UNCUT INTERVIEW: George Clinton | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’s December 15th, 1975, and through a cloud of smoke and steam, lasers and neon lights descends an inter-stellar funk UFO – The Mothership. Its sole occupant is a cosmic being from outer space with long colourful dreadlocks, a shiny silver spacesuit and most importantly, a funk PhD. Dr Funkenstein, aka The Godfather of Funk, the man they call George Clinton. By this time GC had become one of the biggest names in music history, beginning in the 50s with barbershop quartet The Parliaments, they soon ditched the clean-cut image and let the funk grow inside them. It burst out, and in 1967 (I Wanna) Testify marked the turning point of a career spanning six decades and counting.

Always forward thinking, George Clinton knew what was coming. He didn’t have his finger on the pulse, he was the pulse. His 1975 hit album The Mothership spawned the P-funk mythology and suddenly the world was being invaded by funkateers from another planet. He doesn’t want to take the credit though. “I had a whole mob of funkateers with me, you know, in the band, and all the different bands we’ve had, and all the different people that I’ve worked with, and they helped [change music forever].” It’s a big mob too, the most notable of which are Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker, who all joined the Parliament-Funkadelic revolution from James Brown’s band. In fact, they are still there. “Fred just did some stuff on my new record, I’ve started on a Parliament album now. Fred and Pee Wee both came to Tallahassee, and they put some horns on, and they getting ready to do some more stuff. We bump into each other on the road all the time, but only for a second. I talked to Fred the day before yesterday and he was in Manila!” A new Parliament album. That is big news.

I wanted to know what he made of the current crop. While funk remains strong, trends change, people move on and new things emerge, so are they ruining the hard work he laid down or building on it? Once again, he’s thinking forward. “They’re funkin’ around all over the place; you’ve got Trombone Shorty and all the different bands out of New Orleans doin’ the funk thing, but you also have the mixture of hip-hop and funk bands becoming the thing now. I mean, Kendrick Lamar, even Snoop and the rest of them, they all got bands that they’re merging into their DJ situation, and that’s gonna be new, along with the Trombone Shorty’s, and the bands coming out of the funk rock scene, all of that is getting ready to merge. It’s all gonna merge and you’re gonna have a bunch of funk bands doin’ Motown. I mean that’s getting ready to be the big subject matter, a lot of bands are gonna try to play Motown they own way, and that’s gonna be the 21st Century version. All those things mixed together, that’s what makes funk.

“We just went and did it in the 70s and the 80s, we just mixed it up real quick, but that’s what the ingredients for funk is gonna be, the quick mixes of all different kinds of music, cos it’s going so fast now, nothings gonna stay around long. And it’s moving faster now cos we are in that Jetson age now for real, and that’s every day now! You’ve got all kinds of funk bands and robot bands and droid bands…”

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“It’s moving faster now cos we are in that Jetson age now for real, and that’s every day now!”

I pointed out that they were the first band to bring in the space age. “Yeah, we got that, the mothership is going into the Smithsonian this year. Oh yeah, we still funkin’, like I said we’ve got a new crop of funkateers in the band, on the new album First Ya Gotta Shake The Gate. We’ve got 33 songs on that, and besides the musicians, the funkadelics, who’ve been playing in the band all the time, we got our grandkids and our kids.”

So it’s a family affair, and George has a big family. He keeps them all close, very close, in fact. “I’ve got them all out here on the road with me now. My son Tracey, and his two sons and daughter, my granddaughter, all of them are in the band now, along with some of their friends. 13 from Tallahassee, Bouvier, we got a whole crew of youngsters right from the family that’s been in the band, been around the band all their life. And they are writing for us, and getting us up on the new situations.”

It sounds like the grand patriarch of Funk is laying the roots for the guaranteed continuation of the Clinton clan at the coalface of funk music, and music in general. He isn’t ready to quit yet though. “I hope I don’t indicate that I’m slowing down! Somebody tried to say I was retiring last year; nooo don’t believe the hype, I’m just getting started!’

You might think that years of substance enjoyment might have addled a 73 year old’s brain, but far from it. He’s always looking for the next big thing and was interested to hear about our own supergroup Smoove & Turrell: “if they doing Motown it’s something I’ve been expecting for years. That’s gonna be the foundation, you know, funk and Motown, that’s gonna be the foundation for the next set of rock bands out of Europe. You know, like B.B. King and Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins, all them was the foundation for say Cream, and Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and everybody. I’m lookin’ now for the ingredients of Motown, you know Curtis Mayfield, that era. It’s what they call Northern Soul.”

In recent years, Mr. Clinton has cleaned up, quit the drugs, straightened out and obviously invested in some pretty sharp suits. He is a man on a mission, and was keen to tell me about the book he has just released in the US called Brother’s Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? Quite a mouthful… “The book tells everything! I snitched on me and everybody else…the idea was to tell about everything, because I really wanted to talk about the copyright issues and everything, so in order for me to do that, I had to tell all of the stories that people wanted to hear… on page 379, you’ll see the stories of the copyright issues, the essence of what’s going on.” The copyright issues have not financially crippled the Godfather of Funk, but the sums involved are huge, and he is fighting back, rightly so.

