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George Clinton’s 40 years of funk

Captured in one electrifying night, and now on DVD

Charlie McCann | April 17th 2015

George Clinton knows how to make an entrance. It’s a skill he perfected in the Seventies, when his fame as the ringleader of the funk collective Parliament Funkadelic was at its peak. Clinton would arrive on stage in the P-Funk Mothership, a glowing $500,000 “spacecraft” that would descend from on high and deliver him in a hissing fug of flames and smoke. His outfits were as outrageous as his props: he was as likely to wear head-to-toe ermine as he was a white sheet (and nothing but). And for several years Clinton, who used to work in a barbershop, took to wearing hair extensions that made him look like Medusa in Technicolour.

Clinton’s palette was more subdued, though, at an intimate gig held last year at London’s Metropolis Studios. A special edition recording and DVD of the concert is being released this Saturday (on Record Store Day) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his seminal album, “Chocolate City”. By way of introduction, a member of the band says, “I know that when a few of you showed up you were expecting a guy with some rainbow-coloured hair. We know we’re not getting that tonight, so if you will, everybody just acknowledge Mr George Clinton in the house, y’all.” Clinton wears a grey double-breasted jacket with the buttons done up, his hair hidden under a black, broad-brimmed hat. The only prop on the tiny stage is a stool, which Clinton sits on. He has just sprained his knee, he explains.

Shorn of his extensions and hobbled by his knee, Clinton, who is 73, seems a little frail. His stage presence, though, remains as robust as his music. Throughout the set, which combines classics from P-Funk’s sprawling oeuvre, Clinton sings huskily into the mic and exhorts the adoring crowd to give it up for the band, which, by P-Funk standards, is small. In its heyday Parliament Funkadelic had something like 100 members (no one ever really seemed to know exact figures); at Metropolis Studios, they numbered 14. But, as ever, Clinton ministers to his flock, commanding sound engineers to turn up the volume, propping up a backing singer overcome by the sheer power of her voice, sometimes conducting members of the band, sometimes stepping aside for them: “Oh, am I in the way?” he asks, as he shuffles his stool over so the saxophonist Greg Thomas can come centre-stage for his solo.

Clinton has always known when to give his musicians the limelight. But by stripping the evening of all that Seventies spectacle (the Mothership has long since been decommissioned), Clinton lets P-Funk’s music shine through, too. It’s an evening of frenzied, non-stop funk; the kind of music that gets seats kicked out of the way—even Clinton’s—and that makes you envious of the towels the band brought along. Chugging bass lines dance in and around the drumbeat, with bursts of trumpet and sax filling the gaps. Curling guitar licks tickle the ear, yelps from the singers graze it. But this isn’t straight funk. As the portmanteau “Funkadelic” suggests, P-Funk takes the tightly coiled funk pioneered by James Brown and melds it with psychedelic rock. Clinton and crew find a groove and then experiment with it, often one instrument at a time. On “Red Hot Mama”, the lead guitarist Ricky Rouse unspools notes with dizzying speed, his dexterous fingers (and sometimes teeth) running up and down the fret board. On “Hit the Bag” Rouse takes a back seat, punctuating Thomas’s furious eddy of sax with short melodic accents. When Lige Curry takes his turn in “One Nation Under a Grove”, he bares his teeth in a grimace of joy as he takes his bass for a meandering walk full of twists and turns.

In the Eighties Clinton’s complex rhythms fell by the wayside as disco’s rigid four-on-the-floor beat took over the airwaves. But it was exactly that quality—the playfulness with the beat—that ensured P-Funk had an afterlife. James Brown is the most sampled artist in history, but Parliament Funkadelic isn’t far behind. Clinton has characterised P-Funk’s music as the DNA of hip-hop; in this show at Metropolis, you can hear some of the strands. When they play “(Not Just) Knee Deep” there is the squelchy synth melody Dr Dre lifted for “Fuck Wit Dre Day”. In “Atomic Dog” they sing the refrain “bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay”, which Snoop Dogg raps in that same Dre song. “Atomic Dog” alone has been sampled in 225 songs, many of them by rappers. Hip-hop was slow, at least in its early days, to acknowledge this debt to funk (although when West Coast rappers were casting about for a name to describe their gangster style, they settled on G-funk, in homage to P-Funk). Since then, hip-hop has become a phenomenon, more than funk ever was. The irony is that its success stems in large part from its funk heritage. But head to a hip-hop night and you might not know it: the set-up is minimal by comparison—on stage is only an MC with a mic and a DJ with his decks and laptop. It’s minimal because the music is pre-recorded, even though DJs mix it in original, often thrilling ways. But these nights of live hip-hop never feel the animating breath of a real instrument. At Clinton’s gig at Metropolis Studios, the room was panting with it. And even at 73, it’s a treat to see that grandmaster of ceremonies presiding over his funketeers.

Chocolate City, London: P-Funk Live at Metropolis Studios is out on April 18th

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