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Funk pioneer George Clinton has never lost his groove

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The catalyst was always rebellion. From the time George Clinton merged his Parliament and Funkadelic bands into a single, massive conglomerate, he knew the grooves his fans would flock to would be the ones their parents actively avoided.

"I always try to find the music parents hate and then gravitate towards that," said Clinton, 67.

"Doing that, I legitimize that music. It has always worked like that. When I hear something that parents hate, I know it's going to be the next big music. Hey, kids always like what their parents don't like, right?"

Maybe so. But given the near half-century that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has been making music, more than a few parents are likely to be fans themselves.

Perhaps they championed singles like "(I Wanna) Testify," a 1967 soul hit for the Clinton band then known as The Parliaments. Or it could have been the truly ground-breaking music that Funkadelic pieced together on its first three albums in the early '70s — songs that mixed social and political commentary with the kind of hardcore psychedelia that most white bands of its day couldn't match.

More than likely, though, the music that established Clinton as the foremost funk voice of the '70s was the more pop-savvy tunes of Parliament, a more groove-driven R&B update of The Parliaments. When Parliament released its album "Up for the Down Stroke" in 1974, just as disco began to mutate R&B into static dance music, Clinton started to fashion his concerts as sci-fi funk spectaculars. The 1975 album "Mothership Connection," in fact, triggered a massive tour in which Parliament and Funkadelic became a single, theatrically inclined entourage. The music reflected two of Clinton's foremost inspirations, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. But the stage show, complete with a flying saucer-like stage, outrageous costuming and dozens of onstage singers, dancers and musicians, was unlike anything black or white audiences had seen before.

What did it all mean? Who knew? Clinton delighted in not spelling out specifics when it came to his music on or off the stage.

"That's the way it was when I first started getting introduced to rock 'n' roll back in the '50s," Clinton said. "It was always like, 'Huh? What are they saying? A-whop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-whop-bam-boo? What the hell does that mean?'

"But that was the proto-type for what came next. Rock 'n' roll? It was the same thing. 'Why are they playing so loud?' And then we come along and people are going, 'Yeah, the groove is funky, but what are they talking about?' Then when hip-hop happened, splitting the beats and all, I could immediately see the same thing happening again."

And that was ...

"The funk, man. The groove. It's the DNA for anything new that comes along. Really, all music is pretty much the same. It just goes around with different tags on and gets a little crazier because each generation is trying to top the last one. It's like when disco came along and narrowed the groove down to one beat. Man, that just got on your nerves. Hip-hop evolved, though. Now you've got all kinds of hip-hop. But, really, all of it evolves into jazz."

In conversation, as in -music, it can be difficult keeping up with Clinton. By the time he summarizes his dissertation on the evolution of the groove — an explanation that could be formulated only by someone who has lived with the music more than four decades, as he has — Clinton is off professing respect for a multitude of bands and genres.

The Beatles? He loves them. Country music? Clinton confesses such a devout respect for its song craft that he became a contestant on the CMT reality series "Gone Country" earlier this year. And peppered among the non-funk acts to earn accolades from Clinton: the '70s prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the equally progressive but still-active King Crimson.

"That's because we had records that were pretty much like their songs," Clinton said, referring to early Funkadelic classics "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" (1970) and "Maggot Brain" (1971), both of which featured the late and sadly unheralded psychedelic funk guitarist Eddie Hazel.

"We have songs that are like jazz, classical, psychedelic, blues, The Beatles — all of it. Man, I've learned to respect almost all sounds.

"Music, to me, is either in tune or out of tune. If it's pleasurable to your ears, it's in tune. When you hear music like that, your appreciation just grows. It also means there is that much less (expletive) out there to get on your nerves."


(c) 2009, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).