Giving Up the Funk: George Clinton says goodbye to the road
The Funk has left the building. Well, technically, the Funk has only retired to a room adjacent to the stage where his masseuse awaits. "I need my massage," George Clinton says. At 77, his pre-concert ritual is a lot different than it used to be: No illicit drugs. No groupie action. Just his wife Carlon Thompson-Clinton, who's also managed his career for the last 10 years. And from the looks of the green room, the main thing on his rider these days is Fiji water.
We're backstage at the Cobb Energy Centre in Atlanta, where Clinton is set to play night two of what's being billed as his final hoedown — the last P-Funk tour before he goes gently into that good night. A month later, he and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective will be honored by the Grammys with a Lifetime Achievement Award. "This lifetime achievement stuff is getting ready to light up everything," he says. "And the band is still going on anyway, so I might have to stay with them another six to nine months."
When George Clinton was coming up, a future funkateer in the making, he wanted his empire to become the next Motown, he wanted to be as big as the Beatles. He ended up creating something different but just as lasting — an impressively influential body of funk, rock, and soul that has been repeatedly quoted, covered, and sampled (the foundations of hip-hop, now music's most popular genre, were partially built on his group's hooks).
Clinton's life has played out like a Blaxploitation flick, from his mythological birth in an outhouse all the way down to his final act of revenge against The Man, as he tries to regain ownership of P-Funk's hit discography from alleged interloper Bridgeport Music, Inc. While he's won back the publishing rights for the One Nation Under a Groove LP and others, the saga continues.
Before hitting the stage with half a dozen of his kids and grandkids, all of whom are touring P-Funk bandmates now (the group will likely continue touring once Clinton retires), we talked about funk and free love, getting sober, his lifelong aversion to church, why he doesn't want anyone worshipping him when he's gone, and his master plan to keep the Mothership flying high. Everything hinges on future artists carrying on the musical DNA of the genre he helped pioneer. "If they're making people shake their booty," he says. "it's got something to do with funk."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember one time when I was a kid, the video for "Atomic Dog" came on TV. Back then it felt like funk was about finding the fun, and even the redemption, in stuff that people considered dirty or obscene.
GEORGE CLINTON: Yeah, always that. Always a good party to dance your way out of whatever the interpretation of it is supposed to be. And [to realize], "Ok, it's up to me how I look at it."
Parliament-Funkadelic were the antidote to uptightness. Now it's flip-flopped and the times are actually funky. It feels like we're in the midst of a cultural revolution with the #MeToo Movement addressing abuse, people getting called out for saying and doing problematic things, and the fight for representation in pop culture. It almost seems like the funk that you gave birth to could have never come to be in this era.
It'll come in handy in this era because, like we say, "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody's Got a Thing." You just have to let people do their thing and still gel, 'cause [everyone] is going through some kind of interpretation metamorphosis. People are changing and we're right around to be able to visualize it, to be able to notice it with social media. You're able to see it being painted and changed right in front of your eyes. And they do it so fast that it ain't going to stop no time soon, now that we're able to understand it. So we're going to see a lot of [differences]. The whole planet is taking selfies and just looking at itself making all kinds of faces. You can participate in all of that now. Some of it was needed anyway for us to move on and change our mind on certain things — especially male and female. We've evolved and you had to get out of a lot of stuff we went through in the past. You can see that the sexes weren't…
Balanced. Or it was changing, the way we looked at it. We might have thought change was necessary, but not been able to even intellectualize it before…. But it's still evolving. When we get further in the future, we're going to look back and say we were still primitive. Not only on medicine and things, but on intellectual thinking about social s—, getting along with each other. We don't know it all.
You always danced around the idea of genre, even in terms of creating Parliament and Funkadelic as separate groups with the same members. Was it as simple as putting the guitars on the rock stuff and putting the horns on the R&B stuff?
Most of the time. Every once in a while, I could do something weird enough with the horns that it could go with the rock stuff. It could be like Sun Ra, but it would have to be way out there. Or a guitar might end up on a Parliament song, even with horns. But basically that's the way we did it. The loud guitars was on the rock, the Funkadelic. And then the horns was on Parliament.
Were you purposely trying to genre hop and not be bound by the racial stereotypes?
Well, not be bound by no one particular thing. You have to survive because people just get tired of the name. In three years the kids [would] grow up so you have to reinvent something for the younger ones to actually relate to, until they get old enough to start thinking of it as a classic. Basically, we just run through our artists for three years while they're hot and [then], "Cool I'll see you later when it's oldie but goodie time." We don't stay with them. The radio stations don't give it to you like that. They don't make it classic so you'll be a fan forever. They just force feed you the top things.
So how did you figure that science out? How did you come to realize that reinvention was the key to keeping it going?
I read Billboard and Cashbox. That was the art of it when we first started in the early '60s, late '50s. You stayed up on the record business by knowing who was doing what. You watched the Phil Spectors. That's what told you what to do, what was hot. So I always did it whether I liked the music or not. You learned that in Motown: If it's working, it's working. So you need to pay attention to what made it work, not let your ego just tell you "they ain't s—.' And you ain't on the charts and they are. You just gotta figure out what it is that's making it work. And you don't get defensive about it. I realized the music that gets on my nerves is basically new music.
Yeah, that's your measuring stick.
