In the mid-seventies, George Clinton and his band Funkadelic were working on a new song, “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” at a studio in Los Angeles. At the time, Funkadelic was basically a psychedelic-rock band that took apart soul ballads, and its heavy, sprawling jams felt like an endurance test. If you made it through them, then you tasted true freedom. The musicians were taking a break when, according to Clinton, a white kid wandered into the session—probably “a smack addict,” as he recalled in his memoir, from 2014, “Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” The kid asked if they would give him twenty-five dollars for a guitar solo. Clinton was sufficiently bemused to agree. He played “like he was possessed,” Clinton wrote. The kid sprayed a delirious, screeching solo all over the track and then walked off with his money, never to be heard from again, except for a few minutes on Funkadelic’s album “Let’s Take It to the Stage,” from 1975.
Clinton has always had an easygoing relationship to paperwork. More than a hundred and seventy people have played in Funkadelic and its alter-ego band, Parliament, commonly referred to together as P-Funk. This doesn’t include the twenty or so bands that have spun off from the core. The true story of the solo on “Get Off Your Ass” is lost to time, and perhaps to a wash of drugs. (The kid wasn’t the only person in the studio who was drawn to altered mind states.) But the anecdote captures something essential about the path that Clinton has forged for his bands. P-Funk’s marriage of spaced-out psychedelia and aggressive, purring funk music came to seem like a life style, a world view. Everyone is welcome.
Clinton grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he gravitated toward the jubilant harmonies of doo-wop. He formed his own band, the Parliaments, as a teen-ager, and in the early sixties the group travelled to Detroit to audition for the Motown label. Though Motown was known for its individual stars, such as Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, it was a collective endeavor, run like an assembly line. In the Parliaments’ early years, Clinton figured that this was what he had to do, and so the members dutifully synchronized their dance steps, polished their harmonies, and wore matching suits. Motown passed on the group but hired Clinton as a songwriter, producer, and arranger. He was a low-key guy satisfied with behind-the-scenes glory.
In 1967, the Parliaments released “(I Just Wanna) Testify” on Revilot, one of Detroit’s many independent soul labels. “Testify,” a shaggy approximation of Motown’s composed swing, was the group’s first hit. But success soured the band. The members didn’t feel that they fit in with their squeaky-clean peers. They were attracted to the Motown sound, that feeling of breezy, compact perfection. But they also liked the bludgeoning release of rock music, especially the way Jimi Hendrix made the amplifier’s squealing feedback sing. They loosened their ties and decided that it was fine to grow their hair out. Clinton realized that you could play soul and gospel music at the sludgy pace of heavy rock, and he rebranded the Parliaments—who were stuck in a messy contract dispute—as Funkadelic.
One day, while watching cartoons, Clinton had the idea that it was far more interesting for the band to masquerade as characters than to be themselves. People got old, but a good character could live forever. Though the split personality of Parliament and Funkadelic evolved from contractual complications, it laid bare the importance of personae. In the early seventies, Funkadelic fell in with the Detroit rock scene, matching the wailing anarchy of proto-punk acts like the MC5 and the Stooges. The band members began dressing in costumes: diapers, spacesuits, martial-arts uniforms, wizards’ robes. P-Funk’s songs and album sleeves sketched out an extended, predominantly black cosmos of heroes and villains. If you surrendered yourself to their music, there would always be a place for you on the Holy Mothership. If you just stood there, with your arms folded, you were probably down with Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, a killjoy who promises he will “never dance.”
At first, there was no better thesis statement for the woolly, acid-assisted music of early Funkadelic than the title of its 1970 album “Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow.” By the mid-seventies, as the musicians leaned into their identity as the funk proselytizers of Parliament, that title might have been turned the other way around: they wanted you to follow their grooves to a higher state of consciousness. Parliament’s brand of funk was almost obnoxiously up front about its intentions. In a lot of music, bass is an ethereal presence, enforcing a song’s spine in a way that you feel but rarely listen for. Yet Parliament built entire songs around the bassist Bootsy Collins’s squiggly lines, sensual growls, and mighty thumps. The backbone, after all, is connected to the rear.
