Still, it was his dream to follow in his father’s musical footsteps. “I wanted to be just like him,” he says. And that meant doing everything the way his father had done it: on his own. So when, as a teenager, he decided that he wanted to play guitar, he turned aside his father’s offers to help him learn. “My dad would say, ‘Let me just show you this really quick,’ ” he recalls. “He would always say, ‘If you want to know some things, we’ve got the studio. It would be really easy to teach you.’ ”
Garrett said no. “I felt like I had to be self-taught to be as good as him,” says the now 40-year-old. “But really, I was just a young man who thinks he knows everything, but didn’t really know a damn thing.”
The funk music collective Parliament-Funkadelic got its start in the 1950s and early ’60s, when Clinton launched the New Jersey-based doo-wop group the Parliaments. Over the years, legal issues and record-label changes led to the Parliaments’ dissolution, the formation of Funkadelic, the re-formation of Parliament (without the “s”) and various combinations of the two, as well as a number of spinoff groups. Garry Shider joined Funkadelic in 1972 and by 1989 had become Clinton’s second-in-command.
When the group was on tour, Garry would pack up his clothes, his guitars and frequently his family, and hit the road. “It was nothing for my dad to pull us out of school,” remembers Garrett, who was born in 1978, at the height of P-Funk’s commercial success. “He’d be like, ‘Come get on the bus.’ ”
Garrett remembers watching from the wings as his diaper-clad dad would move to the front of the stage and control the crowds and the band. “He would say, ‘Scream!’ and the crowd roared. He would say ‘Shhhhh’ to the band, and the sound dropped,” Garrett recalls. “He would wave his hands over his head, and everybody in the audience did the same. It was magical.”
Clinton, who as recently as 2017 played more than 200 dates a year and will be at Washington’s 9:30 Club on Aug. 2, remembers Garrett hanging around backstage with his mother, Linda, a former singer and songwriter with P-Funk. “He was around so much, we gave him a nickname: Sound Check,” says the 77-year-old, who has announced he’ll retire in 2019.
The Shiders moved to the Washington area from Atlanta when Garrett was 14. Garrett enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to study voice, “my real instrument,” he says. But then he was drawn to the guitar. “I would be at home and pick up one of my dad’s guitars and play Parliament and Funkadelic music and try to mimic what I heard on their records.”
If his father crept up on him, he’d quickly put the instrument down. But trying to teach himself, he admits, was “a challenge. I couldn’t get it as fast as I thought I should.” Frustrated, he took a musical path away from the P-Funk crew. He picked up a bass and joined a go-go band. “You can’t be a young musician here and not at least try go-go,” he says. The band, however, made no money, and the effort proved to be short-lived.
Then one fall afternoon in the mid-’90s, a package from Westbound Records, the Detroit label that first recorded Funkadelic, arrived at the Shider home in Upper Marlboro, Md.: a box of compact discs, the complete Funkadelic catalogue, most of which Garrett had never heard. “I stayed up listening and reading the liner notes all night, until it was time to go to school,” he remembers. “That’s when I became a hardcore P-Funk fan. That’s when I realized that they were among the best at what they were doing.” For the first time, he recognized the breadth of what he calls his father’s “intimidating” talent.
Yet he hesitated to take his friends to live shows. He feared they’d see his father onstage wearing his trademark diaper and start joaning on him. But that’s not how it turned out. “My friends were like, ‘That’s your pops? He’s jamming onstage wearing nothing but a diaper.’ They thought it was so cool,” Garrett says.
He still couldn’t see himself doing the same thing, but he did become more open to his father’s offers to help his music career. Garrett, his younger brother Marshall, and some others formed the THC Mercenaries, rappers backed by musicians from P-Funk. Clinton allowed the group to open at some venues during a tour in the early 2000s, including a date at the 9:30 Club. It didn’t go well. The end of the THC Mercenaries came after two CDs.
Garrett gave hip-hop one more try, using the alter ego Harry Green. That effort also failed. Now with a family to support, he set aside his instruments and his two-decade-long dream of following his father in the music business. He got a job at a liquor store, then with FedEx.
Then, in March 2010, his father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. “We could tell it was bad pretty quick,” Garrett says. “It was hard. Really hard.” Garry Shider died in June that year, at age 56. “I was grieving. I still am,” Garrett says. “Started thinking about the things I wish I had done. Listen to him more. Soak up his experience. Write music with him.”
When Clinton, along with P-Funk members past and present, showed up for the memorial service in Shider’s hometown of Plainfield, N.J., Garrett approached him and asked to get on the tour bus. He spent about a month with the band on vocals, then returned to FedEx. When he was put on mandatory time off for accumulating traffic tickets, he reached out to Clinton again. “George knew I needed help,” Garrett says. “He said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ ”
He joined the band full time in 2011, thinking he would be doing vocals only. But “George said, ‘Where’s your guitar? You’re gonna play.’ ” He’d hardly picked up a guitar in years, and he absorbed some brutal lessons from bandmates, particularly Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton. “He would yell at me during the show: ‘What are you doing? What are you playing?’ It was hard, but I needed it,” Garrett says.
In late 2016, Garrett started working on his first solo CD, “Hand Me Down Diapers.” Released last year, it’s full of the kind of music his father helped create on those Funkadelic albums that arrived at the family home in the mid-’90s. The title song relates his father’s story and his own failure to be open to all that his father was trying to offer him.
The P-Funk live shows now feature Garrett on lead vocals that his father owned for years. Clinton recently released a new project by Parliament, "Medicaid Fraud Dogg." In the official video for the first single, "I'm Gon Make U Sick O'Me," the color white dominates the band's costumes. Garrett's, too: He's wearing a white towel wrapped around his loins like a diaper — and little else.
Keith Harriston is a writer in Washington.