Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Loose Canon

It's a tribute to George Clinton's genius that after 38 years in the music business--the Parliaments got together in 1955, when George was 15, 12 years before "I Wanna Testify" became the first of his four-count-'em-four top-40 hits--he's still shut out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Where would they stick him? He can't sing and he can't play; he didn't even record under his own name until 1982. He's not truly a songwriter, because his songs (not to mention his "songs") rarely make sense out of context, although as hip hop testifies, his jams sure do. Equally discomfiting for would-be canonizers, he's more than a nonrelic. Nonrelics you can deal with, and there are loads of them; Uncle Mick's new Wandering Spirit is arguably a better record than Uncle Jam's new Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger. The difference is that Clinton never matured. Evolved, yes; matured, no. He remains a loose cannon--an outrageous, eccentric, visionary crank. Check his interview in Seconds, where he forswears hip hop solidarity by dissing the world's most famous rapist--"Tyson had that Bronx 'Yo, bitch' mentality"--and goes on (for quite a while) about Charlie Manson being down with the Mafia. At the end, he sums up his own contribution to humanity: "I'm a lazy motherfucker. In fact, I'm looking for a place to lay down right now. You know, I know how to get away with shit. I'm the type of motherfucker who'll go to your house, smoke your pot, eat your chicken, borrow 20 dollars from ya--I do that shit a lot of the time on purpose just to get all that wide-eyed awe out of the way."

In other words, canonizers have Clinton's go-ahead to dismiss him as a huckster--a self-promoting svengali with a good band under his thumb. He himself told Seconds that the reason P-Funk albums wear so well is that they have Eddie and Bernie and the rest soloing all over them. But that's just George, greasing the wheels as usual. Spinoffs from Hazel's Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs to Worrell's Blacktronic Science go to show that Dr. Funkenstein--with essential conceptual help only from Bootsy Collins--is the artist, the others his material. Wheeler-dealing entrepreneur, harmonizer turned ace producer-arranger, r&b interlocutor as first rapper in the known universe--if any entertainer ever crossed the American huckster with the African trickster, it's George Clinton.

As this job description suggests, Clinton hasn't devoted much energy to working out a coherent resume. In 1979-80, for instance, a band that might as well have been called P-Funk released seven albums on Warner Bros., Casablanca, and Atlantic under the names Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, Bootsy, Parlet, and the Brides of Funkenstein. Beset by fatigue, jealousy, and fiscal discontent, the Mothership was going the way of all communes by then, and while Clinton had produced definitive music in disco's teeth--Mothership Connection (1976), Hardcore Jollies (1976), Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1977), One Nation Under a Groove (1978), and Motor-Booty Affair (1978), to stick to the prime stuff--he was having trouble positioning himself commercially, so most of these records are far from great. But as with Westbound-era Funkadelic, which takes some six albums to get its shit together, all of them are vehicles for memorable music, just like almost every other record he's ever put in gear.

It's another mark of his genius that his output doesn't compile comfortably past its own inconsistencies. PolyGram, the most effective of his labels in the basic matter of keeping his oeuvre out there--its Parliament albums are all in the racks--naturally chose to make a two-CD set called Tear the Roof Off 1974-1980 the flagship of its Funk Essentials series, and I played it with pleasure all summer. Because it isn't confined to radio edits and lasts two-and-a-half hours, it's less hyper than 1984's superb but disorienting Parliament's Greatest Hits, which I compared at the time to a serial orgasm. And since Parliament was conceived as the pop band, close to two CDs worth of catchy riffs and chants are there for the sequencing. But when I go back to the originals, I find myself loving the playlets, the slow stuff, the jive--like Funkentelechy's "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" and "Wizard of Finance," or "Rumpofsteelskin," which fills out the endlessly entertaining first side of Motor-Booty Affair. It's the same with Go fer Your Funk and "P" Is the Funk, the two often ear-opening, always ex post facto outtakes collections George has put out on AEM (29790 Orchard Lake Road, Suite 5, Farmington Hills, MI 48334). And it applies as well to Music for Your Mother, two CDs of completist triumph comprising the A and B sides of every Westbound 45 Funkadelic ever released. The 15 non-album tracks, including even the filler instrumentals, are far from d'void. But the albums are full of funk, full of meaning, full of shit.

