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Clinton, known for his outlandish costumes and multicolored dreadlocks, says it was crooner Frankie Lymon who originally inspired him to become a singer. "My first group was a doo-wop group, like the Temptations, like 'Good night, sweetheart, it's time to go,'" he sings over the phone. Fans might find it hard to believe that the man who brought them "Flashlight" and "The Atomic Dog" started off doing romantic ballads and four-part harmonies. "Some of them might," he admits. "But if they listen close they can hear Motown in what I do, and doo-wop evolved into Motown. Then funk [became] the DNA for hip-hop. Rock and roll, R&B, blues, gospel, you see them as different, but funk is the thread that goes through all of them.
"And remember, Frankie Lymon's was the devil's music," he laughs, remembering. "It was funny; even 'bop-bap-ba-do-la-ba-bop-bam-boom' was considered to be bad. Then when the '60s came around, with Jimi Hendrix playing a loud guitar with all this feedback, then that was the devil's music. Now we got rappers, and they're the devil's music. So I never played what you could call safe music, it just looks like that now, looking back."
Clinton quickly went from doo-wop to what became funk music, a style he helped shape, and from small combos to large ensembles (credits for his shows list him as "vocalist and referee" because of the group's size). He mixed and matched musicians and singers into several groups, including the Parlettes, Parliament, Funkadelic and P-Funk. Although essentially made up of the same personnel, the groups recorded in different styles, often on different labels. At one point, the same group formed Parliament on Casablanca Records, with a hot horn section and complicated vocal lines, while also being Funkadelic at Warner Bros., a straight rock band with a blazing rhythm section. Texas percussionist and drummer Sam Dinkins says, "By giving them different names, even though it was the same group, he was able to take one product and make it into several, if you would, but it was the same lineup." As a teenager, Dinkins saw Clinton perform at Madison Square Garden. "That was when he did his Mothership Connection concert. He had a spaceship, and smoke came out from underneath it, then the door flipped up and his leg came out, then they started singing 'Flashlight.'" (Clinton had recorded Mothership Connection [Live from the Summit, Houston, TX] just months before.)
While Clinton is highly respected, artists such as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix received more credit for their contributions to rock and pop music. But it could be argued that Clinton had at least as big an impact in many ways. Why the disparity? Dinkins explains it this way: "His music didn't have the same crossover appeal. It wasn't wordy, and it was really very rhythmic; it incorporated elements of African rhythms. If you were to slow it down...you would hear strong Caribbean rhythms. If you isolate the conga part, you can hear something that would fit in a salsa song; you can hear the cowbell and it would fit in a mambo. Those things made it difficult for it to become a pop song.
"And people who may not have been familiar with the music would be hesitant to try it just from looking at a record cover, seeing him in all that eccentric dress. It looked like something punk or heavy metal. That may have held him back some," Dinkins says. "But in retrospect, that might have been what he was going for anyway."
Clinton, who is also in demand as a producer and featured artist, is heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop artists. "It's subliminal almost," says Dinkins. "The portion they sample is not the main portion of the song, but it's a valuable portion of the hook. Without that horn line or that bass line, or that drum phrase, it would totally change. If you think about it, funk music has a lot of space in it, meaning that there is not as much going on vocally as with a pop song, so that it's possible for rappers and hip-hop singers to put their voice to the music and keep a larger segment of the original hook or line."
Though he's popular with rappers, Clinton says he doesn't completely understand the hip-hop culture. "I can't get used to [rappers] saying the things they say to girls and then expecting them to make love to that," he laughs. "One guy was cursing this one girl out, and I said, 'Man, don't talk like that to that girl,' and she said, 'Oh, here comes Captain Save-a-Ho.'"
But whether he understands the aggression of rappers toward women or not—who does?—Clinton has certainly influenced rap and hip-hop, and he has become a fixture in popular culture. (His Mothership Connection album is being made into a 3-D movie aimed at young people.)