Bootsy Collins

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers in the process, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two. 

The musician: William “Bootsy” Collins, a funk-rock all-star who rose to prominence as a member of James Brown’s backing band in the early ’70s, when Brown was stretching his sound to encompass Afro-beat and his own spare version of rock-soul frenzy. Collins became an integral part of George Clinton’s P-Funk network of bands and side projects, and had a career revival in the ’90s as a sideman/personality-for-hire after appearing on Deee-Lite’s international hit single “Groove Is In The Heart.” Collins’ latest project is the solo album Tha Funk Capital Of The World, a throwback ’70s-style party record featuring guest vocals and performances from an eclectic cast of players that includes Ice Cube, Al Sharpton, Buckethead, Béla Fleck, and Cornel West.

“Freedumb” (from 2011’s Tha Funk Capital Of The World, by Bootsy Collins)
Bootsy Collins: Recording that track was pretty straightforward. I actually started with the rhythm section. Myself and my brother Catfish [Collins] just kinda laid the basic rhythms down. Then I wanted to do something different, so instead of having horns, I wanted to have a string arrangement. So I called in my boy Paul Patterson from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to arrange some strings for us. And once it started developing, I was like, “Man, I need to really say something on this track, so it ain’t just a funky brew, y’know?” It is a funky brew, but at the same time, I wanted to say something. I didn’t want this just to be a party album. I wanted to have a party feel, but to really say something encouraging.

So I thought, “Now who can I get who has that encouraging voice, and what he says is all in love?” Y’know, who can I get? And I had been running back and forth with Dr. [Cornel] West, running into him every now and then. We’d always talked about doing something together and never did. I thought this track would be perfect with him. I called him up, and he immediately said, “Where do you want me to come? Let’s do it.” I told him we were doing it in Cincinnati, and he came on his own. He didn’t even give me a chance to set nothing up. We went out to a restaurant here, and then I had to go do a speech at a Macy’s, and he went onstage with me. Then we came to the studio, and he said, “What do you want this track to be about?” And I said, “The name of the track is ‘Freedumb.’” And he started laughing and said, “Well, what do you mean by that?” I said, “Well it’s basically that we’re making smart phones, but we’re still making dumb decisions.” And he looked at me there for a minute, then said, “Okay, turn the tape on.” The next thing you know, he just started rattling off the top of his head, and what you hear on the album is what he came up with.

The A.V. Club: Did all the guests on the record come to Cincinnati? Samuel L. Jackson? Snoop Dogg?

BC: About 70 percent. We did Snoop here. We actually did Samuel Jackson in L.A. when I was out there. I did Sheila E. out there, too. About 70 percent of the album was done here in Cincinnati, though, which for me was a real blessing. That way, I didn’t have to go nowhere, because we pretty much already had stuff set up. And I got a chance to watch these people really pour their hearts into what they do, y’know? Dennis Chambers, Béla Fleck…  I mean, these cats just came in, and they’re great musicians anyway, but to actually see them perform is just a whole other step. To see them perform with joy, really having fun with it… it’s not work no more. It’s like, “Wow, this is really cool.” ’Cause there comes a time when it becomes a job, and people just come to work. You see that so much. But when they’re coming in doing something like this, I saw a whole other side. That’s the side I used to experience when we’d just started. And that’s the way this record felt to me.


“Super Bad” (from 1971’s Super Bad, by James Brown with The J.B.’s)
BC: I had done a few records before we got to “Super Bad,” but I was still young, so whenever we would be doing a gig somewhere, James didn’t never want to let me go wild after the show, or get wild with the girls. He always pretty much tried to keep us busy. He would take us to the studio, or we’d be rehearsing, after the gig. So one night we go to the studio and we set up, and the whole time he’s saying something like, “With my bad self, I’m super bad!” Y’know, he’s doing it like Muhammad Ali. “I’m the greatest!” He’s telling himself that the whole time we’re on the way, and when he gets us there, it’s all about how he’s super bad! We start this groove up. He counts it off, gives us the tempo, and we know what key he likes, so me and Catfish go straight to the key, and it’s just magic.

