Author: George Clinton
Title: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2014
The memoirs of George Clinton, the talented songwriter and band leader and creator of P-Funk, starts with a story of band members and their costumes having trouble getting to a show in Richmond in 1978. This is coincidental in that I saw George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars play in Richmond in the 1990s, although that was at University of Richmond which felt incongruous since it’s about as far from Richmond’s black community as one can get.
Clinton traces his story back to coming of age in New Jersey and from his barbershop pulling together the singers and musicians of the area to create The Parliaments, a 50’s-style doo-wop group that evolved into a Motown-style soul act. Inspired by the likes of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, as well as psychedelic blues rock acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Clinton creates the blueprint for P-Funk. Two bands with largely the same personnel would alternate recordings with two takes on funk: Funkadelic inspired by the psychedelic rock and Parliament taking the soul/R&B approach. With a revolving roster of performers, a whole new mythology of P-Funk, stunning stage shows, and an innovative approach to music, Clinton would dominate the 1970s music scene. The volume of music released not just by Parliament and Funkadelic, but many of the offshoot bands like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, is remarkable, and they all toured together on a tireless schedule of concerts.
The wheels come off in the 1980s, and while Clinton has some success as a solo artist and with new versions of the P-Funk All-Stars, much of the later part of the book is consumed by descriptions of Clinton’s drug abuse exploits and endless legal squabbles. And yet, Clinton becomes something of a respected elder statesman of funk, writing and producing for the early Red Hot Chili Peppers whom he saw as the white band that would bring funk to the mainstream. He also had a great influence on hip-hop, encouraging sampling of P-Funk sounds, and working with young rappers.
Clinton is one of the great musicians of the 20th-century, and this book is at its best when he’s talking about creating the sounds of funk, his love of music, and the talented musicians he worked with. This book is at it’s worst when Clinton describes smoking another vial of crack or belabor his legal vendettas. If you like funk or are interested in music and how it’s created, this book is worth a read.
“Even without the music, I loved living in Newark, in part because I was royalty. All you had to do was look at the signs. One of the main drags in Newark was called Clinton Avenue, and there was a whole area called Clinton Hills. They were all named after the early American politician George Clinton, who had been the governor of New York and the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some days the world seemed to revolve around me, a George Clinton who could go walking down a street named for him in an area named for him.”
On dropping acid for the first time in Harvard Square, which I believe should be on a Cambridge historic plaque: “The next day we went over to Harvard Square and all of us took some. That was a Noah’s Ark day, rain so hard you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, and the gutters were filling up with water, making little rivers in the street. We dropped acid and stood looking at the rain: sometimes it seemed to slow down, sometimes each individual drop came into perfect, sharp focus. And then, all of a sudden, everyone started taking off their clothes and wading in the rivers the streets had become. There were students, but there were faculty members, too. There were couples and there were single girls. There were fat people and skinny people and every other kind: older white women naked there in the water, with polka-dot freckles on their titties, and dozens of cute little girls getting bare-ass naked. Everyone was in the water, flopping around like fish, just feeling it.”
“Somewhere along the way it became clear to me that we had a strong young group of players who were, to us, what the Funk Brothers were to Motown, and because we were so deep into psychedelic rock we started adding the -delic to it. The result was Funkadelic. I think I had the idea for the name first, but you’ll probably get a debate from two or three others. Everyone knew that it felt right, though. White rock groups had done the blues, and we wanted to head back in the other direction, to be a black rock group playing the loudest, funkiest combination of psychedelic rock and thunderous R&B.”
“In truth, underneath the image, I was a much more reserved, centered, circumspect person. In fact, that’s why I was able to carry off those crazy looks. It was freedom generated by misdirection, and it allowed me to focus on my real self, the identity I was nurturing away from any kind of spotlight.”
“For that matter, the two bands could continue to function as separate entities, where Parliament was a group of singers backed by a band and Funkadelic was a band backing a group of singers.”
“When you parody something, you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you’re taking something seriously. So isn’t parody the most serious form of imitation?”
“Funkadelic had always been a hybrid of other things—at first, of the original Parliaments and the psychedelic rock that was happening all around it—and the second wave of musicians reaffirmed my belief in the way to grow. Absorb youth and you will be absorbed by youth. Take on new influences without fear and you need not fear what is new. Change the people around you by changing the people around you.”
“I never wanted that responsibility, not the responsibility of a political spokesperson like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, and not even the responsibility of a musical spokesperson like Bob Marley. He was almost like a Dalai Lama. Critics and fans were thrusting him into that position even before he knew he was in it. We went the other way, played so crazy that nobody wanted to be connected to us at that level.”
“So in my mind, the concept of Mothership Connection wasn’t just Star Trek in the ghetto, but pirate radio coming in from outer space. It’s not thought of in that way as much, at least anymore, but that’s at the heart of the album.”
“When I got money, I didn’t think about jewelry or cars or houses. I thought about experiences. Again, some of them were sex, and some were drugs, but most of them were rock and roll. I kept studios running all the time. I cut tracks with all the artists I knew and shaped them into songs, which in turn were shaped into records. What did I need with possessions? I had a spaceship and that was going to be enough for a long while.”
“Maybe funk itself was a form of evolution. Maybe if you refused to participate in it, you were holding yourself back. We had already created and deployed Star Child, an agent of interplanetary funk. Did he have the secret for improving the species, funkateer by funkateer? There had always been a strain of self-actualization in our music, though it had also always been sharpened by humor and irony and dirty jokes.”
“When people start out in groups, everybody imagines making it, but no one thinks hard about what that means. Does it mean being a star, staying in the top hotels, headlining arenas? Or is it enough to be able to do what almost no one in the world does, and sustain a career as a professional musician? The mere fact of surviving in this industry is a huge victory. But survivors forget that the alternative is annihilation. They think that the choice is between a good career and a great one. They reach for stardom. And those unrealistic expectations are compounded by creative ability, or the lack of ability. People don’t have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do as artists. I knew my limits. I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.”
“Living things find nourishment where they can. The point of music is to take what exists and to make it matter again, in your own style, with your own stamp. To talk about “original” and “unoriginal” is as unoriginal as talking about genres or categories. You never want to be in a bag, let alone someone else’s bag. Music is music, and bands become what they are. They play because they want to, and audiences sense that and listen because they want to.”
“The grace note with Public Enemy is that I had something to do with their name. For years, I didn’t know that it was my voice saying “Public Enemy” on their record. They had sampled from “Undisco Kidd” and slowed the vocals down.”
Recommended books: My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte and Life by Keith Richards