These alphabetised nuggets on George Clinton, the P-Funk Creator and organic piece of science fiction, were boiled down from a Q&A at Amnesty International in Shoreditch last week.
He’s in London on business, remastering ‘Chocolate City’ in Metropolis Studios – and visiting Parliament, naturally. Dressed conservatively for the occasion in a black hat and suit streaked with gold, this opportunity to pick his brains was devised by Convergence Festival, FutureFest and Guardian Live, whose Alexis Petridis is opposite him on stage to chummily guide the questioning.
A is for ASS
That which must be freed. It’s you as an individual and the nodal point through which the impulse to dance leaves the body. In Clinton’s collection of prophetic utterances, it also corresponds to a kind of psychic Id, in contest with the Mind or Ego, which must be liberated first. This allows the Ass, which simultaneously exists outside of oneself, to be hooked into the rhythmic chain that connects us all (see ‘F’).
B is for BEAT
Catalyst for the above process. Clinton took the first-beat emphasis from James Brown, kicked out its more streamlined features and repainted it in crude and lurid shapes.
“We made it so exaggerated that it was cartoonish. We got that from Bootsy, that’s all James would tell them: ‘On the one! I’ll take it from there.’ Basically, I told ‘em I wanted the bass to be so loud that, if you ran your hand over the record, you could feel the bump and the handclaps should get you to flinch.”
C is for CRACK
Which derailed Clinton for a couple of decades or so. Unlike fellow casualties in his peer group like Brian Wilson or Sly Stone, the battering he gave his body and mind never really damaged his performance and he’s now a happy and clean-nosed 73 year-old. He says dropping the habit was the hardest thing he’s ever done and is remarkably lucid and coherent, if a bit non-linear, when it comes to dates. “When it came on the scene in ’79, I thought I’d found acid again, which had stopped working in ’69. It took me a long time to find out I hadn’t.”
D is for DOO-WOP
His first gig was with The Parliaments, a quintet named after the cigarettes that operated out of a barbershop. Clinton manned the tongs and paid his band in large sums of counterfeit green. Otherwise, he worked as a songwriter in the Brill Building, walking the corridors of songwriting’s Mount Sinai with Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Leiber & Stoller, Phil Spector and all.
E is for ENSEMBLE
At the tail end of the sixties the tight structures of doo-wop and soul slackened into blues rock and funk, and Clinton’s band’s problematic name introduced him to the long slow dance with copyright law he’s been occupied with ever since. He made an ingenious split in the group, doubling it into two outfits that played different takes on the same style. Parliament-Funkadelic recorded and toured in parallel, absorbing more members and spawning multiple side-projects. The protean nature of this format – a confluence of gospel choir, hippy cult jams and harebrained business acumen – ensured its success.
“We had so many musicians, people don’t notice when they leave. They leave and come back because, to me, this is your group – this your home. If they wanna do something else it’s easy for me ‘cause it’s one less salary to pay. And somebody’s always waiting to do your part that’s been in the band, your brothers who you grew up with.
“You make them want to be a part of it. They was laying around in the studio and, not because I didn’t choose them, it was just so many, it was like ‘OK who’s awake?’ They’d be up under the board, asleep, waiting for the chance to do it.”
With everyone on their toes whatever state they were in, this deranged version of Fordist capitalism produced beautiful, chaotic music that reflected the kind of stoic attitude Clinton displays elsewhere, one in which chance and choice elide on a long enough time scale. He paid well too: the mysterious junkie responsible for the solo of ‘Get off your Ass and Jam’ got $50 – double what he asked.
F is for FUNK
“Funk is forever coming. Funk don’t go nowhere, it’s always on its way here. It don’t go out of style, because it is not a style, it is itself. Funk is it’s own reward”.