A few weeks ago, Parliament released “Medicaid Fraud Dogg,” its first album in thirty-eight years. Nowadays, the band consists largely of younger players, including some children of P-Funk stalwarts from the seventies and a stable of singers and rappers. Parliament is currently on an American tour, which Clinton says will be his last. He will retire from performance next year, at the age of seventy-seven.
Parliament’s buoyancy comes from a contrast between highs and lows. There are moments on “Medicaid Fraud Dogg” that are like a highlight reel of the past four decades: the pulsing quasars and insistent strut of “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’Me,” the sleazy ooze and euphoric popping corks of “Oil Jones.” “Kool Aid” wobbles like the P-Funk of old, but with far raunchier descriptions of the posterior. There are certainly patchy moments, owing to the album’s rotating cast, which ranges from rappers who sound a bit too much like Tupac and Kendrick Lamar to posthumous contributions from some legendary P-Funk members, like the singer Robert (P-Nut) Johnson and the keyboardist Walter (Junie) Morrison.
Yet Clinton still provides the pulse. It’s eerie to hear the band’s spirited grooves propping up the new characters Clinton has added to the P-Funk universe. They constantly seem to be suffering in pain, knocked out by pills. Clinton’s voice is just a thin rasp on a wheezy ballad titled “Pain Management.” “ ‘Man up’ is what my daddy used to say,” he sings, the light croak of Auto-Tune giving his vocals an added sense of despondency. Once, P-Funk promised “one nation under a groove.” Its music found politics in pleasure—in dancing, listening, communing together. Now Clinton, who survived a nearly three-decade crack habit, laments the rise of the pharmaceutical industry. He sounds exasperated as he half sings, half raps, “One nation under sedation / Rehab or re-up / Oxycodone for those oxy morons.”
Every generation mines the past for what it needs. In the eighties, as the members of Parliament and Funkadelic were stuck in a limbo of bad contracts and bruised egos, Clinton pursued a solo career. He became a free-spirited funk godfather for younger bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone. In the nineties, the P-Funk cosmology, which linked the ancient pyramids to distant planets, helped inspire the Afrofuturist philosophy. In more recent years, the band’s dream of collective liberation has become a touchstone for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus. Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!,” from 2016, often felt like a dutiful homage to the fluid sexuality of late-seventies Parliament. Last year, a remix compilation called “Funkadelic Reworked by Detroiters” allowed such dance producers as Moodymann and Underground Resistance to show gratitude to their forebears for all those transcendent rhythms.
Like many people for whom Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” was a gateway high, I first heard Funkadelic as a sample: “Mothership Connection” provided the slow, thrusting foundation for “Let Me Ride.” At the time, I didn’t see the difference between something that was sexually suggestive and something that aspired to be sex itself.
Clinton is one of the most important musical figures in American history. Yet, like many others who have outlasted the revolutions they inspired, it’s easy to forget that he has continued making music, alongside his disciples. Up until his recent sobriety, his choices could seem erratic and strange. But there’s a clarity now. The Mothership prop that Parliament toured with throughout the seventies is part of the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Clinton barely appears at the end of “Medicaid.” Instead, “Insurance Man,” the album’s penultimate track, is an ode to his influence. “We got the funk ’cause George left us instructions,” a rapper named the Buttress sings. She grows more brazen: “Our beneficiaries will eat for as long as they’re insured with the funk.”
Clinton’s brilliance isn’t necessarily found in his singing or his songwriting. It is in his capacity to motivate, the story of freedom he could tell about someone else’s guitar solo. He engineered Funkadelic’s most stirring moment, on “Maggot Brain,” by sending the guitarist Eddie Hazel to the booth with a simple instruction: play as though your mother just died.
Every community needs someone to wonder what would happen if we went just a bit farther. One of Clinton’s greatest beneficiaries was Prince, who in the mid-eighties gave Clinton, then reeling from drug addiction, a lifeline. In 1997, Prince inducted Parliament and Funkadelic into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He told a story about the time Clinton sent him a tape of music they were working on together, with a note: “You ‘P’ on it and then send it back to me. And I’ll ‘P’ on it. And then we’ll see what we got.” The audience gasped, but Prince just smiled. He understood exactly what Clinton meant.