What’s most intriguing about a man who’s helped define music for 60 years? His unique insights into the evolution of technology reveal the effects of such a phenomenon on the very industry.
Breaking on to the scene in 1955 with his formation of The Parliament, inspired by doo-wop group Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Mr. George Clinton would rise to fame. His Parliament/Funkadelic collaboration would rule black music during the ‘70s, producing over 40 R&B hit singles, including three each platinum albums and number one songs. While the ‘80s brought with them legal difficulties regarding the acquisition of Parliament’s label, Clinton persevered and proceeded to say funk you to music business politics, producing multiple hit singles as well as top twenty and forty albums.
“[The music industry] is kind of at a peak right now,” mused Clinton, in an intimate sit-down at the 2015 NAMM Show, aboard the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, the traveling music studio itself a grand example of modern music technology. “Now people are trying to make organic music again, press wax again, you know?” Clinton sees musicians returning to acoustically-driven music, just as he witnessed in fifties’ “beatnik” music, a springboard to rock and roll. This reversion to organic roots was the precursor to what Clinton called the “Industrial Age” of music.
“Now you’ve got the computer, so you’ve got that mentality and that style of music. You’ve got kids that are gonna go raw again and go back to beatin’ drums and playing bass and classical [guitar], but it’s going to spin faster and faster due to technology.” Clinton doesn’t think this is bad, however, because music is representative of the times, and the music we hear now represents the technologies available to us in this very moment.
Another trend we are seeing now is bands hitting the road, on longer tours, at smaller venues, with many more shows. Could this be due to the availability of free music via multiple online sources causing artists to lose record sale profits? Clinton explained, “It ain’t that much different because [bands] weren’t getting paid by the record companies anyway, you know? At least they can get on YouTube and get seen by the world and not just their local state and neighborhood. You’re still going to get twenty percent more from the record companies if eighty percent of your music is downloaded for free. You got the entire planet! Five percent of the entire planet is a whole heck of a lot of people, you dig?”
A pause ensued. With a smile as bright as F#, he continued. “…It doesn’t matter anyhow because the industry is being run by gangsters. They just have pens now and lobby congress to pass legislation putting people in power to push the music. You don’t make money off of the selling of records, but you can get the licensing to reap the benefits of your music if you are paying attention.”
Here is a man, an icon, who has transcended musical eras and created his legacy on hard work and determination, all the while utilizing the technology of the times to get his audience to feel the funk.
Seeing Mr. Clinton on stage is like watching the past, present and future of music. At the uproarious Imagine Party the next night, hosted by the NAMM Foundation and the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus there was so much talent to take in that you couldn’t tell where the music began and the art ended. It was an auditory and visual conglomeration so beautiful and exultant that all senses were stimulated at the same moment.
Clinton, in a sharp striped three-piece suit and polka-dotted tie, belted out songs like an inspired sermon on Sunday, his voice (and smile) never wavering. He danced and jumped along with us with, and ordered his guitarists’ amps “All the way up!!” If the crowd wasn’t already at the next level, special guest guitarist, eleven (yes, you heard right, eleven)-year-old Brandon “Taz” Niederauer made sure it happened. The virtuoso got up there and played the guitar as if he’d been performing as long as Clinton himself, with even a stage presence to rival the icon.
As he shredded there was hardly a soul in sight not glancing next to him with that look that said, “Are you hearing this?!” The dancers were reeling as Clinton urged Taz on. The boy stepped it up and then stepped it up some more. This kid made his guitar sound as if Jonah was trying to play his way right through the belly of that old whale.
I know I shall never again be in the presence of such a remarkable waveform that everyone rode that night. The exhaustion that set in after the last song was both pleasurable and painful –pleasurable in that what I had just experienced was truly one of a kind; painful in that it will remain unmatchable in its distinctiveness. But that’s music isn’t it? Mr. Clinton, I thank you for allowing me to bear witness to the masterpiece that your blood, sweat and tears have provided over the years. You remind us that we’re still funky. And that’s a good thing.
The technology that has been invented since Clinton first entered into the industry has drastically changed many facets of music but the one thing it cannot touch is that if you love something, and you are willing to put yourself out there in the name of art there is nothing you cannot accomplish. It’s like the old saying goes: “Sometimes you eat the bear and well, sometimes the bear, he eats you.” I have a feeling that old bear is never going to know what Mr. George Clinton tastes like. When you think you’ve caught him, he’s already light years ahead of you.