This interview first featured on Blog on the Tracks on Stuff here
I was given a number, told to call and ask for George Clinton. So I did. I found him in a studio, in Texas. He told me was “working on some new s**t with one of our new artists, top secret, wait and see” – and then he laughed. He sounded a little bit like he was choking.
George Clinton is 69 years old. He was a staff writer for Motown and had a doo-wop group called The Parliaments – they became Parliament. And things became funkier. There was also Funkadelic – as the name ably suggests, this group took the funk and added psychedelic rock; taking The Temptations and going way out.
Now it is all under the name George Clinton and/or the P-Funk All-Stars. The band is constantly changing but the songs remain the same. Or they’re completely different. The answers to questions definitely change.
Clinton used to straighten hair in a barber shop. There’s not a lot that’s straight about him now. If he gives you a straight answer it’s because he’s answering a question you haven’t yet asked. A chat with George Clinton is like trying to play a serious game of table-tennis with a balloon. It’s like an underwater fist-fight. Challenging, but fun.
It’s like, well, it’s like talking to the Godfather of Funk; the Godfather too of Hip-Hop.
“We was doing our Funkadelic thing and adding guitars, sure, we was making it go all rock’n’roll because that was the sound.” Clinton announces this for no particular reason.
So I start asking questions. He’s returning to New Zealand for one show in Auckland. What can we expect this time?
“Oh we always bring the funk, so, you know, we’ll be bringing some of dat. But we’ll do a whole new show with all new songs. All new, things you ain’t never heard. And we’ll play all the hits too.” It’s a fast answer. So fast I’m not sure if Clinton knows he just contradicted himself.
You remember the Richard Pryor character Mudbone? Well imagine Dave Chappelle hamming it up with an over-the-top impersonation. This is George Clinton’s speaking voice. And he finishes several sentences, or in fact interrupts several sentences with “know what I’m sayin'” – except it actually sounds like knowhatI’msay – and to make it worse I not only (often) don’t. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either.
But if he’s not sure what the set-list for Auckland will be – he tries to settle on “a long-ass night of long-ass songs, all the old s**t and we will rock you with dis funk” – he is sure of a few things.
First, funk is still the number one thing, musically, for Clinton.
“Funk is it – first of all. And last of all. It is funk. I do this for the love of funk. I gravitate to it. I’m always looking for the next thing,knowhatI’msay, but, ah, funk is it, knowhatI’msay?”
He’s aware of his legacy too – it’s fair to call him the godfather of funkand hip-hop, look around, there are now so many godchildren: bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Clinton produced their album Freaky Styley (“they’s nice fellas”). There are the P-Funk members who have carried on outside of Clinton’s mothership (Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell) and there’s the giant debt owed to Clinton – everyone from Prince to Dr Dre; the entire G-Funk sound is, essentially, based on a handful of Clinton recordings. There is a nod in the sub-genre’s name, of course.
“It is a great honour – and you know the thing to me that’s really special is this band. All the bands, in fact. All the band members. They don’t realise how important they are. I mighta been the shepherd but they are so important. Always. They are the sound as much as I am – or more. They are so special.”
And Clinton says he is pleased to hear so many of his records in hip-hop.
“We was hip-hop first anyways; we was doing it first. The hip-hop came from funk and we was doing the funk – so we was also doing the raps and making the hip-hop music.”
And then it’s diatribe time. We get some stray thoughts on the genres outside of funk and hip-hop as Clinton explains his wider listening.
“Anything the parents don’t like – I will go to it. I hear a band that is making the parents mad, I want to hear it. I love System of a Down. I had their bass player on my last record. Crazy cat. I love Tool. They do some great stuff too. And let me tell you I heard Iggy Pop when he had his band in the 1960s – he was punk before there was punk. I gravitate to this. Punk, to me, was valid from the 1960s. It was always real for me.”
But then it’s back to Motown. The label will “always be it”. So many memories are tied up in that sound for George.
“My next thing I’m doing, I’m working on now in fact is a bunch of Motown songs. We gonna do all sorts, some B-sides and we will do some of the big songs.”
I ask for some of the titles he plans to interpret.
