There are innovators, and then there are the few artists like George Clinton.
As an idiosyncratic songwriter, eclectic visionary and father of the '70s rock-meets-funk-music offshoot known as P-Funk, Clinton cemented his place as one of the most important figures in rock 'n' roll history decades ago. But what sets Clinton, who turns 74 next week, apart from other legends is his evolving and sustained relevancy. Others might coast by on a reputation as storied as Clinton's, but today, he is still finding ways to add fresh spins of funk to contemporary music.
For recent proof, look no further than rapper-of-the-moment Kendrick Lamar, whose third album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," was released in March to widespread acclaim. Not only is the record filled with P-Funk flourishes and textures, but the sound's creator graces the opening track, “Wesley's Theory,” in a way only Clinton could.
“Leavin' miracles metaphysically in a state of euphoria / look both ways before you cross my mind,” he croons on the bridge. Clinton, who headlines the Artscape main stage Friday with his band Parliament-Funkadelic, said he knew from talking to Lamar early on that their connection was authentic.
“His whole conversation about his subject matters, his metaphors — I knew we were in for another type of hip-hop and funk, and he lived up to what I thought he was going to be,” Clinton said on the phone last week from a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. “He just glows with all of that energy. He's got the funk in him this time.”
There may not be a better judgment of funk today than Clinton, as the music genre — whose roots are traced back to black blues artists in New Orleans, and was further developed and popularized most notably by James Brown in the '60s and Sly and the Family Stone the following decade — has informed his every step along the way. To him, funk transcends sound; it is a lifestyle.
Recently, Clinton finally slowed down enough to take stock of his life and career. The result was October's memoir, "Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?"
In the 400-plus pages, Clinton vividly remembers his New Jersey beginnings in a doo-wop quartet called the Parliaments to his star-making turn in the '70s as the eye-catching, operating-on-another-planet bandleader of two influential funk-rock acts, Parliament and Funkadelic. (Clinton's current touring band is a rotating collective known as Parliament-Funkadelic, and often features longstanding members such as keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Michael Hampton.) The story follows Clinton as a high-school dropout to the psychedelic architect of the melting-pot genre P-Funk and seminal albums like Parliament's "Mothership Connection" and Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain."
“I've been waiting to tell that story for years,” Clinton said of his autobiography, but he also wanted to present it in the full context of his life. “I know that people wanted to hear the [stories behind] Parliament and Funkadelic, but I had to make sure that it meant something around all of the other things I'm talking about — the history of the music, all of the societies that go with our music.”
The book also chronicles the draining sides of business and excess, from drawn-out copyright battles with publishing companies to drug addiction. Clinton said there would be no memoir without overcoming the latter after a crack-induced hospital trip in 2011.
“I had to wait until I got myself together and got off the drugs, so I could be clear to myself, and I know nobody wanted to hear from a crackhead,” Clinton said. “I had to make sure I was in really good shape to actually analyze or at least try to put all that I could remember down. It was fun.”
Clinton, who now sports dapper suits on stage instead of the Afro-futuristic collages of wigs and costumes he made famous in the '70s, took time to write his memoir, but he refused to slow down for long. Last November, he and Funkadelic released the three-disc “First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate,” the group's first album of new material since 1981, and he has toured the world in support of it since.
On Friday, Clinton will perform at his first Artscape. When festival organizers made the initial announcement last month, a palpable excitement could be felt through local social media. Diana Mitchell, a Charles Village resident and longtime fan, said a free Clinton concert could help unify the city, which is still dealing with the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death and the subsequent riots, in ways Prince's "Rally 4 Peace" show in May did not.
“With everything that's gone on in the city, we need those feel-good moments,” Mitchell, 35, said. “Not every local Joe Shmoe can go and see Prince. As many of us wanted to do it, who has that type of money? So to be able to come to Artscape and you get to see [Clinton] perform live for free, you can't beat that.”
Artscape had wanted to book Clinton for a long time, but the timing finally worked out this year, said Kathy Hornig, director of festivals for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. When asked her expectations for the show, Hornig responded with an answer only Clinton could elicit.
“Well, it's going to be a party,” Hornig said. “George is going to bring the funk.”
Clinton has done just that for more than 50 years, and part of his enduring appeal is his ability to adapt with popular music. These days, Clinton says he's from “Planet Sirius,” as in Sirius Satellite Radio, which he constantly searches through for old and new favorites while on tour.
“I'm on this thing all day along, switching from the '50s to the '60s to the '90s,” he said with a laugh. “I get on people's nerves, bouncing from Dion and the Belmonts to Lil Wayne.”
In recent years, Clinton has embraced electronic dance music (EDM) collaborations. To him, EDM is simply “speeded-up funk.” Clinton said seeing audiences in Ibiza and other dance spots around the world react to the music was reason enough to pay attention.
“I'm a booty expert,” he said of what drew him to the sound. “If the music makes you shake your booty, then it's got some funk in it.”
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 with Parliament-Funkadelic, Clinton could have retired years ago, and no one would question his position as a pioneer of pop music. But Clinton stays relevant by remaining connected to his past (through writing and touring with his bands) while keeping an ear to the Kendrick Lamars and other stars leading music into a new age.
To him, it all simply comes with the job.
“I'm a songwriter, and as a songwriter, you adjust to whatever style is out there,” he said. “You've got no particular sentimental marriage to [a] particular sound.”
Before returning to his pre-show preparation, our conversation circles back to his battle with crack, and Clinton kicking the habit. Naturally, he distills the argument for quitting drugs simply and in terms that ring truest to him. From his mouth, it sounds like a resolute mantra.
“When it gets in the way of funkin', it has to go,” Clinton said. “Anything to keep funkin'.”