G is for GEORGE CLINTON
Sir Nose D’VoidOffunk, Dr. Funkenstein, Mr Wiggles… who are we talking about here? This mercurial creature escaped the disintegration of his groups (label and legal strife, a monsoon of drugs) and recorded ‘Computer Games’ in 1982, as an artist in his own right for the first time. The favourite of his alter egos is Sir Nose, but such is his disarming, passive command of the conversation, we also learn that whoever he ‘really’ is will remain a mystery.*
H is for HITS
Clinton managed one with his first group, The Parliaments’ ‘(I Wanna) Testify,’ in ‘67. Ironically, once he abandoned their pop sensibilities and delved further into their latent weirdness, the hits started streaming in: initially leftfield classics that climbed the R&B charts, culminating in mainstream success toward the end of the seventies.
“Even with Maggot Brain, we did that album in two days, playing what we were playing on stage, and tripping our asses off too. And it’s a classic, which was funny, ‘cause we really weren’t trying.”
I is for INTERPOLATION
“Sampled,” says Clinton emphatically. Petridis, between tugs on a vape stick and a bottle of Asahi, has proffered the more technical term; a piece of legalese that gets around the habit producers like Dr Dre had for recreating old songs’ parts from scratch. Clinton is indeed quite possibly the MSAIH** so you need to hear to his thoughts on the Gaye vs. Williams/Thicke controversy.
“Same law firm that represented Marvin Gaye’s family, they’ve been ripping people off on behalf of me. I’ve been fighting them… 15 years? They sued five hundred cases in Nashville, Tennessee – my songs; I didn’t get a penny of it. They sued Ice Cube five million dollars, Dre three or five – whatever, they’ve been suing people twenty years from my songs.
“They were getting ready to sue Pharell and Robin Thicke, on behalf of me, on the same song.*** They already represent the Gaye family, but they were ready to get two. First thing I thought when I heard [‘Blurred Lines’] was I wish I wrote it… these people are crooked. I told Pharell, if you go to court, call me as a witness – I can tell you about these folks!”
J is for JAMES BROWN and JIMI HENDRIX
He’s basically their unplanned musical love child and he quickly brings them both into the fold when he and Sun Ra are credited as founders of Afrofuturism.
K is for KENDRICK LAMAR
Yep, he’s part of this big news story too (you may be starting to twig his MO). The rapper asked Clinton to feature on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ (a record that’s as enthralled to P-Funk as it is to Coltrane and Eminem) and, at the urging of his grandchildren, he agreed. “He came along, he wasn’t trying to be hip, he wasn’t getting high or doing anything you’d think of as rock and roll, or a music person doing… not that he was the greatest goody-goody in the world either.
“By the time it came out, everybody wants to know, has he really got the Funk? Yes he do. And it’s proven – when that record came out this morning, it was all over the place! Sounds like he’s talking 1964, but he’s making it sound brand new, for people who weren’t around then. Cause he’s bitching! He’s talking a lot of shit on this record but, because of that innocent personality he’s got, he can get away with it. A lot of people might go to jail for what he’s saying or they get tweeted off the map, but he’s that one, we call it, he’s got that doo-doo, he’s got the Shit.”
L is for LSD
Of the two drugs with which he is readily associated, this one proved a lot more fertile.
“First of all it made me walk from 125th street all the way down to 4th, looking up at all the tall buildings I’ve been seeing all my life, going ‘Wowww!’ Acid made me receptive, along with Berry Gordy [of Motown]’s demand that you pay attention to anything that was a hit. If you didn’t like it, you had to find out how to made it work. It made me realise that there was more to everything… I learned to like what I might ordinarily be afraid of.”
M is for MANIFESTO
What would it be? “That sounds too much like politics, like I’m trying to overthrow a government or something, huehaha… I’ll have to kick that around a little… Free Your Mind and Your Ass will Follow!”
