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The Proof Is in the Groove

George Clinton Continues to Demonstrate That No One Can Funk Better Than He

November 22, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership."

That's the title of an album that George Clinton & the P-Funk Allstars released earlier this year, and it's a fair description of the proceedings. For if Clinton and company--who will play the Galaxy tonight--didn't invent funk as we know it today, they certainly came to define the music, stance and attitude. "T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M." offers further proof that no one has done it better, not by quite a stretch.

Also just released is "George Clinton's Greatest Funkin' Hits," an album of remixed older material augmented by performances by such guest stars as Coolio, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip and Vanessa Williams.

Clinton, 56, is one of very few musicians who can lay claim to having been active from the era of doo-wop right up through the era of hip-hop. The singer-songwriter-producer's first group, the Parliaments, was formed in the late '50s in Plainfield, N.J. The group toiled in obscurity, and by the early '60s Clinton was working as a staff writer at Motown in Detroit. (The Parliaments finally had a hit in 1967 with "[I Wanna] Testify").

A lawsuit over the group's handle resulted in a name change to Funkadelic in 1968. Clinton won the legal battle but continued to record under both names, the Parliaments becoming simply Parliament.

Initially, Parliament and Funkadelic served different purposes: Parliament was a commercial R&B group, while Funkadelic stretched out into early experiments with funk and psychedelic music. With time, the parameters between the groups became more and more obscured, and by the mid-70s, Parliament/Funkadelic was a loose-knit crew of hyper-charismatic musicians, including bassist Bootsy Collins, keyboard players Bernie Worrell and Junie Morrison, horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker and guitarists Eddie Hazel and Gary Shider.

The group was renowned for its wild, marathon stage shows, which often ran as long as four to six hours and which featured band members coming in and out of a giant outer space prop known as the Mothership. They trotted about onstage in wild costumes (space suits, diapers, Ku Klux Klan robes and Indian headdresses), flopped about like fish out of water and shotgunned joints into each other's faces.

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Throughout the '70s, P-Funk scored with such ferocious albums as "Mothership Connection" and "Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome" and netted hit singles with "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker," "Flash Light" and "One Nation Under a Groove." There were numerous offshoot bands, including Bootsy's Rubber Band, Zapp and Brides of Funkenstein.

But by 1980 there were clashes between band members and more legal problems, which grounded the Mothership. Clinton went solo, but his time in the spotlight was sporadic; other P-Funkers busied themselves with bands of their own, studio work and other projects.

Meanwhile, P-Funk's music--which had been far ahead of its time--was being assimilated into modern hip-hop, acid jazz and alternative rock. Clinton was championed by rock and rap superstars, becoming, along with James Brown, one of the most frequently sampled artists of all time.

"T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M" marks the first time in more than decade that Clinton has recorded with Collins, Worrell, Morrison and the rest of the original crew, plus members of Clinton's later groups and such special guests as MC Breed and Erick Sermon.

"Everybody's been working and growing up with their families; it's been hard to get everyone together in one kind of period of time," Clinton said on the phone this week. "We'd play some gigs together [including a series of wild sets at Lollapalooza in 1994], but we never did have any time to go into the studio. But we got it together this time."

Indeed. "T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M." is one wild journey of an album. Clinton, perhaps the prime influence on hip-hop, has taken sonic innovations pioneered by hip-hop artists and has recycled them for his own use. The lazy, loping beats, electronic whistles, playful production and rap interludes on "T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M" are all very '90s, making the album much more than a typical nostalgic reunion project. It's a contemporary statement, as innovative and important as anything being released by artists half Clinton's age.

"That's the only way to stay in it," he said. "Do their rhythm, be around 'em and let it rub off on you naturally. I learned that back at Motown. If you're around, you don't need to copy nobody. You learn from each other. They learn things from your experience, like surviving, and we can learn whatever the new flavor is. The music is the same notes but a totally different style. The technology is totally different.

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