The Mother Ship Has Landed

Parliament’s seminal album Mothership Connection hit the streets of the inner city in a big way in 1975. At the time, I was a shy, skinny, book-reading thirteen-year-old only child who was being raised by a single mom on Chicago’s South Side, but I thought the music was hip and grooved along like everyone else. The album’s extended, richly textured jams featured thumping bass lines, snappy percussion, and catchy keyboard melodies. Meanwhile, the lyrics, sung in a gutsy style, derived their energy from clever sexual puns, textual allusions, and weird otherworldly notions of people united through interplanetary travel, drugs, dancing, and fucking. By the time I entered high school the following year, George Clinton and his P-Funk troupe had achieved larger-than-life status for their unique form of outlandish spectacle. Members of the band arrayed themselves in all kinds of mind-blowing outfits, performing in boldly colored space-age suits or, in some cases, diapers. Clinton was the group’s ringmaster, commanding ceremonies decked out in flashy wigs, hot pants, and silver-toned knee-high boots. Bizarre as it all seemed, Clinton’s universe became part of our daily lives: We would greet each other with P-Funk verses, chant P-Funk lyrics at football games (“Shit. Goddamn. Get off your ass and jam!”), and use P-Funk raps to impress girls. Some hard-core fans listened to nothing but the handful of bands that made up the P-Funk solar system: Parliament and Funkadelic, the Horny Horns, Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and Parlet. This wasn’t just popular music. It sought to be a movement, “one nation under a groove.”

Despite this cult following, the P-Funk phenomenon would prove to be short-lived, and the band had called it quits by 1981. In his illuminating memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, Clinton gives us some behind-the-scenes insight into the group’s rise and fall. A number of journalists have written about Clinton’s post P-Funk life in the ’80s and ’90s, when he floundered on the fringes of the industry, putting out recordings every now and then, touring here and there for an audience of die-hard fans, and granting the occasional interview, often coming off as incoherent. Clinton’s book gives us an honest account of this time. He became a crack addict—he would remain one for thirty years—and started to hang with fellow crack addict and musical great Sly Stone. In an ironic twist, as funk gained new life as the foundation of West Coast rap, things went from bad to worse for Clinton, with crack taking precedence over his music, over everything in his life. He made some bad personal and business decisions. He filed for bankruptcy and alleged that a number of forces in the industry—record companies, licensing agencies, lawyers, not to mention his own manager, Armen Boladian—had conspired to cheat him out of rights and royalties.

When I interviewed Clinton at the Watermark Bar in New York last August, he told me that he’d decided to write his memoir in an effort to document this nefarious process, to show how the wool had been pulled over his eyes, and in so doing to provide the necessary evidence to bring a rico case against the corrupt entities. Said case will, he hopes, allow him to move ahead with a civil suit to recoup millions owed him and other P-Funk pioneers, such as keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who wrote most of the music. “Three years ago,” Clinton said, “I decided to stop smoking crack and get clean. Not because I wanted to, really. I figured that no one would believe my story if I was still smoking crack. And it’s an interesting story.”

An interesting story indeed—not just a harrowing tale of recording-industry fraud, but a vibrant account of P-Funk’s origins and music as well as its influences and tumultuous context. Clinton, born in 1941, got his start as a barber and singer in Plainfield, New Jersey, in the ’50s. He formed a doo-wop and R&B band called the Parliaments with a few barbers and other dudes from the hood. They were a talented bunch, even had a successful record or two, but never gained a national audience. In an effort to do so, they auditioned for Berry Gordy and Motown in Detroit, only to have Motown reject them. As his memoir makes clear, Clinton did not take that rejection lightly then, and he still doesn’t.

In the late ’60s, as Motown began a downhill slide, Clinton formed a black rock band called Funkadelic. “As the world changed, Motown didn’t know exactly what to do with itself,” Clinton writes. “Motown couldn’t really understand either social change or the growth of rock and roll.” Clinton offers his take on Motown’s decline in one statement: “They would have stayed at the top longer if they had understood the importance of getting a little dirt on their hands.”

