By Lee Zimmerman
Say what you will about George Clinton. You can call him outrageous, out of the ordinary, or simply innovative and original. Indeed, one would be hard put to name another R&B artist—Prince and Sly Stone aside—who did more to give the sound of soul a truly progressive posture. From his early days singing in a doo-wop group called The Parliaments, to his formative career as a staff writer for Motown—for whom he penned the hit “(I Wanna) Testify”—and the remarkable strides he made at the helm of his concurrent combos Parliament, Funkadelic and their eventual offspring P-Funk, Clinton has never stopped exploring the mind-bending possibilities created by the unlikely combination of funk, jazz, avant garde, satire and psychedelia. He even had a giant simulated spacecraft, the so-called Mothership, situated on stage. Indeed, if Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind & Fire, James Brown and Frank Zappa all had a love child, George Clinton would surely be that child.
Inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, Clinton and company made their mark early with the landmark albums Maggot Brain, America Eats Its Youngand One Nation Under a Groove, while notching up 40 major R&B hits in nearly the same period. Clinton then broke away from the Mothership, both literally and figuratively, in the ‘80s, pursuing a solo career both under his own aegis—his songs “Loopzilla” and “Atomic Dog” were both pop and R&B hits—and as a producer, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bootsy Collins as two of his prime projects. A series of solo albums followed, as well as contributions to a new generation of rappers, hip-hoppers and R&B artists, all of whom began acknowledging his influence and sampling his songs. Legal difficulties over ownership of his early catalog have occupied him as well, but Clinton continues to plow his brand—not only on his own, but through guest appearances on film and TV, and in his role as the tireless musical mastermind of a reformed P-Funk collective.
Bestowed an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music and author of a recent autobiography Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?, Clinton recently released Medicaid Fraud Dogg, a musical treatise on the failings—and presumably the funkiness—of America’s healthcare system. Released exclusively as a digital download, it marks Parliament’s first new release in 38 years.
Given this milestone, and the fact that Clinton recently announced that his current tour will be his last, Goldmine thought it an ideal opportunity to not only talk about his recent activity, but also to reflect on the ample accomplishments of his career.
GOLDMINE: Medicaid Fraud Doggis Parliament’s first record in several decades. It’s been awhile, no?
GEORGE CLINTON: It’s been 38 years for Parliament. However, I’ve been putting out records on my own. I’ve also been going to court and trying to get the early copyrights together. And I did a book, so I put it all together as one big bang. It took five years, but I’m ready...
GM: With all you’ve done in your career, what was it like putting that book together?
GC: Most of the things I planned to put in the book all along, but once I got started, I had mile markers. So I was getting myself together, getting myself in the habit of documenting it, and once I did that, there was time to do it all. I knew nobody would believe it I was doing it. I’d sneak up on it while they were believing I was doing nothing but touring.
GM: Were you keeping a diary all along?
GC: Oh yeah. Always...I knew what I wanted to do with Parliament and Funkadelic. We knew it wasn’t just a group. It was a play and everything else it has evolved into. We knew there would eventually be a book, a movie, a Broadway play.
GM:So are there any plans for a Broadway play?
GC: We have enough of a resurgence with the new album so that now it’s time for all of that to come back out.
GM:You never really left. Your influence lingers on.
GC: Yeah. Dre, Tupac. I tried to stay current with the sound that
GM: The music that you were making back in the day was so revolutionary. Where did those ideas come from? How was it conceived? You were in a doo-wop group and you made this extraordinary leap.
GC: I came out of New York, the Brill Building, and I saw rock ‘n’ roll first get started, with Chuck Berry and all that. Then I saw The Beatles and The Who and these other groups taking it into theatrics. In the play Hair, most of those people were my friends, and they were copying us as far as dress and everything. So where they took that to made it easy for me to pick up on it and go from there. Which is what we did. Coming out of Motown, which was a whole thing of is own, we just kept it going with rock ‘n’ roll integrated into it. What Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, all those fusion groups did, it was the way rock ‘n’ roll was going at that time. I tried taking it to church without saying “church.” It was the psychedelic church. That good time vibe worked anywhere, and so that became the underlying vibe, no matter what style of music we were doing. It always had a little gospel in it, a little blues in it, so we could change it to anything we wanted. (Keyboardist) Bernie (Worrell) could play some harpsichord and make it sound like English folk music. But it would still be funky as hell.
GM: Aside from the music, the presentation itself was revolutionary. Your persona on stage, the costumes...
GC: Oh yeah, we got the best people involved. They built a Mothership. They were all Broadway designers, so I knew what I was doing. They made it look like what I wanted it to look like with the spaceship, the costumes. We were way ahead of everybody else. We were so far ahead of it that it was hard to catch up to that. We took it to outer space.
GM: The stuff you did on both record and stage really took it to another level.
GC: Once I looked at what these other people were doing, I came up with my version and decided to see what I could get away with. I knew I could take it to outer space and that we weren’t going to be able to do bubblegum records anymore. Motown and dance records wouldn’t be enough anymore. I knew we had to do something radical and start all over again. We had to allow the musicians to stretch out, as opposed to them just being our backup musicians. We would have guitar players like Jimi Hendrix and that added to what we were able to do. With Bernie being able to play classical, jazz and gospel, it got to the point where people didn’t really know what we were doing. It got so serious, so that when you do a song like “Maggot Brain,” you don’t know where the hell it’s coming from, especially if you were from the black community. We were too white for black folks and too black for white folks. But the people that liked us stayed with us forever. It wasn’t the same as simply being as good as your last 45. That’s the hardest thing in the world to do when the styles the kids like changes every three years. Kids grow up and go to college, so you grow up and become too old for them in a matter of two years. But if you do albums, you can be like a jazz musician, a gospel musician, a blues musician. Those kinds of albums stay around forever. They’re not necessarily at the top of the pop charts.
