Dr. Funkenstein’s Newark

The 2014 autobiography of Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton is an engrossing journey through music history with plenty of tales of sex and a lot of drugs. The hilariously titled Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? also gives us an interesting view of Newark history from the 1950s-1970s (he also lived in Plainfield and Detroit). Here are some major passages from Clinton’s memoir that tell us how Newark inspired the greatest funk collective of all time:

On moving to Newark as a child during the 1950s…

“Even without the music, I loved living in Newark, in part because I was royalty. All you had to do was look at the signs. One of the main drags in Newark was called Clinton Avenue, and there was whole area called Clinton Hills [sic]. They were all named after the early American politician George Clinton, who had been the governor of New York and vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some days the world seemed to revolve around me, a George Clinton would go walking down a street named for him in an area named for him. In the middle of this neighborhood where I was royalty, in 1956, they built a new junior high school, and if you can believe it, they called it Clinton Place. And if you can believe that, in the first graduating class, there were no kids whose last names ended in A or B, so I was the first graduate: George Clinton of Clinton Place. You can believe it all because it’s all true.”1

On the difference between Newark and Plainfield…

“Newark was rough, with all the poverty and violence. Plainfield, though, was more middle-class–higher employment rate, higher high school graduation rate, more stable and more learned–but there was still some bullshit going on. Kids in Plainfield were robbing parking meters and pay phones, tapping them for change.”2

On raising his own family in Newark during the 1960s...

“When I was young, I had noticed that the kids who stayed on the straight and narrow, or at least the straighter and narrower, were Catholic school kids. Carol agreed with me, and we were determined to give our kids that same best chance. Even Catholic schools, though, were subject to shifts in culture. In the late sixties, there was also a surge of interest in the Nation of Islam and Muslim culture in general. Muhammad Ali had taken his new name in 1964, explaining that Cassius Clay had been his slave name. Lew Alcindor converted in 1968 and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a few years after that. Political consciousness was on the rise, along with the beginnings of what would become the Black Power movement. So there was a strange landscape there in Newark, Black American kids getting a Catholic school education and becoming increasingly interested in Islam.”3

On how Kenneth Gibson’s election inspired Parliament’s Chocolate City...

“We had a black mayor in Newark in those days, Kenneth Gibson, the first Black mayor elected to run a big American city, even though many of the Black Power people thought he was a patsy who didn’t understand the real workings of power. I didn’t have any huge amount of admiration for Gibson, but his color was a fact, and that meant that some version of that same situation was about to wash up on the shores of other American cities. I kept taking notes and kept making jokes, and I ended up imagining it forward, all the way to the White House: “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too.” By the end of the first few pages, I had signed and populated and entire imaginary federal government: President Muhammad Ali, Education Secretary Richard Pryor, Arts Secretary Stevie Wonder, and so on.”4

On the making of the album cover for Trombipulation in 1980…

“I had my hair done, and done right, by a guy I knew named June, a barber from Newark. He was the fucking best there was. He hadn’t done that kind of wave for twenty years, and he conked the shit out of it and made just a beautiful work of art there on the top of my head. The cover photo isn’t treated at all. That’s how my hair looked.”5

On Kenneth Gibson’s continued influence on his work into the 1990s…

“When Bill Clinton first emerged onto the national political scene, people used to ask me if I was related to him–I don’t know if they were joking or if they hadn’t seen pictures of him (or, maybe, of me), but they asked anyway. And then, after his election, there was this idea that because he was a southerner who came from a modest background and seemed to have a sense of social justice, he was America’s first black president. That pointed back to Chocolate City and Mayor Gibson in Newark, and it opened up into the idea of “Paint the White House Black.”6

Newark, a part of George Clinton’s life, work, and legacy- check out the book for more stories about New Jersey and the history of the Mothership Connection.

1George Clinton with Ben Greenman, Brothas Be, Yo Like George Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, (New York: Atria, 2014), 10

2Ibid, 25

3 Ibid, 82-83.

4Ibid, 131-132.

5Ibid, 222.

6Ibid, 301.

Featured image courtesy of Atria Books