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The King of Funk: George Clinton Brings His Freaky, Afrofuturistic Vision to San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

In Music
CAN'T FAKE THE FUNK: It's hard to overstate George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic's influence on pop culture.

CAN'T FAKE THE FUNK: It's hard to overstate George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic's influence on pop culture.

When hip-hop heads lovingly refer to the “West Coast sound” or Prince fans regale his potent pairing of musical prowess and sartorial eccentricity—or when a kid in suburbia picks up a bass after hearing “Give It Away” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, or a new Talking Heads convert is pulled into the fold after watching the synth-punk-worldbeat collision in the new wave band’s seminal concert film, Stop Making Sense—it all leads back to one far-out dude from Plainfield, New Jersey. Call it the six degrees of George Clinton.

The ringmaster of a rotating collective of virtuosic musicians known as Parliament-Funkadelic, Clinton has been making music and influencing the world of pop tunes for more than 60 years. During this time he’s helped to define the genre of funk, create a sub-genre—aptly dubbed P-Funk—and provide the backbone for a sub-genre of gangster rap, known as G-Funk.

At 76 years old, Clinton is still touring and keeping his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. That’s him performing the spoken word intro to “Wesley’s Theory,” the opening salvo on Kendrick Lamar’s blistering, jazz-infused sophomore LP, To Pimp A Butterfly. He’s partnering with Flying Lotus to release his forthcoming album on the taste-making producer’s boutique label, Brainfeeder. And he continues to tour the country—he and Parliament-Funkadelic headline the main stage of San Jose Jazz Summer Fest on Friday night.

How does the septuagenarian stay so funky fresh? A healthy lifestyle probably isn’t the answer. In a Rolling Stone interview from 2014, Clinton admitted to smoking crack well into his 60s. If you ask him, the key is that he’s always on the lookout for the next big sound.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Clinton says on a recent afternoon, speaking over the phone from his home in Tallahassee, Florida.

Starting his career leading a doo-wop group called The Parliaments, Clinton parlayed that into a job at Motown, where he rubbed elbows with R&B greats like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. But even the Motown sound got old for Clinton. When he heard Led Zeppelin and other psychedelic rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, he took notes—merging their lysergic aesthetics with the new, funkier rhythms of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. He also took a page out of the playbook of artists like Sun Ra and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, mixing a healthy dose of afrofuturism into his sound and image.

“We changed to accommodate whatever was happening,” Clinton says, explaining his general philosophy for making music.

When rap took off in the ’80s, many record labels and artists fought back against the practice of sampling—claiming that the use of repurposed snippets of recorded audio constituted copyright infringement. Rick James sued MC Hammer over the latter’s use of the “Super Freak” hook on “Can’t Touch This.” Biz Markie went head to head with Gilbert O’Sullivan in front of a judge over a sample pulled from the track “Alone Again (Naturally).” But Clinton & Co. embraced the new creative mode.

“When they started sampling us in the ’80s, with hip-hop, we put out ‘Atomic Dog,’ which was a perfect song for that genre, and then we started catering to hip-hop,” he says.

Fans of early hip-hop will find samples of Clinton’s solo work and P-Funk all over the rap world. There’s “Me, Myself and I,” by De La Soul; “Bring the Noise” by Public Enemy—and of course many of the Dr. Dre-produced G-Funk beats, starting with the The Chronic in 1992.

While East Coast gangster rap sounds during the “golden era” of hip-hop were classified largely by stark, hard-chopped jazz samples and so-called “boom-bap” beats, there was something decidedly more funky going on in Southern California.

The G-Funk sound featured snaking monosynth leads, often referred to as the “G-Funk whistle,” buoyant bass lines performed on electric bass guitars (as opposed to the more muted sound of the upright acoustic jazz bass).

There are the direct samples, like on Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?,” as well as textures inspired by Clinton, such as the whistling monosynth lead deployed on “Gin and Juice,” and the computerized vocal hook on Tupac’s “California Love,” which comes courtesy of onetime Parliament-Funkadelic member Roger Troutman.

Scott Fulton, who works for San Jose Jazz coordinating the High School All Stars program and managing the SJZ Boom Box Project, says Clinton and P-Funk are easily one of his “all-time biggest influences.”

“To this day, there’s not another group that sounds the way they do,” he adds.

Clinton and his entourage truly excel at creating a festive atmosphere—through their stage show and their innovative approach to crafting party anthems consisting mostly of choruses, which allows audiences to sing along more easily and lose themselves in the experience. “You just can’t help moving your feet,” Fulton says. “It’s pandemonium.”

Which isn’t to say the music is simplistic. Fulton was inspired to pick up the bass after hearing the virtuosity of P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins.

“Bootsy’s space bass was very unique,” he says, recalling the juicy auto-wah effect Collins often applied to his instrument. Additionally, Bootsy’s bass was often placed high up in the mix, where it worked as a sort of lead instrument, while a synthesizer played a simpler sub-bass line underneath it all.

The idea of a bass working as a lead is nothing new today, though back in the ’70s it was a revelation, Fulton says. “If you listen to (Primus bassist) Les Claypool’s bass, it is very related to Bootsy’s—the nastiness of it.”

And it was, in part, due to Clinton’s progressive stance on sampling that Fulton found his way to hip-hop, while the musicianship of Parliament-Funkadelic sent him digging up older jazz records. Fulton remembers the feeling of coming full circle when he realized the squiggling synth sample on “Me, Myself and I” was taken from Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep.”

“Connecting the dots on that was amazing,” he says.

Clinton’s acceptance of sampling, Fulton adds, was more than a savvy business move—it was a way of ensuring his legacy. “If a Parliament songs gets new life via a sample, then a whole new generation gets to participate.”

The legacy of Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution, which recently acquired the “Mothership”—a stage prop the group toured with during the ’90s. The original Mothership from the ’70s could not be located, according to Kevin Strait, curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Part of the museum’s exhibit titled “Musical Crossroads,” the Mothership, Strait says, served as a visual representation of freedom and the potential of African Americans, which was at once forward looking as well as a tribute.

“The Mothership owes a nod to Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix and other avant garde musicians who imagined space as a metaphor for freedom for African Americans beyond earthly constraints,” Strait says. “And it helped the audience understand that this was a new era of music making in general.”

George Clinton
Aug 11, 9:30pm, $20+
Main Stage, San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

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