What does it take to sufficiently validate a funk career for audiences outside of an artist’s fan base to take notice?
Could it be a creative run at the helm of two vanguard bands as well as a commercially and critically popular solo career, all of which has kept him in front of fans for over 50 years?
Could it induction over a decade ago into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside such funk innovators as James Brown, Prince and Sly and the Family Stone?
Maybe it was a creative restlessness that has continually defied audience expectations, whether it be through the broad accents of pop, rock and psychedelia his music opened up to or the theatrical slant to his concert performances of years past, like the one that made him the first major funk artist to play Rupp Arena in 1977.
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To a degree, all of those attributes define the music and career of George Clinton. But when your profile remains so honored and familiar after so many years that it can be purposely (and quite jokingly) confused with another Clinton by an awarded national columnist, that’s when you really sense some unusual and unanticipated borders have been busted.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, when now-President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were taking frequent shots at each other in the weeks leading up to the election, New Yorker columnist Andy Borowitz took notice. In his satirical column The Borowitz Report dated Oct. 11, 2016, he inferred then-candidate Trump wasn’t content enough to spar with just one Clinton.
“As many members of his audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, Trump escalated his attack on Clinton by impugning the musician’s most celebrated asset: his funk,” read the column. “‘George Clinton says he has funk, but he has terrible funk. I have better funk than he does.’”
Before the enraged emails are launched, let’s state the obvious again — this was satire. Still, regardless of anyone’s attitudes toward our current commander in chief, no one on the planet Earth has more profound funk than George (not Hillary, by George) Clinton. You heard why at the dawn of the ‘70s, when he led the brilliant guitarist Eddie Hazel through the decidedly psychedelic mine fields of “Maggot Brain,” the epic instrumental that reflected the sense of invention within the more experimental of his two bands, Funkadelic.
It was just as abundant when two legendary co-pilots, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins, put the funk on the dance floor and turned Clinton’s other band, Parliament, into a more streamlined party sensation.
Let’s not forget, either, the bass-drenched, synth-savvy 1982 hit “Atomic Dog,” that cemented a P-Funk sound Clinton was making independently of his two groups.
Ah, “Atomic Dog.” That’s a tune The Borowitz Report — again, in an instance of intentional fake news at work — said triggered particular ire from soon-to-be President Trump.
“‘Anyone who is knocking me for my locker-room banter has never heard ‘Atomic Dog,’’ Trump told his audience (in Borowitz’s satirical column). ‘It’s disgusting. If I went around saying, ‘Why must I feel like that, why must I chase the cat, it’s the dog in me,’ the media would kill me.’ ”
Now, at age 77, Clinton is set to hang up his title as P-Funk patriarch. He plans to retire in 2019, but not after another carnival-like swing of shows that will bring him back to Lexington on Thursday. This time he will perform in a sold-out show at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, a more intimate setting than the defunct Buster’s (now Manchester Music Hall), where Clinton played in 2012 or the Kentucky Theatre, where he performed in 2009.
“George Clinton is someone I never even imagined being able to bring to the Lyric directly,” said Donald Mason, executive director of the theatre. “It’s a testament to what we’re trying to do to further our continued legacy.
“Frankly, I was kind of shocked after booking him to hear this was going to be his farewell tour. It’s amazing that Lexington is getting to catch him on one of his last ship sailings.”
Clinton has a new album to promote on his current tour. Titled “Medicaid Fraud Dogg,” it’s the first recording of new music credited exclusively to Parliament in 38 years. But don’t let that fool you. Despite a noticeable and very generational nod to hip-hop, the record is all P-Funk at heart — a groove that assimilates the styles that continually swirl around it. “
Music, to me, is either in tune or out of tune,” Clinton told me in an interview prior to the 2009 concert at the Kentucky. “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.”