From the hip-hoppers in the Bronx to the purple mafia in Minneapolis to the go-go gang right here in Washington, George Clinton's heirs have taken over the nation's dance floors. The old man still has a few tricks up his sleeve, though, and his new record, "Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends" (Capitol, ST-12417), is the best funk album of the year.
Only the Prince of "Purple Rain" and August (Kid Creole) Darnell rival Clinton for matching a deep dance groove bottom with an equally interesting topping of witty lyrics and dense harmonies. At a time when too much funk is all bottom and no top and too much pop is all top and no bottom, Clinton puts the two halves together better than anyone.
Clinton starts at the bottom. In contrast to his past projects with Parliament/Funkadelic, he now relies on microchip instruments to lay down the groove with mathematical precision. The rhythm is then elaborated on by old-fashioned drums, bass and guitar with the effect that your hips move to the big beats and your knees and elbows get caught up in the secondary beats. Once he's got you moving, Clinton starts stacking on the harmonies. Gathering together the far-flung P-Funk tribe (59 singers and musicians are listed on the jacket), he builds quite an imposing wall of sound.
The electric keyboards (played by such veterans as Junie Morrison and Bootsy Collins and newcomer Dolby) and squiggly liquid slides, slow seething groans and crackling electronic bursts. A guitar army (including such P-Funk vets as Michael Hampton and Eddie Hazel) adds both James Brown rhythm chords and Jimi Hendrix sci-fi fills. An enormous choir backs the lead vocals with falsetto wails, descending moans, improvised scatting and parenthetical rap. Throw in the horns, strings and synth effects, and you can discover something new each time you hear each song.
The album's first single, "Double Oh-Oh," is an uptempo dance workout built atop a pulsing eighth-note pattern accented by booming electric drums. Gary Shider's falsetto lead vocal is backed by synthesized horn blasts, a church-like female choir, gruff rap, bawdy groans and an aggressive drum solo. Clinton's lyrics take off on the James Bond myth to describe two secret agents who go to bed as a patriotic duty. Even more frankly erotic is the seven-minute "Pleasures of Exhaustion (Do It Till I Drop)," which balances Afro-Cuban flute and percussion against half a dozen repeating synth patterns.
Clinton retains his irreverent humor even on his two antinuke numbers: "Bullet Proof" and "Thrashin'." Over the latter's slow, stop-and-go groove, Clinton quips, "Short-range deployment promotes long-range unenjoyment . . . they won't blow our groove!" Dolby's keyboards and Hampton's guitar solos create a suitably apocalyptic atmosphere for Clinton's theater of the absurd. It's a welcome reminder to our more pious songwriters that even protest songs can be funny and danceable.
Clinton's "Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends" is essentially a Funkadelic album under a different name. Similarly, Kid Creole & the Coconuts' new album, "In Praise of Older Women and Other Crimes" (Sire, 25298-1), is essentially a new album by Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Darnell and Andy (Coatimundi) Hernandez, who left Dr. Buzzard to form the Coconuts, are joined this time by their old colleagues Stony Browder and Cory Daye.
Moreover, the Caribbean rhythms and mythical travelogues of past Kid Creole albums have been largely abandoned for the swing-disco and New York satire of the Dr. Buzzard albums. Darnell rejoins his older brother and former partner Browder to write half of the new album's 10 tunes. Browder has a knack for fitting swing jazz tunes atop modern dance beats, while Darnell is a wickedly satirical lyricist, so it's a welcome reunion.
Darnell is not afraid to attack even the most chic sacred cows. "Endicott" is a vicious put-down of the liberated man who does everything his wife asks. "Caroline Was a Drop-Out," an old-fashioned soul workout with horns, is a put-down of an old ghetto friend who blamed all her problems on society and sank to the bottom of the social ladder.
While white rock is full of singers who are effective without a good voice, Darnell and Clinton are rarities as such in black dance music. Darnell delivers his lyrics with the perfect sense of sly irony that no one else could match. Like Clinton's, Darnell's arrangements are so crammed with backing vocals and instrumental fills that the lead vocal doesn't have to carry the full burden of the melody -- there's always something else to catch the ear.
In an era when so much of black dance music consists of nothing more than a persuasive invitation to party, Clinton and Darnell prove conclusively that one can offer something much more substantial without sacrificing anything on the dance floor. While Clinton is popular in America's inner cities and Darnell is a star in Europe, neither has won the place in the American pop mainstream he deserves. Maybe this is the year.