By the time you hear the next pop…
“The only other person I’ve seen do it like that before is Prince” – George Clinton on Kendrick Lamar, Pigeons And Planes.
His is one of the very first voices you hear on To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015, era-defining record. It’s deep, rich; the kind of voice that you might imagine emanating from god himself, or at the very least some glitz-spangled prophet, standing tall on a mountainside and booming out his message of peace. And what a message; the kind of mind-expanding sentiment with the power to melt down the unbelievers and emboss the faithful in gold.
“Yeah, lookin’ down, it’s quite a drop,” he intones on ‘Wesley’s Theory’, a rich blend of hip hop, funk and soul stylings. “Look both ways before you cross my mind.”
His name is George Clinton, but the voice that barks its way through the mess of samples and freestyled asides doesn’t really feel like it belongs to a named force, or even to a human being. It feels like the voice of the universe itself. It feels like years of American history given life, and melody; like an entire culture has finally had enough, jumped up onto their desks and sung as one.
After all, the story of George Clinton is the story of soul music. You don’t need to lose yourself in textbooks or Wikipedia articles to understand where the genre came from, or how it has evolved from the traditional, fiery brand of sexed-up sonic seduction doled out by James Brown and his crew to the weirdo hybrid of funk and rock pumped out by innovators like Flying Lotus and Thundercat.
The story of George Clinton is the story of soul music.
All you need to do is get yourself down to the record store, fork out a small fortune on Clinton records, and spend the next few months entombed in your room, drinking in music so vital and all-encompassing you could dedicate the rest of your days to it.
Embraced by oddballs
“The Clinton output has always been confusing, in terms of the divide between bands. Theoretically, Funkadelic immerse themselves in fuzzed guitar freak-outs, while Parliament tilt towards the dancefloor, but much [of the music] released as Funkadelic, could easily be Parliament material.” – Martin Longley, The Guardian.
It goes like this: first they adore you; then they ignore you; then they rip you off. Or that’s how it’s meant to go, anyway. Take the case of Clinton, the mastermind behind funk-soul outfits Parliament-Funkadelic and the recently formed Woke, and you realise that some lucky bastards can skip the middle step altogether, spending their whole career fluctuating between the states of adulation and inspiration and kicking off the careers of countless contemporary artists just by existing.
Clinton [has] never made the same record twice; never even tackled the same genre twice.
Not that Clinton himself was born into a musical void. The first record he put out under the Parliament name, Osmium, drew on the psych explosion pioneered by the Yardbirds and Yes, and combined it with the weirdo, cosmic jazz of pioneers like Sun Ra and Miles Davis, creating something at once danceable and yet slightly deranged as a result.
Osmium wasn’t the first of its kind – far from it. It was a record that sought to pay homage to Clinton’s forefathers, and the heavy debt that it owes to Ra in particular makes it feel like a love letter written from one anxious young artist to the performers who have inspired him.
And yeah, sure, you can hear in those early records – first drafts like Up For The Drown Stroke, and even 1975’s Chocolate City – the sound of a musician finding their feet; testing the limits of their talents the way that a child gently flexes their voice when learning a new word.
But those were just the band’s starting points, the blocks on which Clinton stood, prone, waiting for the crack of the pistol that announced the race was on. From there, he never made the same record twice; never even tackled the same genre twice. His is the kind of imagination that can take the barest hint of what has been done before and use it to construct something entirely new, building spaceships out of dinosaur bones.
That, after all, seems to be the only way to be able to describe a record like The Cinderella Theory, Clinton’s 1989 mess of disco freakouts, Public Enemy features, and tenor sax work, or The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein, a collaboration with ex-James Brown collaborator Fred Wesley that might be the only album in history that could justifiably be called a “funk-freak-folk-goth-hip-hop-horrorshow” hybrid.
And that, after all, seems to be the way to describe Clinton’s new status as the de facto godfather for contemporary music’s dyed-in-the-wool weirdos. Although his legacy has been adopted and reshaped by those who would consider themselves more straight laced, traditional funk purists – the likes of Benjamin Booker, Leon Bridges and even a cross-disciplinarian like Lamar – those really carrying the Clinton flag are acid freaks and jazz geeks.
Thundercat, the fur-wearing bass giant whose Drunk was one of last year’s very best records, considers Clinton the source from which his own blend of jazz and gin-addled pop emanates, while Flying Lotus signed Clinton to his Brainfreeder label, and has helped produce a number of Clinton’s recent singles.
As a result, while the rest of funk and soul’s originators – even artists as vicious as Brown, and arch political commentator Sly Stone – have slowly settled into the pages of history books, Clinton has yet to be canonised. He has never, not once, neutered his sound, or embarked on legacy tours, or made the mistakes that might have besmirched his acid-soaked Rorschach test of a discography. George Clinton has, in short, never been anything less than a prophet.
“Funkadelic have been inviting people up on stage to twerk and tweak and tweet for the last 20 years. Ain’t nothing new.” – George Clinton, The Guardian
Articles like this – articles about legacies, and the great weight of a genre’s past – usually get written around the time that an artist is settling into retirement, or when their very greatest achievements are behind them. After all, such pieces have something of the eulogy about them; their reflexive nature implies, however subtly, that an artist’s finest albums are done.
But fuck those implications. This is not that kind of article, largely because the job of closing the coffin lid on George Clinton should be left to an undertaker, and even then, caution should be exercised.
I mean, how can you suggest that Clinton is done when one short year ago, he and Thundercat and Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus released ‘The Lavishments Of Light Looking’, a thumping, heavy metal and funk indebted mess of hooks and snarled threats that sounds like nothing that Clinton has ever released before?
Nah. George Clinton’s story isn’t over. He’s still causing a stir in interviews, and he’s still releasing his multi-coloured musical experiments into the world, churning out tracks at a speed that continues to dazzle artists even half his age.
And sometimes, listening to his music, you get the sense maybe he’ll still be doing it when we’re all dead: that he’ll be the last man on earth, playing funk-folk riffs for the pleasure of irradiated cockroaches.