That's the easiest route. Cause your instinct knows, "No, this [new genre] ain't getting ready to happen. This can't be the s—." Yes it is, that's the s—. Around [Atlanta], they gotta be getting a good dose of it because it's the leading sound going right now. So, you gotta a lot of people saying, "Oh hell naw, that aint' it." But yes it is. From Young Thug to Future, all the way back. Even with Outkast, that was the beginning of [music] going in a Southern [direction]. And I always say, when Southern people get on the dance floor, they ain't getting off. They're going to figure a way to get on there again and that's what's happening. There's New York and there's the West Coast and there's different places all around. But it ain't never been like it is around here. Since Bobby Brown came through [laughs].
Is it true that you were born in an outhouse in North Carolina?
Yeah, that's true. I was born right there.
So you came about the funk honestly.
Honestly, for real [laughs]. My mother always said that sounds about right.
Your father sang gospel and your great-great grandfather founded Mount Carmel AME Zion Church in North Carolina in 1866. What was your relationship with church when you were a kid?
I skipped it whenever I could. [I was] falling asleep in there; it didn't hit me. That's why you'll never hear me do the gospel runs. I told 'em I didn't go to church that day. I came in after the Smokey Robinsons, Temptations, Clovers, and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. I came along at that level, when there was harmonizing.
[Clinton's wife interjects]: "But we go to church whenever we can when we're home."
Aw, we do now. I go more since we got married than I have in any time in my life. I can get in there and get to shouting now. They sound like Funkadelic in there. Kirk Franklin? Oh my god, get in there! [laughs].
Fans tend to worship artists now like religious figures, particularly ones who have passed away. Are you comfortable with that?
Aw, hell naw [laughs]. They say, "Do you want to be a role model?" Only for what not to do. You can't follow all the s— that I've done. I feel lucky and blessed that I got away with the things that I did do. But there's got to be an easier way to do that. I guess people have to go through whatever their time requires them to go through and if they can see it as inspiration, you know, fine. But I'm not taking no blame for it. They say if you take the bow, you take the blame.
How hard was it staying grounded after being on the famous Mothership, which floated above the stage on the P-Funk Earth Tour in the 1970s?
I felt lucky being up on that spaceship. That s— shook like hell. I was high as hell. My boots was nine inches tall. That's 25 feet up there. I had every reason in the world to fall off. One dude ran up there one time. He hit me on the feet in front of like 20,000 people and nobody knew what happened. I was holding on to that rail so tight. When the smoke went down, he fell down and cracked his head open. I was thankful every time I didn't fall from up there. Ain't no way in hell that you gonna be up there thinking, "I'm God." Oh hell naw, your ass will fall.
Funk has always felt like a religion. But you steer away from calling it that. What scares you about that association?
'Cause I ain't trying to live up to all that s— [laughs]. I'm still learning that s— myself. I'm not sure where that comes from. I look back at it and say 'Daaamn.' I used to put it on acid. I know that was the train of thought, but it had to be more than that. The kids that we were around during 1968-69 flipped us. We'd come from the ghetto thinking we were going to be pimps. And everybody's talking about free love and we're in there feeling like the trick. It was no big deal. You didn't even have to convince nobody [to believe in the free love movement]. It was that easy, and once I got into it I [realized] this is a much easier way to live than having to be worried about deceiving and all that. It didn't come easy. But you knew when you felt it. You start becoming aware of s— like that. Then you start writing about it. That became a style. I wanted to be a lot like some of the s— I write about. But you recognize it in other people. That s— that Sly [Stone] was writing about? Like, you can't do wrong at all if you know that much information. But you can't hold nobody to what they write. That s— comes through you. It's just like people playing parts in a movie.
What was your writing process like at the time, and how has it changed now?
I'm talking s— man. That's all you had to do, just stay out of the way of the music. Just talk s— and sing the hook here and there.
We started out at Motown with Jobete [publishing], which was the epitome of songwriting. And the Brill Building in New York, where songwriting went straight from the publishers for anybody and everybody. You had to know how to pen a song for whoever needed a song.
Motown, being strict, [produced] perfectly balanced records. You couldn't get no better than that. And then having to go from that backwards to where my parents had just been, which was rock and roll, but only loud this time. It was Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. That was coming along so we had to forget all this discipline we had at Motown and get loud and R&Bish but rock n roll-ish, which was Funkadelic.
You recently became sober. What made you realize you had to clean up?
I was 70 years old when I started trying to clean it up. You ain't got that much energy and that much time, and the drugs weren't working no more. That wasn't even giving me energy. Matter of fact, it was getting in the way — had been in the way and didn't know it. Then there's my wife, and of course she's going to remind me. But all of that, it just came to a natural [conclusion]. My thought was, if I change up now, ain't nobody going to notice it. They won't be able to stop me because they won't think I'm doing it.
How hard has the legal fight been to get ownership of your music rights back?
Oh, that's really hard. Just getting around that. We had to slow down and try to approach it from another way. I was fighting that so hard, you can get caught up in that and they'll keep draining you of cash.
Why do you think that is, with the history of black music and the industry finding ways to basically steal from artists?
There's a plan. They've been mining that music. They've made so much money off of us since it started in the '40s and '50s that they ain't trying to let it get away, you know? It's a business. And even whatever they give you, you've still got a lot more coming. But [young artists are] doing a lot better than we did. Now, whether they know what to do about intellectual properties and all that…we're just learning that. So they've really got to put their head to the grind, because I know a lot of [lawyers] want it to be work for hire. That's the new thing that they've got to deal with. We didn't have that, and they're still making us have to prove it…. And if you're new and young and trying to get into the business, you'll go for anything. I did it. I knew I was going for it. But I had a bigger plan.
What was the bigger plan?
Give me a spaceship I can out-fly this s—. And once we got a hit record that's what I did.
This story appeared in Entertainment Weekly's special double music issue, which you can buy here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.