THEY CALL themselves the Funk Mob. George Clinton, William "Bootsy" Collins, Maceo Parker, Philippe Wynne and their three dozen allies represent the nation's most flamboyant and bestselling soul groups. Alone they are formidable -- but now they've banded together, determined to make funk the next big event in pop music.
They are not bashful about their intentions: "We want to be as big as the Beatles," braggs Clinton, "as broad as Motown, and as bad as James Brown." They're doing it too, with music built on the bass-heavy, hornpowered, sexy style perfected by Brown.
Like the Motown label in its heyday, the Funk Mob's production company -- Thang Inc. -- has a stable of some 40 writers, producers, signers and musicians who collaborate on the records of 20 different acts. These acts not only sell millions of records but also influence how people dress, talk and wear their hair.
With disco in retreat, the Mob is mounting a hugh offensive -- before next spring, they will release funk albums by 18 different acts on five different labels. Six of those albums are already out, and all are moving up the charts.
Some of the names are familiar: Bootsy, Parliament, Funkadelic, Philippe Wynne, Parlet, Bernie Worrell and the Brides of Funkenstein. Some are new: Zapp, the Sweat Band, Junie, Roger & the Human Body, the Sterling Starship Band, Tray-Lewd's Elastic Brain Flam, GodMama, the P-Funk Allstars, Gary Fabulous, the Mutants and Jessica Cleaves.
And they are all part of a Funk Mob effort -- led by 40-year-old Clinton, the founder of Parliament and Funkadelic -- to create an alternative to the traditional music business.
Even more remarkable than the size of the project are the revolutionary concepts behind it. For one, the individuals in an act may vary.Through Thang Inc., Clinton doesn't sell people to the record companies -- he sells concepts: That is, the Brides of Funkenstein can be anyone Clinton tells Atlantic records they are as long as they're a female funk duo.
And in a highly unusual move in the record business -- where an artist is traditionally the property of a single label -- Clinton has arranged distribution deals for his various acts with each of the three big record conglomerates: Warner, Polygram and Columbia. Now he is going one step further: He's demanding -- and getting -- his own subsidiary record company from each conglomerate: Park Place on Warners; Cloza Negra on Polygram; and Uncle Jam on Columbia.
Because no artist is under a specific contract, each is free to work on any project or to come and go as he pleases. Clinton says, "I want to prove that you can have fun and still make money. I want prove that you can be fair and still make money."
The Funk Mob has declared December "Funk Month," and to kick things off they held a summit meeting last Sunday in Washington's Harambee House.
First into the room was Philippe Wynne, the "Wynne Jammer." He was the lead singer on all the Spinner's hits between 1972 and 1975. Wynne is the mob's elder statesman. He still dresses like the slick soul singer he used to be. Last Sunday he topped off his outfit with a big, feather-banded cowboy hat. Putting down his chessboard and gesturing with his pipe, he said, "I want to tour with the Funk Mob in January, but then I'd like to go out with some more traditional acts to do small theaters in the round. I want to prove I can do both."
Next to arrive was Maceo Parker, the saxophone player made famous by James Brown. Whenever Brown's band reached a peak in the old days, Brown would shout: "Hey, Maceo! Blow!" In more recent years, Clinton would shout the same thing when Parliament was peaking on stage.
"When I was with James Brown," Parker said, "I was just a horn player. Everything was dictated. Here everbody has something to offer -- everyone gets a chance. With James there could only be one James Brown. With George [Clinton], everyone can be a James Brown."
Parker is the Mob's Everyman. He bounced into the room, in a maroon-and-yellow sweat suit, flopped onto a bed and sighed: "When you get past all the talk, the bottom line is you got to take it to the stage.It has to be a party." Predictably enough, the new record by Parker's group, the Sweat Band, is party music.
Next came William Collins, better known as Bootsy, who supplied the thumping bass on James Brown's "Sex Machine" and many Parliament hits since. Collins was the first member of the Parliament/Funkadelic mob to go solo -- with Bootsy's Rubber Band in 1976. This year he also co-produced the debut albums of Zapp and the Sweat Band.
Collins is the mob's punk. Slender and short, he was wearing his everpresent shades. His denim suit dripped funk message buttons and his baseball cap read "Da Boogie."
He said he was glad that his "rapability" vocal style had inspired the recent rash of rap records."More power to them," he murmured. "With funk month, we want to push more than just our own records. We want to acknowledge all the versions of funk, because we're in this together."
Last into the room was the group's leader, the Doc himself: George Clinton, also known as Dr. Funkenstein, StarChild, Mr. Wiggles and Uncle Jam. He founded Parliament as a Motown-inspired harmony group in 1967. He founded Funkadelic as a Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock group in 1969. Since then he has recruited more than 40 performers to work in both bands and the many spin-off projects.
Clinton padded into the room in stocking feet with an army fatigue cap cocked on his head. "This country is geared to planned obsolescence," Clington giggled. "After three years of hits, they expect you to disappear. If you don't know how to change that third year, you'll catch hell. Our thing is to always come up with the right concept that will catch people off guard."
Clinton's first such concept was having the same musicians record as different goups: Parliament would target the commercial dance market; Funkadelic would target the progressive rock market. Bootsy's Rubber Band would target the kids' market.
Then Clinton created a full-blown fable that the P-Funk Mob were messengers from outer space come to restore the force of "funkentelechy" to earth. The Mothership Connection -- a silver spaceship -- would even land on stage at their shows. Clinton went on to create an enemy (Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk), a weapon (the flaslight bop gun), a utopian country (One Nation Under A Groove), a utopian militia (the Uncle Jam Funk Army) and a whole glossary of terms to describe it.
Last summer, when Washington teen-agers protested the mayor's summer jobs program, half of them gave the P-Funk salute (a raised fist with the pinkie and index fingers sticking up like antennae). When Uncle Jam's army started wearing fatigues, a Detroit army and navy store quickly sold out. When "Flashlight" became a big single, the Funk Mob shows became infested with swarms of flashlight beams.
"Now," Clinton smiled, "we have our next big concept. Are you ready?" His eyes twinkled and an unlit joint dangled from the corner of his grin. He whipped off his army cap, and there it was: a conk. A process. Kinky hair chemically straightened and waved.
"We call it the New Doo Review," Clinton chortled. "We've already proved we're black and proud. People are slipping out of their 'fros. Everybody has those scary curls. That ain't nothing but a process anyway -- it's just $50 more expensive."
Clinton learned to sing when he worked in a Plainfield, N.J., barbershop. Between conk jobs, he and his friends would sip a little wine and sing a capella harmonies. "There were more stars in the barbershops than you'll ever see onstage," he said. "The New Doo Review will bring black barbershops back to life."