Next thing he’s singing down the line in a croaky, post-smoke voice, “Can I get a witness….” and that is just the start of a song-title medley. Each song’s title is part-crooned, part-croaked, “we be doing My Guy and we do The Function of the Junction; we’ll be doing a lot of Smokey [Robinson] because he da man.”
That thought seems to stop there. And it’s off to discuss Sly Stone – Clinton has been working with the reclusive funk-master, co-Godfather.
“Let me tell you that Sly has always been working, he been recordin’, he been writin’, he been doing all the stuff he need to do. And you have to hear it, knowhatI’msay, you have to hear it. He’s still got it, knowhatI’msay. It’s fresh.KnowhatI’msay. And it’s real. And it’s a real trip, knowhatI’msay. So we gonna carry on with that and the record gonna come out and it’s going to blow people away. It’s going to remind people of why Sly is Sly, knowhatI’msay.”
Clinton says he too is always working. He’s been in the business for 55 years. This fact raises a dry chuckle.
“It’s the love of the funk, you know. I mean I just keep playing these songs because they are slamming,knowhatI’msay, and the fact that we get some new guys on board to take these songs out to the stage – that just keeps everything fresh. They all fresh and into it and that gets me all fresh again. We got to play these old songs because I got a whole new breed of funk fans, they love this stuff but the funk is new to them so then the songs are brand new to me again too.”
He says he’s busy right through the year with touring and whenever he has a break he’s in the studio.
“We always working on new things, always writing. Recording. It’s just how we do it. I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop.”
So there’s not an age in mind for retirement?
“Hell no!” And the husky laugh-cough returns. “Hells no, they have to pull the plug; they would have to pull the plug on me.”
So it’s time to get serious. A lot of people from Clinton’s era did not survive. A lot of people from his bands did not survive. Why is he still here?
It is his sharpest answer. His fastest. And just when it would seem to be his most honest – there’s a burst of laughter, a real cackle that suggests a comic’s timing. And he follows up with “well, writing about it anyway”.
Don’t you have to know the subject to write about it?
“Well nowadays they got that Viagra – so I be all right for a while longer, knowhatI’msay.”
Clinton’s stage show in the 1970s featured elaborate costumes, and sometimes no costumes at all – nudity. The band arrived on stage, as if just arriving to earth, a spaceship landing, the hatch opening to announce a band of merry funksters shadowed in dry ice. The stage show may have been tamed in recent years but it’s still a huge brood.
“We got 25 members we gonna hit you with. We gonna hit you hard. That’s about all you need to know, you know. But the spaceship gonna make a comeback. I’m’a bring that back one time, knowhatI’msay, I’m gonna do that one more time. Not dis time New Zealand, but the next time I come back to see y’all it’s going to be in the spaceship. We gon’ bring it back one time. You wait until the next time we play – then you gonna see some crazy s**t!”
I ask for a preview.
“Ha ha ha ha! You crazy man. I can’t tell you that. You wait and see now!”
So I ask if Clinton’s spaceship antics have ever made him curious about the real thing – about actual travel.
“Yeah, they got these tours rolling now – or they will have. And when they do I want to be up there, I don’t care how much it cost. I’m going to go. I’m going to get up there and have a look around, my man.”
I ask if he’d be interested in putting on a concert in space. In maybe writing some new songs there?
“Nah man, I’d just go to do what I always do, see if I can get as high as I can!”
He tells me that he’d like to work with Prince again (“that guy is a genius”). He tells me that he doesn’t think the world has another George Clinton (“well, I hope there is, I hope there is, I hope someone gonna step up, but I ain’t seen it yet, knowhatI’msay“). He tells me that he’s “so proud” of We Got the Funk and Atomic Dog (“how you gonna get sick of playing those?”). He tells me that Maggot Brain was “very special, you know. It’s own kinda thing. A really soulful kind of rock that no one had quite done before that.” He tells me that he was “doing some work with Fela [Kuti] and then he died. But he was incredible.”
And then he tells me that he has to go. In some ways he had already gone. In other ways he was more with me than anyone I have interviewed.
“They calling me man, I got to go do a vocal track.” There’s another throaty cough. And then, “you call me back though if you need some more… I talk to you some more man, you just holler. We in the studio. Call me on Monday night…”