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George Clinton gets to the bottom of funk with Berklee students

Nick Balkin

George Clinton with Berklee’s P-Funk Ensemble. He stopped in for a quick visit at the school in 2006 and jammed with the ensemble.

He started in doo-wop, then went psychedelic. Throughout the 1970s, his bands Parliament and Funkadelic carved out bold, crazy new spaces in rock and funk, deploying a cast of loopy, absurdist characters fresh off the Mothership - the UFO that for many years throned above their concerts.

Samples of their music saturate hip-hop, and you don’t have to master the whole catalog to have danced a few times to classics like “Aqua Boogie,’’ “One Nation Under A Groove,’’ or the perennial “Flashlight.’’

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What’s more, George Clinton is still at it, delivering at age 70 on a busy tour schedule with his P-Funk All-Stars, funking it up for audiences that invariably blend all generations and backgrounds.

So you would think that with this 50-plus-year track record of innovation and influence, someone would have thought to award Clinton an honorary doctorate by now.

But apparently not. By the funk grandee’s own recollection, no university has seen fit to confer such an honor upon him. None, that is, until the Berklee College of Music, which receives him for a four-day visit that culminates Thursday with a concert featuring Clinton with members of the P-Funk horn section and Berklee’s own P-Funk Ensemble.

“I really don’t know how it came together, but I’m really glad they did it,’’ Clinton says in a phone interview. It’s not his first visit to Berklee, however. He made a quick stop at the school in 2006, walking into the student ensemble’s rehearsal to gasps of surprise, and jamming with them for a little while.

This week’s visit is a more lavish and organized affair, with rehearsals, class visits, and workshops for Berklee students planned along with the public concert, where Berklee president Roger Brown will bestow the honorary degree. And the concert will feature songs from different phases of Clinton’s career in new arrangements that the ensemble’s faculty leader, bassist Lenny Stallworth, has sent Clinton in advance.

The master is already impressed.

“I was surprised to find out that they thought so much of our music,’’ Clinton says. “I learned that you can actually orchestrate it, write the music down, and note it. They had all the rhythms noted, and even some of the hip-hop stuff that we did, they were able to note it.’’

If Clinton professes surprise, it may be because the P-Funk sound is famously sprawling, with the performers’ free-wheeling attitude seeming to extend into the music itself. But don’t get fooled, says Stallworth. There’s plenty of method to the madness.

“His music is more like organized chaos,’’ Stallworth says. “It looks like it’s not organized, but it’s very organized.’’

Stallworth says that when he teaches P-Funk material, his students discover the musical depth and through it, a little bit of cultural history.

“The music is attractive on the surface,’’ Stallworth says. “Then we get into the class, and they realize he divided his music into three sections: horn, rhythm, and choir. I think George Clinton was a frustrated doo-wop singer. The students don’t realize he had that much lineage. They’re thinking it’s just these fun grooves. But even in the funk moment, he brought the roots. That’s why he has lots of people on stage; he had to have a choir.’’

In recognition of that lineage, Stallworth says the concert program begins with a Clinton doo-wop song from 1960, “Lonely Island,’’ and moves on to “(I Wanna) Testify’’ (1967) before emerging in the more familiar terrain of the 1970s and 1980s. “I think it’s very important for young musicians to understand the history,’’ Stallworth says.

Nor is P-Funk’s legacy a kind of museum material, preserved in aspic. As important to the P-Funk spirit is the way Clinton and his acolytes - Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Garry Shider, Bernie Worrell, and the many other greats who came through the band - always embraced new sounds and made them part of their own.

“Every new music that came along where people said, ‘That ain’t music,’ I know that that’s the new music,’’ Clinton says. “And we’re open to that. We’re up to date no matter what we’re playing.’’

It’s in the nature of the funk to be capacious, after all. “If you’re open to what the new music is, you’re funky.’’

Clinton’s visit to a college does raise a crucial question, though. Can the funk - not just the music, but the whole attitude and spirit that underlies it - actually be taught?

“Yes!’’ Clinton says emphatically. “As you learn the technical part, you get to be able to, as they say in ‘Star Wars,’ to let go and use the force. And you’ve got that in your mind. The funk that you were born with; all that education, but you don’t know that you have it.’’

That advice recalls the title of a 1970 Funkadelic album, which, gently paraphrased for polite conversation, says “Free your mind. . . and your rear end will follow.’’

But Clinton says he’ll be giving the students some practical advice as well, especially on the business front; he is involved in some highly complex litigation over song rights and sample credits, and he wants young musicians to be extra careful to safeguard what’s theirs.

And for the rest of us? Clinton has apt advice for the general public as we navigate today’s troubled times.

“Be the best that you can,’’ he says. “And funk it!’’

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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