When I mentioned that One Nation Under a Groove was the first album I bought back in my teenage years he was pleased, but it brought up the copyright issue again; it is something he rightly feels strongly about. “Oh wow, and that’s weird, because that’s the album I’m fighting right now in the courtrooms with the copyright, with my old lawyers, who charged a million dollars in one day to protect that album, and now he’s actually suing me for a million and a half dollars to take that album away from me. Well it ended up a million and a half, but he sued me for four million! That is the story, and he’s not only doing it for himself, he’s doing it to protect the people who’s actually stealing the copyrights. So me fighting him is a diversion for me, having a chance to fight to get the moneys from all of the samples and movies and things that One Nation and Knee Deep has been in. So that’s how big this story is. It’s not just the one million that he charged me, but he’s actually trying to run interference on me collecting on the hundreds of millions of dollars that’s owed on those records.”

This injustice is despicable, but maybe it has its benefits. “That’s enough to keep you interested in staying in the business, cos that inspired me to work hard and fight more for the new songs, and it gave me something, at 73, to be interested in. Also I could just be pissed off, but no, fuck that. I’m trying to make new music, and at the same time they gave me a story to tell, and the reason to be relevant. [So that action by him] is actually gasoline for me to say I ain’t finished just yet! You don’t fuck with Dr Funkenstein! You don’t fuck with the funk in a negative way.

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“You don’t fuck with Dr Funkenstein! You don’t fuck with the funk in a negative way”

“The world, and I’m not bitching, cos he gave me energy to fight, but, I’m gon’ fight! Y’know, cos he stole something. It’s not only just my lawyer, like I said, but it’s the entire industry, cos most of the record labels are involved in these sales, and they all need to be quiet and go away. I am sampled more than anybody, and now they have to hide those samples, and they’re not going away. They would love to hide them and say that it never happened, but all the movies and things have those samples in them now. Like, the humpty dance is probably the biggest sampled record in the world and I got like, three songs on it. And when you read the book, you see how much they went through to try to hide this. I mean national, international, you got Charly Records in London, who’s actually just put the record out again against the judges orders because I can’t come over there to fight him. But, the stories get around to them, cos I got to speak to them in London next week and of course, I’m telling them right away!

“The story of the book is going to make sense now. I’ve got to get a publisher over there to put the book out. The publisher over there got scared that they were going to get sued, but, nobody got sued here, so… we’ll probably get it out over there pretty soon.”

It isn’t all legal wrangles though. There are some juicy stories in there too. I mentioned some tales I’d heard out of Barcelona. “Oh Barcelona, ooooh yeah [laughs], some of them probably is in the book, I’m pretty sure they are!”

The ongoing legal battle is a major inconvenience, but Clinton isn’t worried about funk, or his reputation. “Well, we’ve been pushing hard to get this reinterpretation of funk. I mean, we have a lot to do with that, with the book, and the album and the tour and working with Rudimental over there, Kendrick Lamar over here… we’ve been pushing hard to get this resurgence. So I’m not worried about not getting our due cos I know I can make that happen, I know how to stir the doo doo up. So I’m glad that’s happening right now, cos we called it reinventing ourselves, and that’s what we intended to do with the Mothership going into the Smithsonian. We tried to make it all coordinate with each other and fall in sync, and it looks like we’ve got something going on! We aiming at the whole planet right now and it’s doing what its supposed to do.”

He is, however, concerned about Sylvester Stuart. When I asked him who his stand out musician is, his answer was unequivocal. “It’s gonna be Sly Stone. Yeah, Sly is a writer, singer, producer, he’s got all that shit anyway, he’s got so much music in him, it’s ridiculous. [He’s just recouped a lot of money] and it’s just a drop of what they owe him. He and I have been working together for the last ten years. The aim is to get him enough energy, and well enough to go get all of his copyrights and his money. [He is a legend] for real. He’s a one-man Motown.” Damn right he is; the entire music world is desperate for the day Sly returns to form, having been a victim of hard drugs for many years.

On a personal level, something has bugged me since I was a child. I remember in Middle School eating baked Alaska, but it seemed like the lyrics in, wait for it, Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers) were expressing an impossibility when they said “fried ice cream is a reality,” I wanted to know if I had imagined that. “[Laughs] You know what? Right after we did that record I found out that it was already! They deep fry it really quick, and so I felt really silly thinking that that was something deep to say, you know, and the other one was ‘hey lady be my dog and I’ll be your tree and you can pee on me.’ I thought that was cool, until my little granddaughter told me, she said ‘Granddad, you know, girl dogs don’t pee on trees’.”

I had conducted the interview via the magic of Skype, something George found fascinating. “This reminds me of 1968 looking at 2001,” referencing Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I couldn’t miss the opportunity, so I went 100% funk geek, and after exclaiming my never ending devotion to him I grabbed the low quality fan-art I made following the life-affirming gig he performed in Birmingham a couple of years ago to show him. I could tell he is a grandfather by the kind way he took time to look at it and point out a couple of things (“you’ve got the funkadelic there…”) I was nervous since the moment I knew I’d interview him, but I needn’t have been. Despite being one of the most influential musical geniuses of all time, incredibly wealthy and, at the time, hungry, he was unbelievably friendly and never gave a hint he was bored or tired of talking to me.

If you are in any doubt of the importance of this man, then just remember that if it wasn’t for him there wouldn’t be any hip-hop, no rap, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers wouldn’t exist (he taught Antony Kiedis to sing, in the middle of a lake), pop music would be completely different and the likes of Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, The Brecker Brothers could have been left in the wilderness after leaving James Brown’s band. He is a living legend, and a thoroughly nice bloke.

George Clinton plays at Newcastle’s O2 Academy on Friday 24th April.

Photo credits: William Thoren Photography

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