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George Clinton Talks Future of Funk

Photos and Article by Dan Harpaz.

I was waiting outside B.B. King Blues Club & Grill when a large bearded man sporting a silver three-piece suit and matching fedora emerged from a van.  George Clinton, whose legacy stretches back almost as far as the guitarist whose name glows above the venue, not only pioneered the funk genre, but also paved the way for hip hop.  You probably haven’t heard of him.  Or you might remember him as Dr. Funkenstein, the grizzly, rainbow-haired P-Funk front man.  Nearly half a century after the mothership first landed on the scene with the 1967 hit “Testify,” George has remained culturally relevant, producing and mentoring the most influential musicians of our time, including Dr. Dre and recent Hall of Famers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  While its many name changes, lineup shuffles, cartoon alter egos, and genre hops might confuse casual fans, George’s concept of an alternate funk universe has grown a cult following across all demographics.  That cult tore the roof off B.B. King Sunday, May 6th, singing along to classics “Flash Light,” “Give Up the Funk,” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” Before joining the crowd, I interviewed George in the dressing room, where his granddaughters Sadia and Shonda (also known as rapper Sativa Diva), grandson/rapper Tra’zae, singer Kendra Foster, and guitarist/singer Garrett Shider provided color commentary.  George gregariously discussed the history and future of funk, multimillion dollar disputes with record labels over royalties, and his admiration for relatively new-school rappers Drake and Kanye West.

Dan:  George, I just interviewed the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Newark and they shouted you out on stage.

George: Well they know that’s home for me.  Downtown Prudential – you know that, Shonda.  That’s my granddaughter. (George introduces me to Shonda, Kendra Foster, Garrett Shider, and grandson Tra’zae).

George: Yeah, I need some bodyguards (laughs).

Dan: You’re waging a war against the major labels now because of their monopoly over royalties—

George: That’s a good way to put it.  Crookedness over royalties (laughs). Go ahead—

Dan: Are you concerned about the risk of draining your own time and money and hurting the funk?

George: You can’t hurt the funk.  It ain’t funky to get beat up out of all your money.  That’s unfunky in the first place.  But no, I’m 71 years old— I ain’t got nothing else to do but kick their ass.  At least make it noticeable— clear to them, to my family, everybody else in entertainment— that you have to go through shit to get your shit.  I had my fun— I should’ve been paying attention to it a long time ago if I was going to be looking at it for my own self.  I ain’t lying about that. I’m just gonna kick their ass, ‘cause they took my shit and I’m going to get it back for my family, and for all the members of the bands’ family.  It ain’t theirs— it’s my shit!  It ain’t gonna hurt the funk.  It’s just going to make it funkier.

Dan: A lot of people look up to you as a voice for the bigger music community.

George: I’m 71 years old!  What the fuck am I going to do with all that?  That’s a lot of goddamn money.  I mean, I need it— I want it.  But I ain’t doing all this shit for me.  I’d OD on money, then.  And go back and fuck up again (laughs).

Dan: You have the unique talent of bringing out the best performances from recording artists—

George: Anthony [Kiedis] tell you about going out in the lake singing?  That was before he ever had enough confidence to try to sing.  He didn’t want to sing in front of Flea (laughs).  I took him out on the lake in my backyard.  Nobody could hear us— it was out in the woods.  (Sings) “If you want me to stay, I’ll be a-round to-day!”  Enunciating his ass off.  As a matter of fact, I learned how to sing from [him]. (Everybody in the room laughs).

Dan: Anthony referenced that song in his book Scar Tissue.  Have you read it?

George: No I haven’t read it yet, but I know most of the shit that’s in it.

Dan:  Have you gone to that extreme with anyone else?

George: Yeah!  I feel that it teaches me a lot to have to do that, because then you have to zero in particularly on what you’re talking about.  When I get ready to show somebody else, I know what I’m hearing and I’m expecting them to do it particularly a certain way—

Kendra (mockingly): Met-icu-lous.

George: Part-icularly!  I get on her nerves (everybody in the room laughs).

Dan: Have you ever failed to get the performance you wanted out of an artist?

George: No!  Because whatever comes out in the end— that’s what it is.  Usually it’s better than what both of them be expecting.

