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George Clinton’s electro classic ‘Atomic Dog’ still raises the woof

George Clinton’s musical career spans two distinct realms. The first is physical: during the 1970s, he led the groundbreaking funk/soul collective Parliament-Funkadelic to intergalactic fame and fortune, recording more than 40 R&B chart hits. The other is spiritual: Clinton’s myriad compositions have exerted an immeasurable influence on American music, in particular shaping the sound and swagger of hip-hop. The fulcrum between these two realms is “Atomic Dog,” the second single off Clinton’s 1982 debut solo record Computer Games. Though it ended up being his final hit on the charts, the song’s multi-hued, multi-hook approach to funk updated Clinton’s style for a new decade and lives on as one of West Coast hip-hop’s most recognizable samples.

Clinton’s musical ambitions had stalled by the time the 1980s rolled around. His music’s popularity soared after 1975’s Mothership Connection spawned the million-selling Parliament single “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker),” and in the back half of the decade, P-Funk (the catch-all term for the dozens of related musicians orbiting Clinton’s projects) topped the R&B charts with the singles “Flash Light,” “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” At the time, Clinton had hopes his acts could achieve what he called in a 1979 Village Voice interview “Beatle-sized fame… funkmania” without compromising the Black roots of their music. The crowds that packed P-Funk’s resplendent live shows continued to be overwhelmingly Black, however, and with radio refocusing on white-centric formats like AOR, Clinton’s troupe of bands failed to gain a foothold outside of Black culture.

(L-R) Fuzzy Haskins, Tawl Ross, Bernie Worrell, Tiki Fulwood, Grady Thomas, George Clinton, Ray Davis, Calvin Simon and seated Eddie Hazel and Billy “Bass” Nelson of the funk band Parliament-Funkadelic pose for a portrait in May 1971 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

PolyGram’s 1980 acquisition of Parliament’s label, Casablanca Records, also tangled Clinton in legal difficulties that made it harder to release records under the Parliament brand. The easiest thing to do was to cut the kite string at the base, and in 1981, Clinton dissolved both Parliament and Funkadelic, signing to Capitol Records under his own name. He did, however, make sure that many of the musicians in the collective remained employed: Computer Games is essentially a direct continuation of P-Funk’s output, given that its seven songs were composed and performed by previous members (bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarist Garry Shider and multi-instrumentalist Walter “Junie” Morrison among them). 

Clockwise from bottom left: Fuzzy Haskins, unident., Calvin Simon, George Clinton, Grady Thomas (leaning over), Eddie Hazel (in the back standing up), unidentified saxophone player, Billy “Bass” Nelson, Ray Davis of the funk band Parliament-Funkadelic pose for a portrait in circa 1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Although Clinton, Shider and keyboardist David Spradley are credited on “Atomic Dog,” Computer Games’ biggest hit, Shider and Spradley allegedly did most of the heavy lifting. During its recording, Clinton napped in his hotel while Shider and Spradley paired a reversed drum track with another drum track played normally. The combination creates a disorienting, hypnotic effect essential to the recording’s psychedelic aura; you can play each drum part separately in KORD and then together to experience this effect firsthand.

When Clinton finally entered the studio, groggy and possibly narcotized, he improvised the “Atomic Dog” lyrics (a stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature of male lust) and cut its lead vocal in two takes. “I just had the word ‘dog,'” Clinton said in a 2006 interview with NPR. “That’s all I had in my mind.” It’s nearly impossible to trace those original takes amid the song’s armada of backing vocals: at least 10 people contribute gospel heights, soulful swerves, ad-libs a la James Brown and (of course) the famous bassy “bow wow wow, yippee-yo, yippie-yay” refrain.

The rest of “Atomic Dog” features instruments stacked on instruments, a dense amalgamation of fashionable electronic vibes that today sounds representative of its era’s sonic frizziness. No guitars are present: instead, Spradley carves out the main melody on the low end of a synth, which he and fellow keyboardist Bernie Worrell support with sporadic sprays of synths on two separate keyboards, a Minimoog Model D and a Prophet-5. At first, you might suspect that the handclaps on the 2 and the 4 beat are just one half-measure recorded, spliced and repeated ad nauseum, but listen to them in isolation and you’ll notice a few details –– e.g., the kick drum bleeding into the track, the occasional mouth sound or heavy pant, and the faint background vocal at the three-minute mark –– that prove it’s one continuous recording.

Photo of George Clinton Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Clinton’s shift into a more synthetic sound was inspired by the sudden emergence of “electro,” a short-lived genre that fused Black American rhythms with German electronic pop and Japanese technology –– specifically, the Roland TR-808 line of drum machines. Another rising Black artist, Afrika Bambaataa, sampled German synth pioneers Kraftwerk for his incipient 1982 electro hit, “Planet Rock,” and the single sold well enough to achieve gold certification. Capitol, aware of Clinton’s foundational role in this salable new form of music, encouraged him to follow Bambaataa’s lead, and the result is a continuation of Clinton’s trademark groove-heavy, freeform funk, presciently updated for a new decade.

Electro’s fresh popularity helped “Atomic Dog” surge to the top of the R&B charts, supplanting Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” It too failed to cross over into other broadcast formats, however, peaking just outside the Billboard Hot 100 at number 101. Additional legal complications made it more and more difficult for Clinton to release music for profit, and by the mid-1980s, his solo output wound down. A few more solo singles would hit the charts, but “Atomic Dog” remains his last big hit.

Though the music industry indirectly eradicated Clinton from record stores and airwaves, his outsized influence continues in the form of hip-hop, funk’s spiritual successor. At the same time that Clinton was struggling to make a mark musically, hip-hop’s formative artists were turning to his music as fertile grounds for rhymes. The trend snowballed after De La Soul used Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” for 1989’s “Me, Myself and I,” which shifted producers away from James Brown records and other sharper cuts toward Clinton’s layered works. Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,” 1990’s biggest rap single, heavily borrowed from Parliament’s “Let’s Play House,” and Hammer (sans the MC appellation) later pilfered Parliament’s “Mothership” for the backbone of “Too Legit to Quit.”

Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and rapper and producer Dr. Dre poses for photos backstage at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois in January 1993. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

As hip-hop exploded in popularity, Clinton’s music became an immutable element of the genre, and in 1992 his influence was cemented when hip-hop shifted to its West Coast-based “reality rap” era and Dr. Dre released his seminal solo debut, The Chronic. Dre’s production work for N.W.A. invented a style that borrowed so heavily from Clinton’s P-Funk that he dubbed it “G-Funk,” short for “gangsta funk,” and The Chronic’s “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody Celebratin’)” introduced the world to Dre’s protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg via a sample of “Atomic Dog.” The next year, Snoop released his highly-anticipated debut Doggystyle; lyrics pulled straight from “Atomic Dog” graced the cover art, while the album’s lead single “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” rotated around a slow, smooth repurposing of Clinton’s song. (The unreleased title track also saw Clinton contribute characteristic background moans.)

Photo of George Clinton Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In a roundabout way, hip-hop’s eventual cultural dominance fulfilled Clinton’s dream of a Black-led yet racially diverse musical “mothership.” He still serves as an active musician and creative voice, contributing to recordings by OutKast, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and other groundbreaking Black artists who celebrate the freewheeling inventiveness and indelible weirdness of records like “Atomic Dog.” “The track was atomic,” Clinton proclaimed to NPR. “It’s a futurist track… I don’t still hear no tracks like that one.”

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