Just because Funkadelic and Parliament were the same doesn't mean they weren't different. The standard analysis distinguishes Funkadelic's heavy rock from Parliament's light funk, but in '93 it sounds to me like Funkadelic was the ghetto band. Forget "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" and Isaac Hayes and the rest of that velour. No music better evokes the bombed-out hopes of the black-power young in the early '70s--the druggy utopian fantasies that fuel the despair of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and John Edgar Wideman's Homewood novels--than the Westbound albums, all stalwartly distributed by Rounder. The most consistent are Standing on the Verge of Getting It On and Let's Take It to the Stage, but listening now, it's not hard to hear why Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow--the first time George was given the run of a studio, 24 acid-demented hours as 30 acid-demented minutes--is a cult fave in slackerland. Not only is the shit weird, the weirdness signifies. From the educational "Jimmy's Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him" to the devotional "Cosmic Slop," Music for Your Mother is merely the cream.

Whether the secret is musical development, changing patterns of substance absorption, or enough money to go around, the Warners Funkadelic albums are sunnier, more rousing, more communal--especially if you choose to view "The Doo Doo Chasers" as a jolly Jim Jones parody and the manically depressive Electric Spanking of War Babies as some combination of label kissoff and There's a Riot Goin' On (with Sly pitching in). After years of corporate acrimony, all four are due for November 2 rerelease on Priority. Although his Capitol catalogue was CD-available for a minute, the only title currently in print is Computer Games, his first "solo" album and without question the most spiritually complete record he's ever made. In addition to the jams--"Get Dressed" vies with "Atomic Dog" itself. It's got intimations of romantic responsibility from an old dog unlikely to be remembered for his love advice, what's most noticeable a decade later is how easily George relates to the twin teen cultures of the time, rap and videogames. He's not just indulgent, he makes them his own, in an avuncular but far from uncritical way. No other nonrelic can make such a claim.

That said, it must be added that in the 11 years since Computer Games--which followed the first Funkadelic albums by only 12 years, after all--George hasn't matched this feat. Search the used bins for the fun-filled You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish, and don't think for a minute that The Cinderella Theory or Hey Man . . . are more mortal than Trombipulation or Uncle Jam Wants You. But while it's cute that his recording angel is the persona non hip hop of Paisley Park, note that this ever-flowing fountain of funk has released only three new albums since 1986. These days his major source of currency both historical and monetary is sampling, which he was Dutch uncle enough to find cool long before it was worth two cents a record and 50 per cent of the publishing. He's already cut some 300 such deals, more than JB himself, and unlike JB, he's respected by hip hoppers for his moral vision as well as his beats. In his lazy, get-away-with-shit way, George happily exploits this. Well behind JB in the godfather sweepstakes when he cut The Cinderella Theory in 1989, he got cameos out of Flav and Chuck while adjusting his Paisley Park debut to the electro style of his label head, one of the few pretenders he never accused of faking the funk, and with guest shots from: Chuck, Flav, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Yo Yo, Kam, MC Breed, and Humpty Hump, Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger is meant to evoke straight-up hip hop. But the literal protests and tough-talking diction of the principal youngblood showcase, "Paint the White House Black," serve mainly to point up whose mind is free and whose isn't. That's not anybody's fault--it's a fact of history. And it grates nevertheless.

What's missing from Hey Man . . . is the sense of a leader whose myth is cultural rather than artistic. Its only discernible theme is sampling itself. The leadoff "Martial Law" demonstrates how much whomp is left in everybody's favorite tracks--the properly permissioned and credited "Atomic Dog," "One Nation Under a Groove," and "(Not Just) Knee Deep." "Paint the White House Black" extracts an equally slamming groove from an unrecognizable "Smiling Faces Sometimes" and gives up publishing to Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. And if nothing else comes close to the P-Funk classics, there are scads of beats and bits primed for rental--Eric Leeds's late-JB's horn chart on "Get Satisfied," "Kickback"'s nonsense syllables, the princely groove of "The Big Pump." Unfortunately, too much verbiage is wasted on the kind of self-aggrandizement that was funny when Dick Lame was on the charts but sounds like secondhand rap braggadocio now that hip hop has proved that George was as large as he thought he was.

In the end, Hey Man . . . Smell My Finger is an apposite sample of the sampling age--it may well win you over, but only in bits and pieces. As an advocate of the technique, I'm pained to admit that the most encouraging thing about it is that, owing in part to the solvency sampling income has afforded the principals, it marks a kind of reunion--just about every surviving P-Funk mainstay played on it. A lot of them have been spotted touring with Bootsy, and it's my bet they'll do the same for George. From such confluences new P-Funk albums can be expected to ensue. Maybe we don't need them, but for sure we can use them. Fried ice cream remains a reality, and somebody has to stand up and shout about it.

Village Voice, Nov. 2, 1993