Dan: You mentioned the transition from a more polished doo-wop sound to psychedelic rock, where the band references itself in the lyrics.  A fan asked this question – “When did you start singing about the funk?”

George: We were always funky, but when we really started talking about the funk was after our first hit, “Testify.” I realized it was going to be hard getting hit record after hit record, so I just invested in a concept— a funk band, Funkadelic.  “Mommy What’s a Funkadelic?”— that whole legacy of funk, itself, started us off.  It was “I’ll Bet You” on Parliament.  But “Good Old Funky Music” was the first record for Funkadelic.  We just took it from there to James Brown land— Jimi Hendrix land.  There was already Motown, and all the history of music, rock and roll from the fifties.  We just did everything.  There’s no bag you could put us in after “Testify.” We refused to get caught in a bag.  So we did “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow,” which covered places we ain’t gotten to yet.  We went there just in case anybody had any doubt about where we would go.  We went all the way past… the psychedelic of Jimi Hendrixes and everybody else.  And then we came back and started going slowly again from “America Eats its Young” to “Maggot Brain” to “Cosmic Slop.” We flirted in and out of funk that sounded like loud Motown.

One reason you loved working with Garry Shider was because he had the voice of a veteran soul singer, but he was also young enough to be molded—

George: Yes, you got that right!

Dan: Have you had to mold any of your relatives sitting in this room?

George: They’ve been around so long, they mold me back.  I copy their shit.  And I’m sure they copied somebody else that copied me.

Dan: So they’re clones of clones of Dr. Funkenstein.

George: Yeah!  And I’ll pick right back up on it, and bite off that shit ‘til they need a tetanus shot.

Dan: You’ve mentioned you’re always looking for music with that infectious quality.  Why do you think that music always tends to be the kind that provokes parents?

George: Because that’s going to be the hit.  When parents get pissed off, or when old musicians get pissed off, that’s the new shit.  And you hate to think of it like that, but when your little sisters and brothers get on your nerves, don’t say it too loud, because that’s the shit that’s going to catch on big as shit!  You’ll say, “I’ll be damned!  Where’d that shit come from? Music my day was much better than that!” Everybody says that same shit.  If I remember when, “Wop-bop-a-loo-mop a-lop-bom-bom tutti frutti”— when rock and roll started, you would hear parents make jokes about the lyrics.  But that was rock and roll.  That was Little Richard.  Rev it up and rock and roll— that made it through all these years.  Motown got a little slick—

Dan: You’ve also mentioned Motown’s slickness in another interview.  What made Motown slick?

George: Oh yeah, what made them even deadlier than anything— they were the first ones to put electric bass on a record.  Even [though they were] slick, they were funkier than anything!  Stevie Wonder— that shit was funky as you can get, because they had James Jamerson on there.  They had no bass like that, or no drums like that [before].  Rock and roll was just— (sings) “Coming out around the world” (Martha Reeves & the Vandellas)—all that.  “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”— that shit was slick, but it had bottom on it.  That’s funky as you was gonna get.  They called [the performers of “Sugar Pit”] the Funk Brothers.  They named our band the Young Funk Brothers.  That’s why we had the name Funkadelic.

Dan: I’d imagine that’s one of the reasons you’re known to love electronic music— because it’s so bass heavy, and digital mixes emphasize that—

George: If you look at disco— Gloria Gaynor.  When it first started— that’s still the epitome of what disco is all about.  And it’s Motown to no end.  All her first records were Motown.  Motown Records would make real good techno records.

Dan: What sort of contemporary parent-proof electronic music has caught your ear? (Watch video of this answer here)

George: Drake.  He pissed people off with it!  (Laughs) “I’m On One!” Now everybody’s running around talking about “I’m On One.” And the shit sounded good!  And I went to the show— the fucking show looked good.  I thought a spaceship was getting ready to land in that motherfucker.  All the intensity— I’ve seen two shows like that.  Three hours— what’s his [name]— West—

Tra’zae: Kanye West.

George: Kanye!  And that big a sound and the lights and the shit is like— holy shit!  I mean, we had so much wattage when the mothership would land, we’d blow 1000 bulbs on the explosion of Flash Light.  And that was the smallest light show you were going to see [compared to] the rest of that shit.  Drake’s show had more dynamic in sound and in light.