N is for NONSENSE
Clinton prefers a more Edward Lear-ish, surrealist, indirect means of addressing politics. Nonsense dictated Parliament-Funkadelic’s attitude and particularly their sartorial style. He knew the assimilationist chic of previous decades inside-out from conking hair – “we made people look cool… we majored in it… cool to the point of pain, it don’t do you no good!” So he was well placed to reverse-engineer it when the style switched:
“OK, hippies huh? That looked like that means you were poor – we really knew how to be poor. I mean, it was hard as hell to keep suits clean, hair alike and it was the hip thing to do, to be poor? With jeans on with holes and patches on ‘em and ‘fuck you’? Oh, we went crazy. We went to the Holiday Inn and got towels and made diapers out of them, got the sheet, put a hole in it, put my head through it, paint on it, that was my robe…. It became so funny to us, that that was working.”
O is for O.G.
Clinton’s music forms the entire basis of Dr Dre’s ‘G-funk’ style. His influence extends beyond merely being an inspiration and sample bank, to collaborating with and producing every kind of rap luminary from Digital Underground, Tupac, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, to Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan, De La Soul, Outkast… it goes on.
P is for PARTY
Perhaps getting a sense of how much the audience reflexively idolises him, and dodging one from Petridis (who’s strayed out his comfort zone to ask whether the CIA did away with Hendrix, Lennon and Bob Marley) he reminds us that “This here’s a circus.”
“I’ve always shied away from being that kind of central figure… I love the preaching thing, but when I hear people saying: ‘Preach the knowledge, brother!’ I was the first to say: ‘Look, I’m paid to do this. That spaceship cost half-a-million dollars for a reason, you’re supposed to think I’m a god, it’s working.’
“But up twenty-five feet on this thing, I got boots on that’s nine inches, I’m high as hell… I’ve got every reason to fall here! All I got to do is act like I believe I’m God. If I have any dumb notion like that, I’m supposed to fall. So I made it quickly known: ’Ain’t nothing but a party.’”
Q is for QUINTESSENTIAL
For the spaciest, most innovative and probability-defying era, see the ‘Maggot Brain,’ ‘Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow’, and ‘America Eats its Young’ LPs. Bootsy’s groove on ‘Night of the Thumpasorus People’ is pretty definitive of the his flouro-rubberized influence, and the poppier strain distilled in the Parliament recordings reaches its peak in their best selling ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ (1978). Their unparalleled stage presence can be witnessed at the ’78 concert at Capitol Theatre or the ‘Mothership Connection’ set in Houston Texas in 1975 (both on youtube), and for the mind-altering tech-futurist, proto-hip hop sound of his solo output, see “Atomic Dog” (1982).
R is for RACE
Transcendentalism, a view of the world in which tends to credit people with little control over the forces that move them, especially when compounded with drug use, can lead its preachers into a philosophical quietus, into star-gazing inaction and stoned new age bullshit of the type that makes delusional multi-millionaire idiots like Sting or Bob Geldof so unbearable. Clinton’s records, however, with titles like ‘Chocolate City,’ ‘Paint the Whitehouse Black,’ and ‘America Eats It’s Young’, are steeped in social conscience. Their subversive rhetoric chews up and reconstitutes the language and imagery of the States’ political system, the rituals of its judiciary and everyday street life, turning them into a danceable cosmology of emancipation.
“In the late sixties, when we started the Funkadelic side of it, we were too black for whites and too white for blacks. That’s the way it seemed. But the people that liked us from ’74 on, the people that came to see us was everybody. We was basically a pop group [the Parliaments] before, and [the audience] was if anything more whites than black, and before, in the early sixties, we were a doo-wop group, there was no separation between black and white, everybody played together.”
S is for SPACE
Clinton isn’t the first musician to use the astral plane as a vehicle for discussing black identity, its history and future.
“Sun Ra? (above) It wasn’t until the late eighties or nineties that I actually met him personally, in Detroit on Cass Avenue, out the back of the studio, United Sound, where we were recording and he used to play in the café.
“I knew him in the late fifties and early sixties as a jazz musician, which was totally different from the doo-wop that we were doing, but at that time in the late eighties and nineties, I saw that he’d done a lot of doo-wop music in Chicago with the same groups I loved: Spaniels, Dells, Flamingos… I had no idea he had done that.
