What do you get as one of the three key pillars of funk music? Well, if you are George Clinton, on one hand, you get inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music. On the other, you get a constant series of legal hassles and financial problems due to royalty and copyright issues.
That is, in a nutshell, the brief story of George Clinton, songwriter, vocalist, producer, and bandleader who has been described as a “genius” and a “pioneer” of funk music, but he is also a man who has had to fight for his rightful place in the annals of popular music.
A “genius” and a “pioneer” of funk music, but he is also a man who has had to fight for his rightful place
Clinton is the man who brought us P-Funk, one of the most influential funk sub-genres, a mixture of soul, free-form funk, psychedelic rock as well as lyrical mythology that included a set of recurring characters set in science fiction and political and social statements, contained in the music, album liner notes, album artwork, costumes, advertisements, and stage banter.
Clinton had the acumen to surround himself with some brilliant musicians, including musical wizards like Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, and Bootsy Collins ― just to name a few. As a producer, he was instrumental in the rise of a number of funk and rock acts, including The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and is one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop, and his “Dr. Seussian afrofunk” is often cited as a critical component of the Afrofuturism movement.
It All Started with Doo-Wop
George Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1941. He was exposed to a wide range of musical styles as a child, including gospel, R&B, and country. Clinton began his musical career as a teenager, forming a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. The group had some success with a handful of singles, but they were unable to break through to a wider audience.
Actually, The Parliaments did have its start in a real-life barbershop in Plainfield New Jersey, known as “Silk Palace,” where a number of future Funkadelic/Parliament conglomerates worked.
The Parliaments finally hit it big in 1967 with the release of their single “(I Wanna) Testify.” The song reached the Top 20 on the Billboard R&B chart and helped to launch George Clinton’s career both as a solo artist and as a band leader. Before the hit, Clinton started out as a staff songwriter at Motown, but also as an arranger and producer of quite a number of singles for some independent Detroit record labels.
The Birth of P-Funk
Things started to change in the early ’70s, when Clinton and a number of band members set their base in Toronto (1971 to 1973). Prior to the move, the band under the Funkadelic banner recorded three albums that set off Clinton’s trademark psychedelic rock and funk combination – Funkadelic (1970), Free Your Mind, And Ass Will Follow (1970) and Maggot Brain (1971). The latter included the title song, considered to include one of the best-recorded guitar solos ever, by the late great Eddie Hazel.
The early ’70s were also the times when George Clinton began working with a number of different musicians, including Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, who would later become key members of Parliament-Funkadelic.
During their time in Toronto, Clinton and his cohorts honed down their live show and recorded America Eats Its Young (1972), their first recording to include Bootsy Collins who joined from James Brown’s backing band. No wonder, since Clinton was initially also heavily influenced by the work of James Brown and Sly Stone, two other pioneers of funk music.
The Funkadelic side of the brand continued to operate and release albums (16 in all) with a break between 1981 and 2007. The pinnacle being One Nation Under A Groove (1978), considered (for a good reason) one of the best funk albums of all time.
The Parliament (Re)Enters the Stage
Actually, P-Funk as a term entered the stage when Clinton re-introduced The Parliaments as a group, this time, as part of his continuing series of legal problems, under the name of The Parliament. Funkadelic and Parliament exchanged quite a number of members and often had dual shows with their difference in music ― between Funkadelic’s psych-rock funk combination and Parliament’s free-form soul, R&B, funk ― slowly dwindling and always being tied with Clinton’s P-Funk mythology.
Parliament released their second album Up for the Down Stroke in 1974 which included the titular track “Up for the Down Stroke.” The single was Parliament’s first chart hit, reaching the Top 10 on the Billboard R&B chart, and helped to cement George Clinton’s reputation as one of the leading figures in funk music.
In 1975, George Clinton and Parliament released their concept album Mothership Connection. The album included the singles “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Mothership Connection was a critical and commercial success, reaching the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 chart and becoming one of George Clinton’s most successful albums.
The Mothership Connection toured extensively in support of the album, with George Clinton appearing on stage in a mothership costume. The Mothership Connection tour was one of the first instances of George Clinton’s use of props and special effects in his live shows.
In 1977, George Clinton and Parliament released their album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. The album included the singles “Flash Light” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome was another critical and commercial success, reaching the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. Clinton and Parliament continued to release albums and tour throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
As with Funkadelic and its One Nation Under A Groove, Parliament also recorded an album with obvious political and social references: Chocolate City (1974).
Legal Hassles and Doing it Solo
As the ’80s entered, Clinton started encountering more and more legal problems, arising from PolyGram’s acquisition of Parliament’s label, Casablanca Records. Resulting in financial difficulties due to royalty and copyright issues. The most notable was the one with Bridgeport Music, which Clinton claims fraudulently obtained the copyrights to many of his recordings.
In a way, those legal problems spelled the need for Clinton to start recording under his own name, although all those solo albums included members of the P-Funk crew. From 1982, starting with Computer Games, Clinton recorded 10 ‘solo’ albums, all working on and further extending the P-Funk mythology.
It was also the time when Clinton also began working with a number of other artists, including Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers (he produced their initial album), Bootsy Collins, and Deee-Lite, among others.
Samples, Collaborations, and George Clinton Today
In the early 1990s, George Clinton’s work began to be heavily sampled by hip-hop artists. His most notable collaborator from this period is Dr. Dre, who used samples from George Clinton’s songs on his iconic album The Chronic. George Clinton also collaborated with 2Pac on the song “Can U Get Away.”
Commenting on the use of his music samples by hip-hop artists, Clinton said back in 1996: “Sure, sample my stuff… Ain’t a better time to get paid than when you’re my age. You know what to do with money. You don’t buy as much pussy or drugs with it – you just buy some.”
In the early 1990s, George Clinton’s work began to be heavily sampled by hip-hop artists
In recent years, George Clinton has continued to tour and release new music. He released his most recent album, Medicaid Fraud Dogg, in 2018. George Clinton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. In May 2012, Clinton was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.
Essentially, Clinton is a true pioneer of funk music. He has been influential in many other genres of music, including hip-hop, and he is considered one of the most important figures in popular music. George Clinton is a true icon, and his contributions to music will be remembered for generations to come.