Dan: You caught on early in your career that seeing live music isn’t only about hearing the experience, but seeing it visually—

George:  Seeing it and being in it.  That’s one thing we got and that hip hop actually got, is that they get everybody in there into it.  If you’ve ever been to a Wu Tang show, you’ll know that everybody in the building knows every line of the song.  No matter which one of them is rapping, the audience is right there with that shit— they know every lineThe same thing with— what was it— Yin Yang [Twins].  “To the window to the wall!” They just know every lick of the song.  And that’s just a lot of words to remember.  But that’s when you’re in that zone.  Everybody’s like that.  So yeah, we learned a long time ago what things work that way.  And when people psychologically go there.  Kids go there when they hear you say it.  As soon as you see that, that’s going to be a hit—you can see it.  Ones you can’t stand— you know you ain’t going to like it.  What’s that— Soulja Boy (laughs).  People sounded like they were getting ready not to like it.  They hadn’t even heard it… And that’s a good indicator of what’s next.  I don’t know what is, but I got some techno doo-wop in case they want to go there… a whole stack of them.

Dan: You’ve recently released mixtapes— I donated to your fundraiser and downloaded a 10-track mixtape,
 Baby Makers… where did those songs come from?

George:  Oh yeah, that’s a good one.  And we’ve got three of those in the can.  I’ve been recording all the time.  I’ve got hundreds we just couldn’t get out because of all these lawsuits.  And we found a new avenue of getting them out now.  We got more than we’re putting out.  You know, Gangsters of Love— you heard of that one?

Dan: Yeah, I believe RZA was on that and you appeared on Letterman in support of it—

George: Yeah, and Chili Peppers were on it.  We’ve got two, three more Baby Makers.  One on Shonda we’re getting ready to put out.  One on Kendra.  All of their stuff— they’ve got about ten albums with RZA.  And [Tra’zae’s] father’s got about 200—
Shonda: A million!

George: Just album, after album, after album.  That’s what we’ve been putting together, coming out on that IndieGoGo.  We’ve found those kind of ways we can actually get that stuff out.  We’re going to start running commercials now.  We’ve got a YouTube P-Funk station now.

Dan: You said “Certain subjects you just can’t say nothing about or somebody’s going to call you out on it politically or socially or something”—

George: I ain’t fucking with no abortion shit.

Dan: You also said, “We used to have that space.” Why don’t you have that space anymore? (Watch video of this answer here)

George:  Because I ain’t young enough to be all intellectual about— and can’t get away with just saying, “Fuck you,” because that’s basically what you would be saying.  But you have to be young enough to swagger that off.  And I’m too old— they’ll take your ass to the tents if you say some shit and say, “Fuck you, I ain’t got to explain it.” You have to be like RedFox.  You see how mad he was?  “Fuck you motherfuckers and kiss my ass!” You have to be a comedian built into this shit.  I would say, “These nuts!” in the seventies or sixties (everybody in the room laughs).  “Hug these nuts!  I’m high as a motherfucker—what the fuck do I care what y’all are thinking about!” I could say it and trust that I’m not being really horrible to nobody.  I felt that positive about everything.  “Kick my ass!” That’s what acid did for you.  Everything is beautiful.  If you took it wrong, you need to take some acid and stop taking it wrong!  I ain’t young enough to get into that intellectual jargon.  I’d start hollering and shit, and when I hollered, I used to say shit just [to look] cool all the time.  I’d get pissed if you sounded stupid now (laughs).

Dan:  You’ve cited some artists who are carrying on the torch of funk— even Eminem and Beyonce.  Do you think the P-Funk will carry on for generations after you?  Are you grooming family members to lead the band?

George: Yeah, they’re all over the place!  Every time you’re look around, they’re raising up [to say], “I dare you to give me a shot.” You’ve got Garry’s son [Garrett] behind you right there.  My grandson, granddaughter.  Any one of them could do it right now!

Follow George Clinton’s blog  for good reads and free music and catch the P-Funk Allstars on tour.

2 Comments

    I loved the article! And the photos aren’t too shabby either. :)

    • Thanks – I have an awesome editor :-P

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