What Childish Gambino’s ‘Awaken, My Love!’ Owes to the Godfather of Funk George Clinton
Childish Gambino’s acclaimed new album owes a lot to George Clinton’s musical collective P-Funk, and the spirit of creativity and liberation it brought to popular music.
“Funk is anything you need it to be at any given time. It's something that saves your life, or it's an attitude, or it's that attitude that helps save your life when you feel like it's not worth it anymore. You get to a place where you just want to jump out the window. Funk is that comical voice that comes to you and says, ‘Why brother, ain't anybody gonna miss you.’ It's an attitude.” –George Clinton
P-Funk is a pillar of popular music. The crazy, hazy brew that is George Clinton & Co.’s brand of funk can be heard in almost every kind of significant music from the past 35 years. P-Funk is in rock bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine, P-Funk is in hip-hop acts like Dr. Dre, Digital Underground and Public Enemy. The quirky grooves of ’70s Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith are informed by it; the funky revivalism of Lenny Kravitz, Organized Noize and D’Angelo are indebted to it. P-Funk is virtually everywhere, and there may not be a more definitive album in Parliament-Funkadelic’s stunning oeuvre than 1975’s Mothership Connection.
Clinton would describe the musical collective as “like Motown, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Eric Clapton, The Beatles. We were all of them at once.” That “we can do everything” vibe defines so much of their best work. This is a group of musicians working together to deliver a run of albums on par with any in the history of music.
There are arguably Parliament and Funkadelic albums that are more directly groundbreaking (1971’s Maggot Brain) or more ambitious (1977’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome). But no album captures the sound and attitude of P-Funk in as accessible and potent a fashion as Mothership Connection. Released on December 15, 1975, Mothership… featured a legendary lineup of musicians who all seemed to be clicking at the same time: Ray Davis, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas and Clinton of the original Parliaments, keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell, and new recruits in former JB hornplayers Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, and vocalists Jeannette Washington and Debbie Wright. Guitar duties were shared by the all-star lineup of Gary Shider, Glen Goins and Michael Hampton, and saxophonist Michael Brecker contributed to “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up).”
Bass guru Bootsy Collins’ contributions to Mothership Connection are impossible to understate. Collins, along with his brother Billy “Catfish” Collins, had joined the P-Funk family in 1972 after a well-known stint with James Brown’s JBs and Collins’s own band The House Guests. He would become Parliament-Funkadelic’s second-most iconic figure after Clinton. On Mothership Connection, Bootsy’s talents aren’t only featured on bass, but also on drums and guitar.
Legendary Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel was noticeably absent from the Mothership Connection sessions. Hazel had made something of a triumphant return to the collective in 1974 as a guiding force on the stellar Funkadelic album Standing On the Verge of Getting It On. In 1975, Hazel would be incarcerated after an indictment for drug possession and assaulting an air marshal and airline stewardess. While he was in jail, Clinton recruited the teenage Michael Hampton to be the new lead axman for P-Funk. Hazel would sporadically return to the collective throughout the 1970s, but Hampton’s emergence on Mothership Connection coincides with the most commercially successful and visible lineup of Parliament-Funkadelic.
Alongside the emergence of Hampton and the additions of Parker and Wesley, the late Bernie Worrell’s musical gifts are on full display throughout Mothership… Worrell, who died in June, contributed keys and horn arrangements, and has often been cited as the most distinctive musician within Parliament-Funkadelic, a keyboard wizard whose synths shook the foundation of funk and popular music. Undoubtedly, Worrell’s whirring and loopy leads gave P-Funk its trademark sound, and where artists like Stevie Wonder had used synths as warm layers for their recordings, Worrell’s approach revealed that synth leads could stand out and reshape a song. Along with the Afrofuturistic lingo and aesthetic Parliament fully embraced on Mothership Connection, Worrell’s sound seemed to chart a course for the future of Black music, and artists as disparate as Roger Troutman and DJ Quik would follow that course over the coming decades.
The songs on Mothership Connection have been sampled, covered and referenced in countless ways, but none are more iconic than the hit single “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” A song that channels the energy and attitude of Black house parties and projects them a million light years away, it stands as one of Parliament-Funkadelic’s most indelible songs and an standard-bearer for funk music overall. This was loose and uninhibited in a way that surpassed James Brown and even Sly Stone; this was the sound of funky people doing funky things and not giving a shit who saw or told. “We’re gonna turn this mutha out!” sounded like a declaration of freedom for a generation embracing its own unique ideas and letting its freak flag fly.
