place."

It was also a moment in time when the political landscape of America was searching for alternative means of communication, different modes of expression and, most importantly, an answer from someone else besides the establishment. It is that aspect of funk's nature, and hip-hop's history, that some are worried may be ignored or forgotten by future generations.

"Political conditions brought about the music of hip-hop, but now some people just want to hear a dance beat," says Davey D. "Are they actually listening to the lyrics? Melle Mel isn't welcome. Chuck D isn't welcome. George, to a certain degree, has tried to keep himself relevant. He wrote to make every word count, but all some people can remember is his colorful hair."

Whatever they do remember, one thing seems almost certain -- it will be a very long time before an ensemble as massive, intricate, inclusive and talented as Parliament-Funkadelic will walk the earth again. As the Federal Communications Commission strives to consolidate media ownership even more than it has already, homogeneity might well be the hallmark of the next generation. That could breed an environment in which something as potent as P-Funk would never stand a chance.

It's almost impossible to imagine P-Funk arising today, says Vincent. "Someone would have to have both the vision and access to the pop industry, which is tough because they're just cycling pop stars in and out," he explains. "By the time you're 22, you're over the hill. It's going to be really tough to pull something together that puts a collective vision out; the industry is usually in control of vision, and it's not democratic in that respect. It's not democratic, period.

"But the idea that there's a transcendent vision for the world we're living in? How are you going to get that when the kids are watching the Disney Channel, the teenagers are watching MTV, and the adults are listening to the oldies stations? No one's trying to get out of their situation, they're trying to cope within it. And the music industry feels like it's losing the battle or its frame of reference. It once was a movement that opened people's eyes. They need to go buy these Parliament albums and understand that it is possible. It can be done."

By Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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