Delineating the funk with George Clinton
Born in an outdoor toilet (no, really), George Clinton is responsible for all sorts of funky shit. As the main force behind Parliament/Funkadelic, Clinton blended acidic psychedelia, gritty funk and swaggering rock ‘n’ roll to create P-Funk during the 1970s and 80s.
Sampled extensively by hip-hop artists, his sound was later recycled and re-packaged. Now, George is being re-re-discovered by those looking to bring some theatrics to their playlists and festivals. We called the 72-year-old icon in his studio to talk about the funk, sampling, litigious record companies, the drugs and, of course, the music.
Hi George. So we hear you got a Doctorate in music from Berklee?
I did. I’m Dr. Funkenstein.
Nice. Does that mean you can now define the funk, once and for all?
Let me put it this way: funk is anything you need it to be to save your life. And you can take something bad, apply funk to it, and make it good. Say for instance, ‘bad’, like ‘that’s a bad shirt you got on’. You apply funk to it, bad means good. Like hip-hoppers – they use bad words, but flip them – ‘that’s my motherfucker’, ‘that’s my nigger’ – they do it on purpose, as opposed to just letting it happen; then you’re being funky about it.
Your music has been sampled a lot by hip- hop artists…
Yeah, they did it with us, with James Brown … we didn’t even realise how funky James Brown was when we were growing up. But when hip-hop guys came, it was all… [James Brown voice] “HUH, GOOD GOD, HA”! We just took a combination of James Brown, Horn Players, Bootsy [Collins], Catfish, Sly Stone, took the funky psychedelic and rock ‘n’ roll elements together and called it P-Funk.
Would you say there’s a dialogue here? You took influences from one generation, then a newer lot were influenced by you.
And they’re making more funk! That’s the way it’s always been. But now they’re trying to make [sampling] against the law with all the lawsuits. You don’t copyright the bass line, just the melody of the lyrics. Now you can get sued for creating new music that just sounds like a sample – that’s not right.
So you’ve got a pretty relaxed attitude to people sampling your music? (Clinton sued Black Eyed Peas for sampling infringements in 2010)
Yes, as long as they pay for it. The problem is record companies don’t pay the people who get sampled. They sue people who sample, but keep the money for themselves. It’s ruining hip-hop. [Record companies] don’t want to get caught with all that money, they want the genre to die down so no one will investigate this. People are afraid to sample because they think they’re gonna get sued. That’s why I put out (sample CD series) Sample Some of Disc, Sample of Some of D.A.T. so people could sample and not worry about getting sued.
One thing that stands out from your career is a sense of humour.
During the 60s, it was about being as absurd as possible. As long as your music was good, you be any kind of character. People get older, they lose their sex appeal – but a character, that lasts forever. So I’ll be Mr Wiggles, Dr Funkenstein, Sir Nose, Starchild … all those characters can come out 20-30 years apart and still be fun. Yeah we wore diapers, wigs; theatrics! I’m wearing some [army] fatigues right now … and some other stuff – I’m colourblind so I don’t even know what colour this shit is! [laughs]
“Funk is anything you need it to be to save your life. You can take something bad, apply funk to it, and make it good”
You’re often quite open about your past drug use.
Well in the 60s, everybody got fucked up in music, that was the idea. But for me, acid ended at Woodstock, soon as the [Vietnam] war as over. After that it was just another substance that people sold for money. But I was still looking for that same ‘peace and love’ shit. I spent a long time smoking crack, snorting coke, and I didn’t even realise it wasn’t real anymore. I did that for a long time, ‘til I got messed up fighting the record industry in court, and realised you have to be sober-minded to fight them. So I did what I had to do – I quit. I didn’t do rehab, I didn’t do shit. It’s so important for my family, kids, grandkids too. And when I did, I felt real good. It was like making music fresh, like I just got started. Now I don’t need it. Actually, hell, I’ve got medical marijuana.
Well if the doctor says so…
Yeah I’ve my digital pipe, I can download me a blunt, e-mail myself a joint…[laughs]
Is digital something you’ve embraced then?
Well I do both – I cut it analogue and sample it digital. That’s the era we’re in right now. I want that warm sound of the board, tube amps, sample it, cut it on tape, then put it back together.
You’ve produced some massive acts – Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bobby Gillespie – who’s been your favourite?
Sly Stone is probably my favourite musician, period. Hard to get stuff out of him, but he’s on this new album I’m doing. I told him – ‘give me the parts you don’t like. I’ll make something out of it.’
And you’ve been recognised by several prestigious institutions: Berklee, NAACP, Motown. What’s been the best?
Probably the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That was cool. I mean the Jackson 5, Mavis Staples, Jim Morrison, a lot of people I like went through. I inducted Sly in there. Prince inducted us in there.
We saw Prince play in London a month ago…
I was there too! With the three girls? Aw man, he was atrocious there! I’ve always known he could play guitar, but now he can play guitar for real. Before he was pop star – now he’s rock star.
What was it like growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s?
Well, it got me into the music. After Frankie Lymon, everybody wanted to be in a singing group. We went to Motown. Then after the ‘English Invasion’, it was all about bands. So we took all the good kids from the neighbourhood and made Funkadelic and Parliament. I’m real thankful for it. Even through the drugs and everything, I was able to realise, ‘I can stop this shit when I feel like it’. I learnt that from Detroit, and New Jersey. Having taken all the drugs you can possibly think of, when it became time to me to straighten things out, it was easy for me. I don’t think it’s all that easy for other people, but the music means more to me than anything else. You can only tell the story if you’re clear-headed. And I don’t think being sober takes anything away – on stage, we still kick ass.