Top Dog

George Clinton's latest state-of-the-funk message

In 1975 George Clinton made the album he still considers to be his career breakthrough: Chocolate City, with his band Parliament. Chocolate City's classic title song was not only an obvious precursor to hip-hop (with Clinton smoothly talking over a repetitive rhythm track), but it also was an alternative state-of-the-union message for post-Watergate America, with Clinton conjuring a nation where Muhammad Ali was president, Reverend Ike served as secretary of the treasury, Richard Pryor was minister of education, and Aretha Franklin was first lady.

More than two decades later, in his own surreal, deliberately absurdist way, funk's commander in chief still speaks the truth as he sees it (often persuasively enough to make you wonder if the wrong Clinton is in the White House), though he tends to reserve his seminal statements for what he considers to be epochal periods. His latest album, Dope Dogs, feels like such a piece of work. Working with the unbeatable P-Funk All-Stars, Clinton takes on animal testing with "Just Say Ding (Databoy)," crack addiction in "Help, Scottie, Help (I'm Tweaking and I Can't Beam Up!)" and U.S. drug policies on several other tracks. And he manages to do it all by using the trusty dog metaphor that brought him the 1983 hit "Atomic Dog." The album is even released on Clinton's own Dogone Records label.

To Clinton the use of canines to sniff for drugs in people's posteriors is symptomatic of this nation's institutional stupidity and cruelty. As usual, though, he puts these messages across with on-the-one rhythmic command and wild nursery-rhyme profanity.

"It's the millennium album," he declares. "We did it a long time ago, but we knew it was going to take a long time to push it across, so we're not gonna stop playing that one for another year or two. It's not a matter of it going up the charts or down the charts or nothing. It's something we're gonna stick to."

Clinton's fascination with the coming millennium is such that he plans on playing a New Year's Eve gig in the Fiji Islands, thereby allowing him to usher out 1999 from the last time zone to make the change. At the same time, he professes little concern for the much-hyped Y2K computer virus. "We're gonna be working on batteries," he says, laughing. "If we're the last ones to leave here, we'll make sure we're all on the one."

The 58-year-old Clinton's perpetual openness to new ideas has allowed him to remain vital long after most of his contemporaries were relegated to the nostalgia circuit. In a way it's fitting, because Clinton was a late starter. Toward the end of the '50s, he assembled a doo-wop vocal group in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, after being inspired by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

In an effort to jump-start a floundering career, he moved the group, called the Parliaments, to Detroit with dreams of recording for Motown. The band had to settle for the independent Revilot label, and aside from a minor 1967 hit, "(I Wanna) Testify," had little success. But Clinton started to take note of acid rock and tried to figure out a way to meld it with his group's R&B roots.

"We just had to change, do something different, so we would have no competition," he explains. "That's when we decided to do something like speeded-up blues or slowed-down rock 'n' roll. Once we did that, we were able to take our time and go through the years like I wanted to."

Beginning in 1970 with the renamed Parliament, he went on a decadelong streak of amazing productivity. In addition to Parliament, he devised the trippier Funkadelic, as well as a parade of offshoots like Brides of Funkenstein. By mid-decade the masses started to catch up to Clinton's dense, mind-expanding funk, and his live shows took R&B into new realms. Band members were alternately decked out in space suits or diapers, and Clinton's shows stretched to four or five hours, usually beginning with the landing of a mock spaceship.

"I knew we were with a company [Casablanca Records] that was gonna promote us, so I took the time to organize things, and give them a real concept that we could hold on to for a while: the Mothership, the clothes, and all that," he says. "I had it in my mind for a long time to do the whole Mothership thing, but I had to make sure I had enough promotion there. To be able to follow through with the concept album, so it'd be like Tommy, a rock opera, or Hair. We had seen Tommy work in rock 'n' roll, and Hair was all our friends who we went to school with. We saw them rehearse that. They started dressing like us. We were clowning with the hippie thing. We were way out with it, and we'd interchange costumes with each other every night. They kinda did the same thing with the first crew of Hair in New York. So we influenced them a lot."

Everything came crashing down at the beginning of the '80s, as he got into a legal wrangle with Warner Bros., Funkadelic's label, and Casablanca was sold to PolyGram. Clinton was stuck without a major-label outlet and could no longer meet his massive payroll. Conventional wisdom has it that Clinton had overextended himself and burned out by taking on too many projects at once. In typically contrary fashion, he tends to believe that his assortment of groups actually lengthened his career.

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