The Freak Flag Is Still Flying

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 18, 2008

Back in January, when this very newspaper examined the songs each presidential candidate was using to fire up the faithful at rallies, it noted (perhaps with mild disappointment) that "Barack Obama prefers feel-good, Motown-era, baby boomer-friendly pop."

It's a safe bet that Team Obama never seriously considered adopting George Clinton's "Paint the White House Black" as its fight song. But now that the distinguished gentleman from Illinois is the presumptive Democratic nominee, we humbly recommend his staff give the prescient 1993 jam a second (or maybe, first) listen. A bracing, booty-shaking destroyer of milquetoast campaign anthems, the track features Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who through their liberal use of samples from the Clinton songbook brought the funk legend a new audience 35 years after he'd started out singing doo-wop in a New Jersey barber shop.

The singer-bandleader-producer is still touring with Parliament and Funkadelic, the two acts he led to freak-flag-flying glory in early-'70s Detroit just as the Motown era was drying up. Collectively, the acts make up P-Funk.

Thanks in part to younger artists who absorbed and championed his work (Prince in the '80s, Dre in the '90s, OutKast in this decade), Clinton, who turns 68 on Tuesday, prides himself on drawing a multi-generational, multi-genre audience. "We got the hip-hop and the Deadhead crowd and the techno and all that," he says in a telephone interview from Detroit. "There're 20-year-olds, I'm proud to say, that say 'I'm down with P-Funk.' Then you got the old-school people, looking at these kids, saying, 'What the hell do y'all know about P-Funk?' It's good to have three generations of family coming to see us."

The absurdist humor and famously theatrical concerts that defined Parliament Funkadelic began in response to the granola chic of the hippie movement.

"We tried to make fun of being hippies," Clinton recalls. "We always had tailor-made suits coming up, trying to be players and pimps, and we did hair at the barber shop. We made people cool. So now, contrary to all of that, here come people wearing jeans with holes in 'em . . . and people was calling that hip. We just made it absurd. We would wear diapers and sheets and the clothes bags that the suits came in. We just tried to be as obnoxious as we could be with it."

Parliament's 1976 "Mothership Connection" kicked off P-Funk's most triumphant period, filtering Clinton's prankish, druggy, sci-fi sensibility through an Olympian lineup of musicians: keyboardist/co-writer Bernie Worrell, multi-instrumentalist/co-writer Bootsy Collins, and horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker among them. "Give Up the Funk" was P-Funk's highest-charting pop single (No. 15), and their bizarro stage show reached otherworldly heights. "We had $10,000 costumes," Clinton says. "The [Mothership] stage prop was half a million dollars."

Funkadelic scored four R&B No. 1 hits in 1978-79, and 1978's "One Nation Under a Groove" LP was a platinum-selling masterpiece. But by the mid-'80s, talent departures and lawsuits had weakened the P-Funk empire. Clinton dropped the Parliament and Funkadelic monikers but soldiered on with (mostly) the same musicians as the P-Funk All-Stars.

Although the 9:30 show won't boast quite the bling of the "Mothership" era, Clinton promises to free the crowd's minds all the same. "The audience is the group," he says. "If we can get them to perform with us, they entertain themselves. Most people go to shows with their mind made up: They be worrying about the parking lot halfway through the show, worried how they're gonna get out of there. We try to make them forget that."

Part of Clinton's secret? Stamina. The show's first two hours are to please the crowd. "The second two hours, we're playing for ourselves," he laughs. "We really don't care what comes out of us."

His advice for P-Funk first-timers: "Don't plan nothing for the next morning too early."

Can't make the gig? Don't sweat it; you'll have plenty more chances. "I'm gonna clone myself and keep on going," he declares.

George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic Saturday at the 9:30 club, 815 V St. NW. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets:$40 at the 9:30 club box office or 9:30 box office or at The Download: For a sampling of music by George Clinton, check out: From Funkadelic's "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On" (1974): · "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts" From Parliament's "Mothership Connection" (1976): · "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up) From Parliament's "Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome" (1977): · "Flash Light"

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