Funk gets stronger: P-Funk’s George Clinton touring at 74
by Andre Torrez
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic perfom live on stage at Electric Ballroom on August 7, 2015 in London, England
In his book of memoirs, George Clinton writes, “All junkies have rituals.” He describes the way addicts bargain with themselves in an attempt at self-discipline that emphasizes work before play.
For Clinton, a wildly colorful character whose most definitive role was as bandleader for the pioneering musical troupe collectively known as Parliament-Funkadelic, work was always important, but his own imbalance of substance over sustenance is what in part led to some bad business decisions and decades of addiction.
Snippets of music can be overheard through the phone at the beginning of our conversation. At 74 years old, he’s in his Tallahassee, Florida studio (the city in which he resides) recording tracks and putting vocals on the next Parliament album called “Medicate Fraud Dog,” due in January. In an upbeat but weathered voice, he admits he still smokes weed but that he’s kicked the old habit of smoking crack.
A recent resurgence of attention has surrounded funk’s chameleon-like founding forefather, whose penchant for elaborate costume and alter-ego rivals that of his 1970s contemporary, David Bowie. He's been touring solidly for months in promotion of last year's book, “Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?,” which was followed by “Shake The Gate,” the first official Funkadelic album of new material in 33 years. On October 29, Clinton’s P-Funk makes its way to Oakland’s New Parish for a live performance.
“We toured over Europe, Australia, Japan. I mean, it was overwhelming,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize, it wasn’t even the drugs I was looking for.” Something as simple as getting a sound night’s sleep, not having to “chase” something he knew “wasn’t even there,” are some of the more liberating aspects of giving up hard drugs. “To go to work and be inspired...that’s the best part of being clean.”
In the book, he paints a picture of what sounds like typical 1970s music industry decadence, with scenes of Casablanca Records executives, in charge of KISS and Donna Summer (who were his label mates at that time), riding around Los Angeles in their cars with the tops down, ubiquitously wearing coke-spoon necklaces.
The addiction and excess both followed and paralleled what is undoubtedly considered a revered musical legacy. Far from his roots as a 1950s barber shop hairdresser at Plainfield, New Jersey’s Silk Palace, Clinton’s doo-wop-singing origins would evolve into something otherworldly over time.
By the ‘60s he’d moved to Detroit, where record labels were flourishing. He gained work as a freelance songwriter for Motown, but didn’t produce any hits for Hitsville U.S.A. during his time there.
“I never worked with Berry [Gordy] hardly. I’d see him when he passed by. ‘Mr. Gordy’s in the house’,” he laughs impersonating an announcer’s voice. “He was lofty at the time. He was very up there. He still is. That’s an empire people still do not give enough respect to. Motown is still something to be marveled at.”
His own group, the original incarnation of The Parliaments (named after cigarettes), was turned down by the label and had run its course. After absorbing Motown’s vibe, Clinton was ready to put together a new project; one that would focus on musicians’ virtuosity rather than vocalists and frontmen, essentially inverting the Motown model. With players like Bernie Worrell on keys, and guitarists Eddie Hazel and Garry Shider onboard, Funkadelic was launched.
“We were the local clowns at the time. We was the beginning of the black involvement in the LSD vibe that was all around town.” Self-described “black hippies,” their performances in front of Gordy and Diana Ross at the 20 Grand nightclub, where he infamously wore a white sheet and nothing underneath, have been documented. “I really fell in love with that period of my life. When [Vietnam] was over, it should have been over for the drugs, but nobody knew that.”
With lyrics more lysergic than what Bob Dylan was coming up with, these outsiders were more in tune with Jimi Hendrix. They struggled in marketing limbo, kindred to associated proto-punk acts like MC5 and Iggy and The Stooges. Clinton and his band were deemed too white for black audiences and vice versa, but here they were, ready to reinvent something beyond James Brown’s soul-funk; a creative experience beside Sly and the Family Stone that would elaborate on Sun Ra’s concepts of “Afrofuturism.”
Around that time, he met another Detroit entrepreneur, Armen Boladian, the founder of Westbound Records who’d later put out Funkadelic’s earliest albums. Boladian to this day owns Bridgeport Music Inc., a source of ire for Clinton in recent years, since the publishing company was awarded copyrights to many of his songs in a lengthy and ongoing legal dispute. Clinton asserts he’s owed millions of dollars stemming from lawyers, record companies and publishers who have “conspired” against him and that some of his songs, including “(Not Just) Knee Deep” are used in the current NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” without compensating him or his songwriters.
“We just talked with the FBI again. I would just change my mind on who I did business with as a publisher or a record company if I had to do it over again. You don’t have that choice when you want to be an artist. Nothing’s gonna stop me from exposing it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to.”
By the mid-’70s their cosmic-slop alien invasion onslaught was in full swing with blonde wigs, platform boots and Shider in a diaper. They filled a void by creating their own niche that incorporated comical lyrics, sometimes laden with sexual innuendo and other times being overt, but always having perfectly matching album cover artwork.
With star bassist Bootsy Collins now in tow, the re-booted Parliament, along with Funkadelic laid down the blueprint for the Mothership, an intricately designed and iconic stage prop, long-slated to make its way into the Smithsonian, from which Clinton would emerge.
A master of metaphor, puns and plays on words, Clinton can’t help himself but answer a question on his lyrical approach: “You might have to read between the underlying rhyme.”
Pressed further on what the purpose of repeating the line “Fried ice cream is a reality” at the outro of “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad/ The Doo-Doo Chasers” was, he explains the absurdist turn of phrase after belting out hearty laughter. “I feel stupid as hell because I thought that was the ultimate in stupidity. Right after I made that record I found a place that made fried ice cream. Who knows, it might be stupid for one minute, and the next day it might be something brilliant.”
P-Funk's initial ride lasted until Clinton effectively ended both projects in the early ‘80s when he embarked on a solo career. By then, their heartfelt plea, like a mission from beyond, urging fans to feel the music and to get up and dance had become part of their legacy, solidifying that funk was always stronger than any drug.
“I’m glad I recouped and had enough inspiration to want to rebound and want to keep doing this. I feel good fighting for my rights, my old songs, and making new songs at the same time. I think I’m just getting started.”
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic will play Oakland's New Parish on Thursday, Oct 29, 2015 9:00 p.m. Tickets here.