Funk, baby, has got to be the sweetest four-letter word in the musical universe. A rhythm-heavy sound that is pungent, arresting and loaded with psycho-acoustic demands, funk grabs ahold of one’s mind and refuses to let go. It’s a swampy stretch of territory that was first recognized and charted at the turn of the 19th century–we know, from the memoirs of fabled New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet, that the jazz cats and second liners of the Crescent City were cozily familiar with it, via that memorable refrain "Funky Butt, Funky Butt, take it away . . . " of "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say," that trumpeter-showman’s third-person classic. The song was also recorded by Jelly Roll Morton, who cited a 1904 dispute over the melody’s ragtime origin, and, later, Mezz Mezzrow had his own 1930s-era "Funky Butt." This is perhaps more etymology than music history, but, clearly, the funk was bubbling away long before James Brown and Maceo Parker defined the stripped down, syncopated blast, and it has a natural-fact, long-established familiarity that allows any hep brother to indulge.
Certainly, no one has reveled within its odiferous arena as successfully and impressively as George Clinton. With his interstellar wardrobe, Technicolor dreadlocks and deliciously fractured manner of speech, Clinton has become an institution in the American pop underworld, a figure as recognizable as he is unconventional. The free-thinking, unpredictable and altogether out-of-this-world avatar of funk elevated the form to previously undreamt of heights, and over the course of five decades in the music business, he has despite numerous thwarts, blights and missteps, performed magnificently. Toiling in the old school rhythm & blues field during the 1950′s, Clinton’s expanded vision was always far ahead of the day’s sound, and by funk’s recognized dawn–1967–he was plowing through some striking ground. First it was his unorthodox doo-wop renegades The Parliaments, and by the early 70′s, Clinton was tearing it up twice as nice as leader of both the re-tooled Parliament and Funkadelic, a tribe whose wild, lysergic workouts created an entire new musical frontier.
Clinton took funk into orbit, outpacing vaunted spearheads James Brown and Sly Stone with delirium-inducing anthems like "Maggot Brain" and "Cosmic Slop"–unhinged numbers heralding an astonishing ascension that produced a series of increasingly off-beat slabs of mad funk expression. It was at this point that Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish and traps titan Kash Waddy fell in with Clinton, and the trio, significantly all former James Brown band members, brought a crucial expansiveness to Clinton’s music–particularly Bootsy, whose synapse rattling syncopated bass style propelled the by now congealed P-Funk collective into an ever-gaudier realm. These were zealots, players on a mission, hellbent to reach deeper into the primal funk ooze than anyone else dared, and their mid-70′s spree, characterized by classics like "Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)," "Dr. Funkenstein" and "One Nation Under A Groove," were a critical series of funk creations, songs that not only set an entirely new standard, but also knocked holes in the pop music wall that allowed the fledgling hip-hop sound to break through and, eventually, into the mainstream. By 1983, when he unleashed the immortal "Atomic Dog," it seemed as if Clinton could do no wrong.
Clinton’s musical revolution was an emphatic, idiosyncratic break-out, one that shredded convention with irresistible glee, and he has played it to the hilt, never stepping out of his cosmic funk godfather persona, even in the most dire circumstances–when he was arrested in Florida in 2003 for crack cocaine possession, Clinton’s notoriety itself not only increased but also somehow allowed him to see the felony charges dropped (he pled guilty to a misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia) and he managed to side-step any serious hard time.
He’s now 67, yet there’s no stopping the barmy old geezer–his latest album How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent? struts, thumps and kicks with all the vintage, high-impact trimmings and cracked perspective his horde of followers thrive on. Still carrying a twenty-piece band, and still featuring the stellar drummer Kash Waddy, when Clinton convenes his troupe and they blast off onto P-Funk orbit, all bets are off and you never know where you may end up. "We’re gonna skip the fourth and fifth dimension, they booby-trapped already," Clinton has said. "We’re going to the sixth and seventh–ain’t nobody been there to taint it yet."
George Clinton at the P-Funk All Stars at San Manuel Casino (777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland), Thurs., Aug.16. Doors at 6:30pm; tickets $30-$50.