Throughout his long and colorful career, funk godfather George Clinton has long played the role of ringmaster.
The carnival-style celebrations he leads these days, however, are more about family than the bacchanalian revelries of yesteryear, when the man who’s become a mainstay of hip-hop samples and a deity to a generation of urban artists who have followed in his footsteps oversaw the collection consciousness expansion of millions of funk faithful.
“I got my grandkids out now with me; my son Tracey and his kids, and my daughter,” Clinton told The Daily Times recently. “There’s four generations of folks in there, with all the different members. We got a lot of the old members, (Rodney) ‘Skeet’ Curtis (part of Clinton’s posse since 1977) and Greg Thomas and Ben Cowan; Lige Curry (who joined in 1978) and Mike Hampton (the guitarist, composer and music director who joined in the early 1970s as a 17-year-old prodigy); Kevin Oliver and Danny Bedrosian.
“There’s just so many bad, talented folks in there, and we’ve been having a ball. There’s just been great turnouts, and this tour here is like, ‘Wow!’”
Friday night, the tour — dubbed “One Nation Under a Groove” — makes its way to The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville. While the venue has long been associated with country, rock and Americana, the funk made famous by Clinton knows no boundaries, as the man himself pointed out. “Up in Tennessee, they know how to funk, and they know how to get down,” he said. “The Knoxville area always stands out for that.”
Considered one of the innovators of funk, Clinton got his start in doo-wop and as a Motown staff writer before putting together one of the greatest loosely affiliated tribes of musicians ever assembled: Parliament-Funkadelic, which combined the black-power soul of James Brown, the rock ferocity of Jimi Hendrix, the good-time jams of Sly and the Family Stone and the sexual blues power of the generations prior. Funk was in its infancy, and Clinton and his band threw in a lot of psychedelics and bizarre lyrics to turn it into an existential musical experience.
By the late 1970s, he and his bands (Parliament and Funkadelic were once two separate entities, both helmed by Clinton) had charted four No. 1 R&B hits, including “One Nation Under a Groove.” “Atomic Dog” followed in 1982, and as hip-hop became a bigger piece of the national musical fabric, Clinton enjoyed a career revival in the late 1980s. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers made funk fashionable again, and ever since Clinton has toured, performed and recorded with the energy of men half his age. (He turns 81 in July.)
A few years back, it was announced that he would retire, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, he said. “We had a few dates we weren’t able to finish because of the pandemic, so when that happened, it gave me a chance to slow down and rest,” he said. “I started painting, and the next thing I know the pandemic was over, and we went back out to finish those dates — and I haven’t stopped. I was wide awake and ready to go again.” He credits the down time with the ability to reconnect to the material as well, and time has taught him to appreciate both the strategy of their presentation and the unique ability of his band members across generations to turn each live performance into a work of art. “We were always underground anyway. We were never bubblegum pop, and we tried to keep it like that,” he said. “You could play the same song over 20 years, and you’d never hear it the same way twice. No matter how many times you hear it, it’s going to be a brand new song, because that’s the nature of the band.”
Time has also sharpened the respect popular culture has for what Clinton has done and continues to do. There was a time that funk, especially the psychedelic dispatches from the Parliament-Funkadelic mothership, seemed too esoteric compared to disco, pop, soul and R&B. But when cuts from the seminal 1971 Parliament record “Maggot Brain” are used in mainstream television commercials, it’s a clear indication that the genre always wins.
And that, Clinton said, is why he continues to tour and record: There’s still work to be done. He’s working on albums for both Parliament Funkadelic and his other band, the P Funk Allstars, and hopes to announce more information about both soon, but as much as fans might be looking forward to them, they’ll never adequately capture the magic of the band’s live show.
“It’s always been like that, trying to get what we do on stage onto a record, because we never do it the same way,” he said. “There are different variations of everything, and it’s definitely an experience.”
One, he added, that shouldn’t be missed. In fact, he has a word of advice for fans planning to attend Friday’s Shed show:
“Bring two booties, because we’re going to be funking!” he said. “You know we can’t stop.”