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Funk pioneer George Clinton on the connection between sports and music

The Hall of Famer has always known how to get athletes and the crowd moving

No one has to explain the relationship between music and athletics to George Clinton.

Clinton, without boasting, is proud of having played a major role in helping that combination prosper. Millions have been raised on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s funk music, and millions more continue to enjoy his melodies in some form, be it rap, hip-hop or contemporary.

“They go together,” Clinton said during a recent stop in Philadelphia. “All the way back to when we first began writing songs, we wrote songs that would work in the gym, in the skating rinks, at basketball games. We knew back then that it would work.

“Back in the doo-wop days, you realized that one of the best places to sell music was at the skating rink. You get a song that works good in a skating rink, you realized, ‘Wow I may have something.’ You stay in the business long enough, you may be able to come up with something like Queen: ‘We will, we will, rock you!’ You know what that does to a stadium. Or [MC] Hammer, ‘[U] Can’t Touch This.’ You can make a song that is actually geared for sports. I’ve been knowing that for a while. It’s one of the first things you learn as a songwriter [how to excite the public].”

Clinton is 75 and still touring with his band of funkateers. He’s changed a bit but still walks the walk and talks the talk. He doesn’t wear the makeup and platform boots any longer. However, he still talks about the landing of the Mothership, putting it down on the one and getting up for the down stroke. He can still sell out a venue and keep the crowd enthused, mesmerized and motivated.

Clinton is a funk pioneer, but he’s quick to say that he’s also a student, having learned from the late Godfather of Soul James Brown and Sly Stone. Their trials and errors helped Clinton develop a unique sound that remains relevant.

“Funk gets you ready to play,” said Lionel Simmons, who used funk to become the national Collegiate Player of the Year at La Salle University and enjoyed an NBA career with the Sacramento Kings. “George Clinton gets you loose. When you’re balling, if you’re playing well, you hear the beat. If you’re not playing well, you know, you don’t hear it.

“It gets you in a rhythm to play. It coordinates you. It’s hard to describe. You don’t see it. You feel it.”

Former major league baseball star Jeffrey Leonard agrees.

“Funk music and athleticism go hand in hand,” said Leonard, a two-time All-Star who wore the uniform number 00 longer than any other player in major league baseball. “Any great athlete understands that it’s all about the rhythm.”

Clinton understands exactly what Simmons and Leonard are talking about. He believes his music aided the Los Angeles Lakers during their Showtime years.

“When Magic [Johnson] first came to L.A., Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was already there. Magic was playing ‘Knee Deep’ on his box. Kareem said, ‘Naw, it’s about “One Nation” around here,’ ” Clinton said. ” ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ was a song that was out about a year before ‘Knee Deep’. The stars always have their version of the era that they liked.

“We’ve enjoyed a lot of that. Que Dogs [Omega Psi Phi fraternity], ‘Atomic Dog’ is their theme. They can be seen on all of the sports teams, and you’re going to find a lot of Dogs.”

Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Malcolm Jenkins, Vince Carter — all Ques — will gladly bark and raise their hands to salute Clinton’s 1982 hit.

“Man, that’s our anthem,” said Jenkins, a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles. “When I hear that, I can’t help but get pumped up. I’m looking for a way to have them play that for my intro.

“The first thing you hear is the bass line. If you’re around any Que, you’ve gotta get out of the way. For me, it brings excitement.”

Philadelphia musician Earl Young, whom many refer to as the originator of disco because of his unique drumming style, knows and respects the role music has played with athletics. A spectator of all sports, Young has played for some of the greatest artists in the music industry.

“Just being a spectator, being in the seats [at an event], when I hear something, maybe something I played on like ‘TSOP [The Sound of Philadelphia],’ it motivates people,” said Young. “It makes people happy.

“I think guys when they are on the field during a break, they’re enjoying it too. It pumps them up. It helps the audience pump up the athletes. … [As descendents of slaves] we’re used to singing in the field. Music has been in us. You don’t have to be taught. We’re just bringing it out. I always wanted people to feel good when they hear my music.”

Musical tastes evolve, however, and Clinton is prepared to embrace those changes.

“We’re trying to do other things,” said Clinton. “We’ve got some skateboarders who want to [use funk as an anthem]. That comes from the hip-hop direction and working with other groups that we’ve worked with on the rock and roll side.”

Clinton has a way with lyrics. He can take a saying, spin it around and give it new meaning. In one of his classics, “P-Funk [Wants to get funked up],” Clinton asks, Is there funk after death? He joyously replies, Is seven up?

However, in Clinton’s funky world there is one constant.

“It’s characters,” said Clinton. “As long as there are characters, it never has to end. You’re not counting on people. The character never has to end. You can build around the character even after the person is gone. You got Dr. Funkenstein, Star Child and Sir Nose, Mr. Wiggles, Bootsy. We’ve got a gang of characters, and we’ve got some more. We’ve got some dope characters coming out. Monster, Dean, Pepe the Pill Popper. We’ve got [characters] who are going to be really funny because we’re doing it with animation. That’s a whole other thing.

“It’s the one. It’s that uniformity. It’s that togetherness. That camaraderie creates a vibe saying let’s get down on the one. Getting people together is a hard thing to do, but once you get it done [it’s something special].”

Funk is a special form of music.

“Sly called it long-shelf music,” said Clinton. “Just like classical music, it just stays around forever. It’s the background for everything that has come out in pop music. Funk has got that same kind of vibe. You can cut it up a thousand times, but as long as you’ve got some funk in there you can call it disco, hip-hop, you can call it electronic. But if you’ve got a booty, you’re going to dance to it. I don’t care how fast you play it. I don’t care how slow you play it. If you’ve got some funk in it, it’s funky.”

The Master of Funk enjoys athletics, but he’s not hooked on any particular sport. And there’s a reason why he shows no allegiance.

“I can’t use my adrenaline on anything that gets me tense,” Clinton said. “The score is tied and there are a few seconds on the clock and I’m sitting there holding my breath. Man, that’s not me. I will not watch anything like that. That takes too much of my adrenaline.”

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.