One of the great powers of classic funk bands is the emphasis on the collective. Unlike so many popular rock bands of the same era—which were typically made up of four to five famous members and an uber-famous frontman a la Mick Jagger or Robert Plant—funk bands tend to feature an army of musicians. The guitarists, bassists, horn players, keyboardists and background singers are all a part of the band, the lineups tend to change often, and the leader is often seen more as a musical conductor like Maurice White as opposed to a swaggering, preening extrovert like Jagger. In the case of George Clinton, perhaps he was a little bit of both, but the fact that P-Funk was a collective of musicians was always emphasized as much as Clinton’s own outlandish persona. It hearkened back to a sense of Blackness-as-community, a shared perspective through shared experiences that, while not necessarily uniform amongst each individual involved, were undeniably culturally connected. Parliament-Funkadelic took the historical spirit of Black community and planted it squarely on a new planet that was even Blacker and funkier than their forebears could have imagined.
“Funk is the absence of any and everything you can think of, but the very essence of all that is,” Bootsy explained to NPR in 2012. “And saying that, I'm saying funk is anything that we create in our minds that we want to do, what we want to be, but we don't have the resources. We don't have the money to get these things. But it takes the belief, it takes her mama's prayers, it takes a community, it takes all of that to help build a mug's confidence in himself.”
And George Clinton was the driving force. Shock G, the super-producer who fashioned 1990’s rap collective Digital Underground as a contemporary, hip-hop version of P-Funk, wrote about the significance of George Clinton as a guiding force for all of these talented musicians. “George’s gentle guidance liberated the musicians around him and drew the best out of them,” he wrote in 2010. “George is the glue that held Parliament Funkadelic together, the mediator/referee who provided the ‘space’ for Bootsy, Bernie, Gary, Michael, Junie, Eddie, Fuzzy, Glen, Fred and Maceo to create and be their freest. The best leaders leave the people thinking they did it themselves, and inspire them to their highest potential; precisely George’s role in P-Funk.”
“[Shock G] is one of the few that makes sure the people are taken care of and is concerned that people are getting paid for their samples,” Clinton said of his disciple in an interview with WaxPoetics. “Same with Ice Cube. A lot of people don’t know, they just make the record and they don’t know nothing about the business and business form. They don’t care about your relationships with other people, so they don’t care about paying the other people. But Shock G is one of those ones that the paperwork was clear right from the get go."
"When I got started," he continued, "Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were my models and they were turning out shit so fast. That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to get a crew of people to be like the Miracles with Smokey, like Mickey Stevenson, you know, all the teams. I really did love that concept. And we modelled P-Funk after that, you know with Bootsy and the Horny Horns. More or less. A body of work that goes on and on. And it’s still going on.”
Mothership Connection is 41 this year and its influence, as well as the overall influence of Clinton’s P-Funk, still permeates popular music. Another iconic album celebrated an anniversary this past week—Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic. That influential and impactful album wouldn’t exist as we know it without George Clinton, P-Funk and Mothership Connection. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” features a sample and interpolation of of “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”; Bernie Worrell’s beautiful synth arrangement forms the foundation for Dre’s hit; and “Wants To Get Funked Up” was sampled on “The Roach,” the famous Chronic outro.
Rapper Childish Gambino’s latest album Awaken, My Love! owes a lot to Parliament-Funkadelic and that spirit of creativity and liberation. One of the most encouraging aspects of that album’s acclaim is the realization that a generation of Black artists are currently defining themselves in as many new and exciting ways as the P-Funk generation did in the late ’60s. The emergence of that collective coincided with the wildness of glam and punk. But with Black artists who were old enough to remember firehoses in Birmingham, riots in Watts and gunshots at the Audubon Ballroom, this was more than a breaking of the shackles of conservatism in popular culture. This was Blackness announcing itself with abandon, a freeing of minds in the hopes that asses would follow. P-Funk was revolutionary. The playful digs at Rare Earth, David Bowie and the Doobie Brothers that open Mothership Connection subtly hinted at how the freedom white artists were exhibiting at the time had been somewhat denied—or at the very least, delayed—for Black acts like those at Motown and Stax in the ’60s. Black people were still fighting to be recognized as people and citizens—and Black artists had labored under that weight. But that wasn’t the case anymore. By the time Parliament released Mothership Connection, Blackness would no longer be denied or downplayed. It was amplified until it busted yo damn speakers. This was a sonic boom of soul and the world still feels the aftereffects.