Jail or no jail, James Brown is Soul Brother No. 1, but his hits have been harvested so relentlessly by rap producers in the last few years that fresh grooves are near-impossible to find.
So if you’ve watched an episode or two of “Yo! MTV Raps” lately, you’ve heard a lot of George Clinton, Soul Brother No. 2, instead, as rappers are mining riffs from the various divisions of Clinton’s vast P.Funk combine.
You probably recognize the obvious stuff: MC Hammer’s version of Parliament’s “Mothership”; De La Soul’s cop of Funkadelic’s “Knee Deep”; Eazy-E’s take on Bootsy Collins’ “We Want Bootsy” among other subtler examples. These days P.Funk’s bottom-heavy dance-thuds set the funky agenda for everything from go-go to hard-core rap to commercials aired on Saturday morning TV.
“Any time you hear something in the commercials, (the P.Funk sound) is in there ,” Clinton said in an office at Warner Bros. Records’ Burbank headquarters. “That Hershey’s chocolate jam is the funkiest thing I’ve heard in years.”
George Clinton is a formidable guy, scowling from beneath dark trapezoidal shades, puffing out his bomber jacket like a Big 10 left tackle. He undoes his ponytail, and loosens a majestic, cherry-red hair extension that makes Twisted Sister look like Paul Schaffer. When you reach to shake his hand, he throws about a half-dozen arcane variants of the soul shake at you before settling on a straight high-five. Which you miss.
Clinton has been gone for a while, hunting quail on his Michigan farm. But this fall the funk is back: three re-released early Funkadelic albums are available for the first time since the beginning of the ‘70s; there’s a new Funkadelic LP due on MCA and a new solo album, “The Cinderella Theory,” is out on Prince’s Paisley Park label; and Clinton has taken a re-formed P.Funk All-Stars on the road (they’re at the Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday).
“Why Should I Dog U Out?”, the first single from the solo album, is the usual P.Funk blend of cranked bass and howling-pun lyrics, overlaid with a truly encyclopedic collection of sampled hip-hop snips. Another track features raps from Public Enemy’s Chuck D. and Flavor Flav. The Funkadelic LP includes a monster-jam version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
In the ‘70s, P.Funk sired more hit spinoffs than Norman Lear. By the end of the decade, it was less accurate to talk of Clinton’s position within the world of R&B; than of his dominance of it. The late-'70s Mothership Tour played Coliseum-size venues across the country.
Then the bottom dropped out.
“We were hot as fire,” Clinton said. “We were signing groups up, getting $700,000 for an album, spending $100,000 a week to keep us on the road--and it was working. We’d just, like, walk into the record company office and say, ‘Here’s the record.’
“But like with anything, there’s a planned obsolescence that comes around. When you get to that stage, there’s nothing you can do short of a freak situation. Prince was there--he’s lucky ‘Batman’ came along when it did. After so many records, it’s time for somebody else. And we knew the nostalgia thing would bring us around again.”
Clinton was as famous for his lucrative game of record-company roulette as he was for his edge-of-the-universe concept albums; at its peak P.Funk managed to sell its spinoffs to as many as five labels at once, permutations with essentially the same personnel and awesomely funky outer-space raunch conceits.
“Warners used to ask us why we didn’t give them ‘Flashlight.’ Casablanca used to ask us why we didn’t give them ‘One Nation Under a Groove.’ They both had hit records, and they even did co-promotions together--they got off cheap. But now, the young A&R; guys don’t even realize that Funkadelic is basically the same kind of thing guys like Living Colour are noted for.”
Of course, Clinton has a longer and wider perspective on these things than most people in the pop industry. Now 48, he began his career as a Frankie Lymon-influenced doo-wop singer in the mid-'50s, floated in and out of a songwriting gig at Motown in the early ‘60s, and had a Temptations-style hit, "(I Just Want To) Testify,” with the Parliaments in 1967 on an obscure Detroit label. The label went belly up, and he formed Funkadelic with his backup band.
“Motown mixed with our own psychedelic cult thing,” is how Clinton described the Funkadelic approach, which also sported simple, dominant bass lines, wacked-out cosmic lyrics and mind-bending fuzz guitar wilder than Hendrix. Its classics had titles like “Maggot Brain” and “America Eats Its Young”; spiritual heirs include Cameo, the Ohio Players and Prince.
Now Prince is repaying the debt, though Clinton is mum about the Purple One’s role in the recording of “The Cinderella Theory.”
“I can’t tell you about that, man, it’s in my contract. Prince was very instrumental in vibes, and direction, and what’s happening. “
So Prince hung out?
“Mmmmmm . . . He’d be there,” Clinton said. “It’s his studio, man. ‘Slammin’ ’ sounds like Prince. I used his horn section and his keyboardist. I tried to be as close to a thing Prince could sell as I could, considering I’d cut most of it before we started to work together--that was enough to identify us with Paisley Park.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale today for a third Rolling Stones date at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Oct. 19, preceding the sold-out Oct. 21 and 22 shows. . . . Stephanie Mills will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on Oct. 20.