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P Is for Paradox 

The P-Funk gang celebrates its golden anniversary -- with its many, many, many white fans

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
If George Clinton and Parliament/ Funkadelic are indisputably the Afro-powered party band of all time, then why do their audiences tend to be lily-white?

In a phone interview, the 65-year-old captain of the P-Funk mother ship credits the youngest generation of Deadheads. "They just like music," he says. "Whenever they latch onto something, they're there."

But why would Jerry's kids be down with this funkiest of black musics? The answer is simple: Clinton's tunes are easy to ease into when one is barely conscious. In fact, P-Funk delivers the ultimate acid jams -- one-chord tracks that won't overtax the synapses; chill beats that encourage both mellow butt-bumping (for the adventurous few) and groovy finger dances (for spectacular rainbow trails); and a super-colorful stage show that feels trippy even on those off nights when all you can scrounge is half a brownie.

But it's not only new-millennium hippies who flock to P-Funk shows these days. Frat boys also often represent en masse because, as we all know, no one lives for a par-tay, dood, quite like the Greeks. They've got legacies to live up to, after all. And there are no worries about their drinking buddies bailing at the last minute: It's a solidarity thing among the brothers (just like it is with black folks). Plus, even after a 12-banger of PBR and a couple of phat doobies, one can still slur catchy chants like "Make my funk the P-Funk/ I want to get funked up!"

Still, it seems strange that Clinton will likely be celebrating the golden anniversary of his psychedelic-soul-funk-party empire -- known variously since the '50s as the Parliaments, Funkadelic, Parliament, Parliament/Funkadelic, and the P-Funk Allstars -- with a bunch of overprivileged palefaces. Clinton disagrees. "It always turns out like this," he says. "Rock 'n' roll and blues starts out black, and then 10, 15, 20 years later, the same music be the pop music. It turns white. At one point, we were too black for blacks and too white for whites. But we've been around so long, funk has now become the pop music."

Originally a straight-ahead doo-wop/ R&B concept, Clinton's P-Funk vision would morph into its more familiar, wildly eclectic groove in the late '60s, under the LSD influence of tastemakers like Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. "They used to call us 'The Temptations on acid,' and 'James Brown on PCP,'" the bandleader recalls. At the height of its popularity in the '70s, Clinton's mother-ship connection clocked a string of No. 1 hits and top-selling albums. But as the disco era faded in a methamphetamine haze, so did the group's cachet. Then, in the early '90s, the commercial rise of gangsta rap and hip hop (with its liberal lifting of riffs from the Parliament/Funkadelic archives) resurrected the band, largely on the touring circuit, as the P-Funk Allstars.

Given the hip hop bloodline, one might assume that urban youth and more people of color would turn out for the concerts. But this is rarely the case, arguably due in no small part to the ticket prices and young people's priorities (this weekend's gig is $60, which can buy a fair-size bag of quality chiba). And since shows sell out fast, Clinton advises that "black people need to get on the ball to get on the P-Funk." Finally, many of those who grew up in the '70s with "Flash Light" are either no longer into getting down in sweaty concert halls, unaware that the Parliament party plan is even still in effect, or are busy with retirement woes and raising their own kids, who are only hip to the latest crunk from the trunk -- which most don't even realize owes its very existence to Parliament/Funkadelic. And that's just sad.

Too much of contemporary hip hop has no respect for the music's Afrocentric roots. Even Clinton himself long ago abandoned the black empowerment messages of his '70s classics like "Chocolate City" for straight-up, silly-fun sex songs (e.g., "Butt-a-butt" and "Booty" on the just-released How Late Do U Have 2 B B 4 U R Absent?). Then again, P-Funk is all about bringing the bounce to the dance floor. And it's been a one-love thing from the start: "One Nation Under a Groove" and all that. "I've always tried to make the music universal anyway," says the OG MC. It's just a shame that universal in the USA today too often means a gentrified good time.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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