Clinton was willing to get more than a little dirt on his hands. In contrast to the squeaky-clean Motown acts that mainstream America found so palatable, the Funkadelics were fully in tune with the radical counterculture, in which dropping acid and free love were daily activities. The naive Clinton of those days did not feel that it mattered that he and his bandmates were black: “Why couldn’t we be the Rolling Stones? Why couldn’t we be Cream?” But he soon learned that his band of black hippies was “too white for black folks and too black for white folks.”

By the early ’70s, Clinton had put together an R&B group named after his old act the Parliaments; the new band was large and ambitious, and featured the composing and arranging talents of a number of highly accomplished musicians, including Worrell, guitarist Garry Shider, and former James Brown bassist William Collins. Clinton comes right out and says that this revamped Parliament was started in a deliberate effort to hit it big, to give the band a “commercial clarity” that the Funkadelics lacked. The Parliament-Funkadelic group did just what they set out to do, becoming one of the most popular crossover acts of the ’70s, in much the same way that Michael Jackson and Prince later would in the ’80s. The timing was perfect, with the band appearing just as the country shifted away from the reflective, leftist collectivism of the ’60s and early ’70s and toward the dance-driven, self-indulgent individualism that characterized the disco era.

George Clinton, ca. 2005.

Both disco and P-Funk celebrated life as one big party, but we often think of the two as being in opposition to each other. Clinton has this to say about the antagonism: “There’s a difference between funky people, who tended to be poor people, and disco people, who were rich partiers. . . . When rich people start partying, it becomes decadent.” Disco was about “access and entitlement.” Whereas P-Funk embodied a democratic spirit, Clinton says, rich people in the disco scene were “demanding in every way: they wanted the best sex and drugs and they wanted them right away.” Clinton and his band, by contrast, brought the party to the people; and for those who didn’t have access to glitzy clubs, P-Funk’s sci-fi mythology, scrappy collective spirit, and color-outside-the-lines grooves gave the sense that anyone, including my own thirteen-year-old self, could be part of the celebration aboard the mother ship.

Be that as it may, Clinton was a funky person who knew a thing or two about demand and cash flow. P-Funk music found mass appeal because Clinton understood the importance of image, of “designing the look,” something he has understood from the time he was a barber back in New Jersey. In the photography and artwork produced for albums and in the props and costumes created for elaborate concert productions, Clinton constructed a dazzling visual experience around images of black spacemen and interplanetary travel, scientific laboratories, and genetic experiments. He created an ongoing musical narrative that involved outlandish heroes and villains, an entire mythology of black speculative fiction. As he notes, his efforts fully crystallized in the remolding of bass player William Collins into the flashy and glittery Bootsy, whose rhinestone-encrusted, star-shaped glasses became iconic. “Right from the start, Bootsy brought in younger fans. . . . Fans liked his persona, the way he came on like a cross between a blaxploitation movie character and a Saturday-morning cartoon. He had a shy psychedelic cool that drove them wild, and that helped us inch closer to total geographic domination.” In Bootsy, Clinton came to understand that “art needed something bright to pop so the people could see it.” Clinton made people see and hear his art in all of its spectacle, and in so doing he created a musical sensibility that left an indelible mark on American culture.

Today, many young black artists pay homage to Clinton, from the writers and painters of the Afro-futurist movement, who see Clinton as one of the originators of their aesthetic, to hip-hop artists such as Questlove and Kendrick Lamar. Aligning oneself with Clinton has cachet, brings a form of cultural legitimacy. No surprise then that Clinton has a cameo in the recent Lamar video “i,” in which he appears on-screen holding a copy of his memoir. The moment is all the more intriguing because Clinton ends his book with a long passage about Lamar, taking pride in the fact that, among other things, they recently recorded some tracks together. Clinton wants us to believe that he is not simply a legendary pioneer of the musical past but a vibrant force on the scene today. Perhaps he is.

One thing is for sure. Few of us today would take serious interest in Clinton if his life in music had ended with his early efforts to imitate Motown and popular rock groups, for P-Funk is his singular achievement. He possessed the rare ability to understand what all great musical originators come to learn, which is that music is about change, that, as Miles Davis once said in an interview, those who are in tune with the now must “play what the day recommends.” Leave it to Clinton to articulate this idea in a way that only he can: “Shit . . . [is] always evolving. You don’t want to be standing on a second when the clock moves.”

Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of the novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf, 2014).