George Clinton in the mid'70s. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
On July 24, 1986, George Clinton made his debut appearance on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. It is an appearance that, when I first watched it on my TV way past my tween-age bedtime, changed my life.
Ten years prior, George Clinton was leading his groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, to the cusp of a mainstream success they'd achieve in the latter half of the 1970s. But by '86, Clinton was already his own entity as a solo artist, a living legend not content to rest on his laurels, but to create new and evolving legacies. As evidenced by his prior years as chief referee of the P-Funk clan, it was Clinton's rule to never play it safe. And this Letterman appearance was no exception.
Backed by Letterman's in-house group who dubbed themselves The World's Most Dangerous Band, amended by veteran P-Funk guitarist Garry Shider, Clinton performed "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)," one of Parliament's defining anthems that was also a million-selling single in 1976, while mixing in the chorus of "Hey Good Lookin'," his then-new single. He strutted on stage in a shiny silver striped shirt, multicolor braids and a fire red mohawk - but also barefoot. Perhaps sensing that Letterman's tame, Reagan-era crowd didn't know how to give up the Funk, Clinton announced, "Y'all got to get up off yo' ass!" before venturing into the audience. (Still barefoot.) He climbed onto and over occupied seats, forced the entire crowd up until they were all wild grinned and dancing, and stuck his mic into the face of anyone he felt was ready for their amateur singing debut on national television. After the performance, George engaged Dave in a hilarious conversation during which he referred to himself as a "positive, creative nuisance."
As an artist, a vocalist, a producer, a songwriter, and a high-level conceptualist, Clinton has been causing trouble the entirety of his storied, 60+ year career. He's a non-conformist, among the original afro-punks. Let's take Funkadelic, Parliament's hard rock-fueled alter-ego group. As he wrote in his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You, Funkadelic was "too white for Black folks and too Black for white folks. We were a source of confusion. And that's exactly how we wanted it." He added, "Why couldn't we be the Rolling Stones? Why couldn't we be Cream? If it was just the color of our skin, that wasn't going to stop us, not when we had the tightest songs and the loudest guitars and the best singers." As Living Colour founding member Vernon Reid once said, "Funkadelic was punk way before [punk] had a name!"
CIRCA 1971: George Clinton (rear left), Fuzzy Haskins (far back below "Peace & Love" symbol), Tiki Fulwood (laying down on grass front left), and Grady Thomas (laying down second from left) of the funk band Parliament-Funkadelic pose for a portrait on a psychedelic backdrop in circa 1971. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Combing the Funkadelic discography, you'll discover not only a thorough document of Black rock, but also Black nonconformist music, aesthetics, and lifestyle. For instance, there's "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic," the psychedelic first cut of Funkadelic's self-titled 1970 debut album, which opens with Clinton's echoed-affected voice: "If you will suck my soul, I will lick your funky emotions." There's "Maggot Brain," the 10-plus minute title track of Funkadelic's 1971 album of the same name, which features a spectacular performance by guitarist Eddie Hazel; Ricky Vincent hailed it as "a tour de force, challenging the late Jimi Hendrix (one of the few recordings ever to do so) as one of the great guitar solos of all time," in his book, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. There's 1976's Hardcore Jollies (my personal favorite Funkadelic album), which Clinton dedicated to "the guitar players of the world." And then there's "Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers)," Funkadelic's ultimate underground statement despite being included on 1978's One Nation Under a Groove (its title track reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #28 on the Hot 100). Clocking in at 10:45, making it the longest song on the album, the cut challenges the black musical status quo by proclaiming, "The world is a toll-free toilet," while "Bringing you music to get your shit together by."
First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, released in 2014 was the first Funkadelic album since 1980's Electric Spanking of War Babies. It continues in the Funkadelic tradition, even if it's inspired more by contemporary hip hop, with nods to Clinton's sublime, funk-focused production. To those who may question the lack of hard rock on the recording, I would answer, "Where y'all been?" Funkadelic has always done things differently, full of surprises - the nonconformist way.
Over the years, Clinton has also created many conversations around Black music performance and presentation. Most famously there was the Mothership, centerpiece on the P-Funk Earth Tour, which kicked off at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans in October 1976. Partly inspired by a small, rocket-like stage prop that Clinton noticed the band Mother's Finest using in the early 1970s, the Mothership was a life-sized spaceship that "landed" on stage and brought forth Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein. While white hard-rock acts like Alice Cooper and Kiss were generally given the benefit of large-scale and high-budget productions, Clinton's vision brought Black vision and audiences to both space and the world of theatrical mega-concerts. The Mothership is now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Less attention has been given to P-Funk's Motor Booty Tour in 1979 - which is unfortunate. Timed to promote Parliament's gold-selling Motor Booty Affair album, the tour's concept moved from outer space to underwater, by "raising Atlantis in the name of the funk," as Clinton described in his autobiography. "We knew that the Motor Booty stage show was going to be a motherfucker," he wrote. "We were fully into the Broadway mentality. We had fish costumes for everyone in the band. We had...fans laying flat and crepe paper blowing up like seaweed."
All of this brings me back to seeing George Clinton on the Letterman show in 1986. It reminds me not only of his success in the music industry, but of his influence on young Blacks, past and present, to be themselves in the face of what society tells us we need to listen to, to look like, to be like. It also reminds me that Clinton is not done keeping everyone guessing. Though he announced last year that he would officially retire from the stage in 2019, and is currently on what has been billed as his final tour, as recently as May 25th, he told the Philadelphia Tribune that he may have changed his mind, and "(had) no immediate plans to retire." (The interview was later amended and Clinton's publicist confirmed that he will indeed stop touring at the end of this year, though Parliament-Funkadelic reportedly will continue.)
In that 1986 interview, Letterman jokingly asks Clinton about his "hat," referring to his red mohawk-styled hair. Sitting with his legs crossed on the seat, still barefoot, Clinton replies, "In case you didn't have bright lights...I bring my own spotlight with me." As a kid, I watched the whole thing confused, and mesmerized. But to this day, I still always do all my DJ sets barefoot, in honor of that moment, and in honor of Clinton's influence on me. Cheers to George Clinton's legacy, past and present, rock and funk, retired or not. Long live the positive, creative nuisances.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1980: Photo of George Clinton (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)