GM: It must be very gratifying to know that you were able to realize that kind of longevity.
GC: I’m loving it! It still sounds like it fits in with today’s stuff. “Atomic Dog” still sounds like it’s from the future.
GM:Are you still touring regularly?
GC: Yes. We’re still out there. This is the last one. The new album is out there and it’s really hot. We’re going to Europe, and we’ll be over there for a month or two. It’s as big now as it was in ’78.
GM:Who is the group these days?
GC: Well, aside from all the grandkids—I got seven grandkids in the group—guitar player Blackbyrd McKnight, who’s been with us since the ‘70s; Garrett Shider who was the son of the diaper man, Garry Shider; Benjamin Cowan, who’s the son of the trumpet player Benny Cowan; and Greg Thomas, the horn player that’s been doing this since the ‘70s. Then there’s my daughter...
GM:It sounds like a real family affair. Your grandkids must think you’re the coolest grandfather ever.
GC: They know I’m a grand dude.
GM: So are you still doing all the theatrics like you did in the day?
GC: It’s definitely not your average show. We have a whole new way of projecting it, but it’s still in the Funkadelic style.
GM: You’ve got a doctorate, you’ve appeared in film and on TV, you’ve done voices for animation. It seems like you’ve been constantly busy forever. So how do you jump from one project to another so quickly?
GC: With the new technology, you can do that stuff on the phone. You text it to them and they put it right on tape. The songs on the album are like that. From where we’ve gone from analog to digital, it seems like miles. You don’t even have to do the perfect version in the digital world or lose the funk. So some of the stuff you end up doing comes out kind of tacky. You don’t want to do it perfectly, because when it comes to being funky, that’s almost an oxymoron.
GM: I don’t want to age anyone here...
GC: It’s okay. I’m 77.
GM:The ‘70s are like the new ‘50s these days.
GC: I know.
GM: So how do you look back on all that’s transpired as far as black music is concerned? Can you point to any particular trends?
GC: To me it goes around in circles. It’s all a different variation on R&B. A lot of it has to do with the technology. The music is pretty much the same. It’s just different variations. They’ve got psychedelic doo-wop.There’s echo repeats and that sort of thing. They’re just switching from the instruments to the vocals, so you’ve got psychedelic rap, mumble rap, as opposed to having the lyrics being really slick. Now it’s nonsensical. You can say silly things because you can get away with saying silly things. They do a lot of that with rap, because these kids started when they were 10 or 11 years old. They give them two words and they’ve got a whole song. They say two words real slick and it works.
GM: You’ve influenced so many artists. Prince for example. Did you ever get a chance to meet him and compare notes?
GC: Oh yeah! We had a chance to play together and to talk. He was very quiet, but a real musician who was dedicated to just doing it. He had that spirit when he first started, and he kept that spirit. Beyoncé is one of those people who have that spirit now.She just keeps working, working, working, and getting it right no matter what it is that she does. Kendrick Lamar is like that too.
GM: No doubt these folks have expressed their gratitude to you for your influence and inspiration.
GC: Oh yeah. All of them do. People are amazed at the stuff we’ve done, but mostly at all the great musicians that took part. We’ve had some great musicians.
GM: You said somewhere that you’re planning to retire next year. Is that still the plan?
GC: Yeah, I’ve got one more year. Everything’s timed around this album. I can see that it’s going to require a lot of work.
GM:So is there a chance you might put off your retirement plans?
GC: I’m still going to be in the studio and I’m still going to make records. But the group’s gotten more than enough time to prepare. They’ve had the last couple of years. I’ve been directing the whole thing.
GM: Are you going to create a hologram to keep your presence centered on stage?
GC: I might. I might even show up once in a while. But for the most part, they’ve been doing it without me already. We’ve been planning this for awhile, and I’ve been directing this from my chair.
GM:With all the milestones you’ve achieved, it must still be nice to get excited about a new project.
GC: That really is fun. You see those shows about people who have had a good career, and then it ends in tragedy. I hate those shows. We’re just getting started.
GM: Not a lot of musicians are able to maintain that accessibility factor and still make music that’s inventive and provocative all at the same time.
GC: Motown employed all kinds of producers, so you’d get all these different sounds, but it all came from the same company. They gave us a chance to appreciate all the different styles, even if it wasn’t your thing. I learned from songs like “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” It was a good record, but I didn’t know what made it a hit. If it’s a hit, you have to know what about it made it a hit. So you had to study the dumb down. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder can write songs like that. They can write really simple songs, but I’d be nervous about writing straight, simple songs like that. Paul and Stevie can do it. Silly love songs. I never knew that jazz was going to be the thing, but that’s what I was doing, incorporating a lot of jazzy funky licks.
GM:Do you ever feel that because you’ve set such a high bar for yourself that you then have to match it the next time around?
GC: Oh no. I just make sure the concept is worthy. I want it to be so different that you can’t compare. I would never try to do another “Atomic Dog.” It’s just got to be good. It takes awhile sometimes to figure out what good is. It can take 30 years to figure out if it was good. Good music is about fitting into the current trend, even if you have to dumb it down. You can’t let anything get in the way of the feel of what the musicians are doing. We got away with it, even though we threw in a lot of jazz. We still kept it really simple, even when we’d throw in a classical mix. People didn’t even realize that until years later. They just thought that was pretty cool.