“I didn’t know about his outer space stuff when I did Mothership, not until years later when people started comparing us (and we were getting a bit older, I think, and started looking alike), when I finally got to actually see him play. I saw the clowning in him and all the good musicians he had; I saw what people thought of us being similar. He was out in his direction, we were out in our direction but we were both way out!”
T is for TECHNO
The playing around, repetitively noodling on dials that Clinton excelled in was picked up in the eighties, and Funkadelic’s penchant for fluorescence and dummy wearing got rehashed by the rave generation. Detroit’s Electrifying Mojo gave large swathes of airtime to P-Funk as well as pioneering the turntablism that fathered today’s all-encompassing DJ culture. Techno and house’s extended track lengths suit his taste for long-playing songs you can get ‘knee deep’ in, and he’s reservedly cool about the dance artists who cite him as an influence; he knew Juan Atkins’ father apparently.
U is for UNDERWORLD
The ‘Blurred Lines’ settlement is a “drop in the bucket” to what the same publishers and lawyers have harvested over the years. At one point Clinton describes the legal-bureaucratic edifice – the revenue streams, (forged) contracts, music companies and lobbying groups that sit beneath the surface of the music industry – as an “Underworld.”
He won back the rights to ‘One Nation Under a Groove,’ ‘Hardcore Jollies,’ ‘Uncle Jam Wants You’ and ‘The Electric Spanking of War Babies’ in a landmark 2004 ruling. Once that 12 year legal wrangle was over, out of the woodwork came litigants ready to monetize his newly won rights, claiming past debts and preemptively suing him to head-off the challenges that could be made to any of the thousands of published songs that pinched from him. “My songs had babies,” he explains, “you’ve got to be able to take a joke in this business.”
“It’s like stealing land.. The US copyright office has been subverted. Get to flashlight2013.com to get yourself educated about it.”
V is for VIETNAM
“By 1970, we understood, by about [Don McLean’s] ‘American Pie’, that was over, Woodstock was the end of that movement. The war had stopped. That’s what that whole thing, for me, was about: stopping the war in Vietnam. Once that happened, everybody had to go get a job. It was back into the fifties again, chasing money. We knew we couldn’t do that much drugs. We lived in the studio; it was fucked up! That’s too much energy to just be partying. Also, we were already thirty-something, just getting to be big stars then, but even though we were doing all these drugs, we had enough sense to know we couldn’t just do drugs and not do anything else.”
W is for WAH PEDAL
Lots of it. While funk guitar tends to get written off in a few hammy clichés, the playing of Michael Hampton (and before him Eddie Hazel) is inspired, transmitting immense feeling beyond its freewheeling, faultless technique. They were both inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (along with thirteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic, in 1997) but they’re not brought up often enough in discussions of the greatest ever guitarists, nor are they high enough in Q’s list of the top 50 of all time, presuming both these things exist.
X is for XYLOPHONE
As far as I can work out there is no xylophone in any of his work which is a real surprise given all the other kinds of keys and extended percussion at work. I am happy to be corrected on this, though.
Y is for YES
George Clinton finds himself saying it a lot, because he’s an optimist. His willingness to find the worth in anything and anyone has found him working with Red Hot Chilli Peppers in the past and, recently, Disclosure, Rudimental and Joss Stone.
Z is or ZEBRA
This has gone on long enough.
*Doubters, realists and fans can purchase his acclaimed autobiography Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? (Simon and Schuster), the first paragraphs of which tell you that, when he was born, Clinton’s Father worked at the U.S. Mint disposing of out-of-circulation bills and his Mother worked as a cleaner at the Pentagon, and that he and Dionne Warwick played together as children.
** Most Sampled Artist In History
*** ‘Blurred Lines’, thought the lawyers, also sounded like Clinton’s ‘Sexy Ways’. There is a good article on Slate that delves into some of the people and issues involved, here.