In Parliament’s “Chocolate City”, George Clinton and his landmark funk band suggested a regime change in government to reflect a funkier outlook and agenda: Muhammad Ali as President, Richard Pryor as Minister of Education, Stevie Wonder as Secretary of Fine Art, and Aretha Franklin as the First Lady.
Great suggestions, I’d say, especially since, besides the fact that listening to any George Clinton-related music is freaky and habit forming, I’ve always thought George Clinton would make a good ambassador or diplomat of some sort. I don’t know what it is about him and his brand of P-Funk, but he’s got this uncanny knack for bringing different types of people together under the “one nation under a groove” banner. He could be deployed to trouble spots around the world to spread joy and funk when international peace talks and discussions of détente aren’t getting the job done. One of his ultra-funky jams would go a long way for diplomacy, everybody in attendance would be back in tune to their interplanetary funksmanship, and everything would be back “on the one”.
George Clinton’s long and storied career has taken him from doo-wop to excursions through funk, R&B, and hip-hop. Speaking of hip-hop, Clinton is ubiquitously sampled, along with such greats as James Brown, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes. It’s probably safe to say that a lack of familiarity with the Clinton-Parliament-Funkadelic discography undermines one’s understanding of hip-hop as a whole. Not that George Clinton’s revered status in hip-hop should overshadow the totality of his legacy, but it’s mind blowing to think that if George Clinton hadn’t existed, an entire genre of music might not exist either at all or in the way that we know it now. Song sampling “Atomic Dog”? Gone, without George Clinton. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, built around P-Funk samples. Gone. The bulk of the Digital Underground catalog? Gone. We’ve been riding the Mothership for quite some time now.
For our purposes in evaluating Clinton’s 2008 offering, George Clinton & His Gangsters of Love, his history of being sampled and interpreted by others gets turned on its head once again. This time, Clinton is the one doing the interpreting, as he reworks other people’s songs, most of which are oldies-but-goodies and doo-wop staples (“Ain’t That Peculiar”, “Pledging My Love”, “Our Day Will Come”, “Gypsy Woman”). Clinton even tweaks his own work (“Mathematics of Love”, “Heart Trouble”). In theory, it’s a fresh take on the somewhat stale business of remaking songs. Covers are tough, and the reasons are legion and much discussed, but Clinton seems to be gambling that his unique funkiness and exquisite weirdness can bring a neat twist to the practice. Plus, Gangsters of Love might look promising due to the many guest spots it contains. Not only are you getting George Clinton, you’re getting the RZA, gospel singer Kim Burrell, Carlos Santana and his superb guitar work, Sly Stone, Shavo of System of a Down, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a very inspired El DeBarge. Not a bad deal, right? George Clinton and his all-star lineup should have no trouble tearin’ the roof off the sucka, right? Right?
Well…sort of. What we learn from this experiment is that, yes, covers are fascinating when you funk them up, or when the covering artist tweaks the familiarity of the underlying song, subverting and inverting it, defying expectations to make something bold and breathtaking. Unfortunately, we also learn that this doesn’t always happen.
In the album’s most encouraging moments, we learn that while Clinton’s vocals are weathered and battered by time, forcing him to resort to a variety of vocal tricks to reinforce his delivery, the man is an absolute master of arranging. The way he flips and splits the harmonies, and revamps the tempos and instrumentation, is positively transforming. Nevertheless, he doesn’t exercise his powers often enough.
Further, we find that his sensitivity to the uses, and overuses, of collaborations is well honed. I suppose one solution to Clinton’s voice problem is to shine the spotlight on another singer, as is the case with several of the guest appearances. Which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, really. So that’s another thing we learn: George Clinton is usually some kind of savant when it comes to bringing in other artists and figuring out what they should (and should not) be doing to enhance what he should (or should not) be doing. His vocal arrangements help to offset the fact that his own vocals aren’t silky smooth. He probably shouldn’t be singing so much anyway, though.
Truthfully, things go awry when Clinton plays things too safely, when his reworking of the tune is too faithful to the original. Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, for example, is funky already, no doubt about it, but since it’s already so well known, and well received, it would be interesting to push it beyond our current understanding of it. George Clinton trying to really sing this song is a head scratching experience. The song is too famous and too recognizable to be convincingly covered karaoke style.
Another example is the RZA-assisted bonus cut that remakes Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. Here, Clinton and the RZA pushed the original a bit further, adding rap verses to it and including a female voice to the mix, but the loop of Prince’s original doesn’t vary enough to strike anything more than a curious pose.
The album’s centerpiece, though, is “Mathematics of Love”, a remake of Clinton’s own “Mathematics” from his 1996 release T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M., an acronym for “The Awesome Power Of A Fully Operational Mothership”. Featuring a slower, jazzier composition than its frenetic funkminded predecessor, “Mathematics of Love” is a masterful revisit. It’s so convincing, in fact, that some commentators believe it’s a new song entirely.
If only the entire set could have followed suit, the ride might have been wilder. What remains is an interesting excursion that’s similar to, but not quite as revelatory as, Clinton’s 1996 release Greatest Funkin’ Hits. There, Capitol Records brought together remixes of treasured Clintonian and Parliamentary classics like “Atomic Dog”, “Flashlight”, “Bop Gun”, “Knee Deep”, and “Mothership Connection”. Like Gangsters of Love, the set offered special guests to help sweeten the pot: Coolio, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ice Cube, and Digital Underground. Hardcore P-Funk fans would be interested in the remixes and alternate versions on Greatest Funkin’ Hits to complete their collections, and maybe a few newcomers would have been enticed by the guest spots. Gangsters of Love, on the other hand, appeals to the diehards and true funk followers, and it’s unlikely to convert many of the uninitiated.