George Clinton's Journey to the Edge of Funk

"If it weren't for flashbacks I wouldn't have no memory at all," George Clinton said onstage Monday night at the Museum of the Moving Image, only half-jokingly. The mammoth leader of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, who revolutionized not just what black music sounds like but how it's presented and promoted and sold, is on the road slinging his new fiendishly-addictive memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? the spinning-wheel tale of Clinton's hedonistic days, from the creative hub of the barber shop to the futuristic funk of outer space.

Musician, producer and father of funk George Clinton. / Courtesy Heineken Jazzaldia

Following a screening of Cosmic Slop, a bizarre Twilight Zone-inspired HBO pilot (which never made it to series) produced and directed by Warrington and Reginald Hudlin and hosted by Clinton, the musician was interviewed onstage by James Mtume -- a musical legend on his own, who played with Miles Davis on some of his most far out mid-'70s freak-outs. Clinton kept things light and the two yakked casually about all things P-Funk, or at least what Clinton could remember, from the early inspiration of Motown to its mutual embrace with hip-hop. The former provided the bedrock for Clinton's expansive musical universe, and the latter, through its sampling of his bass heavy rhythms and reproduction of Clinton's everybody-gets-their-shot-ethos -- the Wu Tang Clan were mentioned as the most obvious decedents of this ideal -- kept the spirit alive, long after Clinton and his cohorts had landed the Mothership on solid ground.

The world of George Clinton can get a little confusing, even for the most fervent consumer of his music and mythology, so a bit of history might straighten out the kinks and help explain his legacy. George Clinton built an entire world. He began in the early days of soul music, the rise of Motown and had a few mildly successful singles as a songwriter and performer, some under the name The Parliaments. This was the heyday of independent labels, especially in Detroit, where Clinton had migrated from New Jersey, but a foot in the door didn't immediately materialize into success. According to legend, after dropping acid The Parliaments morphed into Funkadelic, infusing British Invasion-style heavy guitars and deep, Sly and the Family Stone-influenced funk, and would release a startling number of albums that are still today some of the most earth-shattering records ever created. Just listen to the first track on "Maggot Brain" and try to find anything as mind-altering, scary and transcendent as Eddie Hazel's shape-shifting guitar solo, an array of cries and whimpers blasting out of an amplifier that sounds like the music you'll hear as the world is finally coming to an end.

In reality, it was the sound of a new world beginning. Soon the ideas bursting out of Funkadelic were too large to be contained, and a second band was created. Parliament was the flashier, more commercial version of Funkadelic with cleaner sounds, sing-along chants and a wilder stage presence. The band was already tight, with the classically trained Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Hazel on electric guitar, but soon they would acquire most of James Brown's former backing band, The J.B.'s. All of a sudden Clinton had the funkiest band in the world behind him. Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish, who had been recruited by Brown after he suddenly fired his former band, The Famous Flames -- and played on what this writer believes is the greatest Brown album of all time, "Love Power Peace" -- became permanent staples in the P-Funk universe, along with Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and more. Soon enough, it was like a football team on stage, each one dressed in a unique costume, most of them playing characters that were weaved in and out of songs and whose backstories were expanded through the wild cover art of Pedro Bell. And finally, when it seemed that this band of freaks couldn't get any more out-of-this-world, they literally had a full-size space ship made that descended onto the stage during their sets.

The universe would expand even further, with many of the side-players getting their own bands and solo albums, filtered through their personalized version of the P-Funk aesthetic. But as the 1980s reared its ugly head, the group began to disassemble. Clinton, for his part, had gone too far off into space. No longer just a casual user of drugs, he now, according the book, was smoking crack regularly and not paying attention to the crumbling world he built. Money was disappearing and nobody knew where it was going. By the '90s, despite a few remarkable solo albums and a hit single with "Atomic Dog," Clinton was burned out.

Drugs were not heavily discussed during Monday's talk, but in his memoir Clinton is not shy about his chemical intake. He did enough drugs to kill an entire army it seems, and one of the most surprising parts of the book is how this narrative thread creeps up on you. The stories at first are fun and exciting, the joys of being young and popular with dollars in your pocket. You can't blame a person for partaking in a little bit of the era's most cherished recreational activities. But soon enough, without Clinton's tone changing, the drugs become more and more of a presence, or rather, their presence becomes more and more of a problem. People start to fall off the map. Clinton buys a farm, simply, it seems, as a place to do drugs and escape. He begins hanging out with Sly Stone, one of his idols, which is never a good idea. At the age of 73 it's amazing that he can still walk on two feet, let alone crank out albums.

So, to answer the question of the book's title: Yes, the funkin' was hard on George Clinton. But it did not kill him. He will continue to survive long after his body dances off this mortal coil, through the music he created, the characters he put out in the world and most importantly, the inspiring model he laid down for other black artists to explore the furthest boundaries of their art. Break down the walls, or as Dr. Funkenstein would say, tear the roof of the sucka.


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