It's taken two years for me to produce a documentary called Funk Getting Ready To Roll, chronicling George Clinton and Funkadelic's adventures in Toronto in the early 70s. For those who know Clinton from his space-pimp getups and Grateful Dead-like jam marathons, the thought of him living in Toronto seems just a little too sober. However, Clinton and company's three or so years living in Toronto gave them new ideas about music making and how to keep doing it.
The Funk Mob (one of their many sobriquets) never would have turned out as it did without these years of reckoning, and in doing so they developed a unique influence on popular music.
In 1971, Clinton was looking for a change of mind. He had already been kicking around the music business for 15 years. He was a vocalist and head hustler for the Parliaments, a doo-wop-cum-Temptations vocal group that made some quirky records in the shadow of Motown in Detroit. In the late 60s, everyone discovered LSD and freaked out for the next few years. Along the way, they lost the rights to the Parliaments name and "flipped the script' to become Funkadelic, which emphasized their frighteningly powerful psychedelic rock sound of their backing band. Just look at these crazy dudes.
Even as early as 1969, Clinton knew "we weren't going to be a usual type of band" as he says in the documentary. He envisioned a dual identity for the vocalists and musicians. They could simply change who was up front and tailor their music accordingly. They were very much playing around with this notion by the time they hit Toronto, by which time the original band had imploded. In Toronto and they become less a band than a series of ever-shifting musicians with Clinton in charge.
"George, more than he had in the past, took control of the production and kept remixing refining and overdubbing. Songs were cut in stages or in different ways, there are dozens and dozens of mixes of a lot of these cuts. I don't know how we got to this process but it becomes the way that later Funkadelic and Parliament records get made... George is like a team coach, a cheerleader, a puppeteer with various players. He's always been able to take a wide variety of players put them in different combinations and come up with fascinating music."
By the late 70s P-Funk (as they were commonly known) then exploded into a dozens-strong squad of musicians powering side projects like Bootsy's Rubber Band, the Horny Horns and the Brides Of Funkenstein, all of whom cut diversely great records. More importantly, Clinton had record deals with Casablanca, Warner Brothers, Atlantic, CBS and more. This was game changing hustle where the Chitlin' Circuit had circumscribed black entertainers' success barely a decade before.
After P-Funk's heyday in the late 70s, Prince started living out his own Clintonian dream where he wove in and out of projects while keeping his stamp on everything. What's more, Prince acknowledged his admiration of Clinton in 1989 by signing him to his label and casting him in Graffiti Bridge.
There is no doubt, though, that the P-Funk funky farm team model is most strongly reflected in hip hop. From Marley Marl, to NWA, to Wu Tang, to Odd Future, the P Funk business concept (if not plan) shines on. Tracks are generated by a few key members for one member of the family or another, cameos and posse cuts reinforce both collectivity and ambiguity.
The "pivoting collective" concept isn't limited to hip hop. Broken Social Scene popularized the all-star band greater than the sum of its parts, an ongoing union of dissimilar yet interchangeable artists spanning number of different record deals. Though assembled by an English producer, the concept of Buena Vista Social Club created a strong brand from which more a dozen albums by various members showcased talents differently. Neither of these are perfect analogies but some forty years after P-Funk pioneered the idea, these kinds of bands hardly seem unusual.
Internet-enabled musical exchange has just made it easier for artists to use aliases and loose alliances to express wildly different sounds. Conscripting a loose community of people into project-oriented outcomes for sale or for free makes a lot of sense in this era, forty years post-P.
This storyline (one of many) in Funk Getting Ready To Roll feels like a important moment for pop music. The music Clinton made at this time itself is good but certainly not at the same level as later classics. What's truly interesting is that you can hear how things are going to change in more ways than simply musical.
Funk Getting Ready To Roll Airs on:
Inside The Music
Sunday August 12
3 p.m. (3:30 p.m. in NL) on CBC Radio 2 and
9 p.m. (10 p.m. in Atlantic Canada, 10:30 p.m. in NL) on CBC Radio 1