That magic just starts happening anytime he comes in the room and counts it off. I don’t know where it all comes from, but it automatically starts happening. He pumps everybody up so much that you just feel like you don’t wanna let him down, y’know? You wanna make him groove. You wanna see him sweat. And when you see him sweat, then you know that what you’re doing is helping him sweat. So you start feeling good about it. When he ain’t sweating, or when he ain’t moving, then we ain’t groovin’ it. But this day, doing “Super Bad,” we was groovin’. ’Cause first of all, we had killed him at the show before that. We had laid him in the aisle. His knees were bleedin’. He was sweating profusely. So the body language told us, “Yeah, we did it tonight.” Then we took that from the stage right to the studio. We did it over there, too, and it was a great thing to see him happy. Even though he wouldn’t ever admit he was happy, it was just great to see those moments.


“Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” (from 1975’s Mothership Connection, by Parliament)
BC: Oh, man. That would probably be where I finally start feelin’ like we had found something. I started feelin’ like the combination of Bernie Worrell, myself, Fred Wesley, George Clinton… I just felt like we had something. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was like nothin’ else on the radio. It was just different. The chemistry was just… it was new to us, y’know? And it made us want to do it that much more. I think that was the real first start of “We want the funk.” [Hums.] Big one! [Hums.] That was the introduction of the incredible “one.” It also gave us the confidence we needed, that we were onto something now.


“One Nation Under A Groove” (from 1978’s One Nation Under A Groove, by Funkadelic)
BC: Let me go back and say that whole “One Nation Under A Groove” thing started in Washington D.C. They had a vibe up there going on, and you would hear people say, “Yeah, one nation y’all, one nation!” And George [Clinton] was really good at picking up on the new saying, the new slang. So we got to the studio, and George was like, “Yeah, we gotta do something with that ‘one nation.’” And Gary Shider started coming up with this kinda banjo-twang thing that Gary Shider does. And we locked in on the groove. Next thing you know, that song was born.

George was in there, wearing everybody out on the headphones. He didn’t really have all the words together yet, so he’d usually wear us out on the headphones. He’d be hollering out anything, which would inspire us, but at the same time, it was annoying, because we would sometimes miss our cues. We’d be in there talking about, “Okay, change!” But George would be so loud on his microphone that sometimes we couldn’t hear it. It’d be a struggle sometimes to stay with the groove.

That was a moment in our history that really brought us together. That wasn’t the first time I got the chance to play drums, but that was one of the times that kind of gave my drum-playing a signature, playing on the one. “One Nation” was probably the second song, ’cause “Flashlight” was the first.

AVC: What did you see as the main difference between Parliament and Funkadelic? 

BC: A Parliament album was very basically based around the J.B. kind of groove, with horns. Funkadelic included a rock-style guitar, but you never really got any horns on Funkadelic stuff. It was more a guitar-solo kind of thing. Sax solos and stuff like that were never on a Funkadelic record. It was more rock-heavy than just the J.B.-style dance groove.


“Bootzilla” (from 1978’s Bootsy? Player Of The Year, by Bootsy’s Rubber Band)
BC: Yeah! I think that’s where… well, as a matter of fact, I know that’s where that character was introduced to the world, through that song. I had been Bootzilla probably for a long time, and I just never put the image with it until this song. We did this song the same time we did “Flashlight.” So it was “Flashlight” and it was “Bootzilla,” and George was like, “Okay. Parliament needs a hit song as well, so which one of ’em is it gonna be? Either we gonna give Parliament ‘Bootzilla,’ or we gonna give Parliament ‘Flashlight.’” I had to make a decision, because for me, it was really about image. It was really about me developing the image. So I said, “Okay, you take ‘Flashlight’ and put that on Parliament’s record,” because I didn’t care whether “Flashlight” was gonna be a bigger record than “Bootzilla.” None of that made any difference to me. What made the difference to me was, I wanted to be recognized as Bootzilla.

But that’s why George was so good. He was good at helping me decide what went where. I was recording for pretty much everybody at the same time, so he helped me decide which thing went to what group. We had Parliament-Funkadelic, we had Brides Of Funkenstein, we had Parlet, the Horny Horns… we had all of that goin’ on, and I had to cut some for each group. But with “Bootzilla,” I said, “No, that’s got to be on the Bootzilla album.” Well, at that time we didn’t call it the Bootzilla album, but I knew it was the album that I was gonna put those glasses on. I just had these new star glasses made that I called the Bootzilla glasses. So I had to have a song to go with that, you know? This ended up being the song. It winded up kickin’, and it stayed, and it’s still here. Now it’s Bootzilla Productions, y’know?


“Groove Is In The Heart” (from 1990’s World Clique, by Deee-Lite)
BC: That came at a time when I had been all around the world with the Funk, and I had kinda got burnt out from all the drugs, the road, the studio, the parties… I was really burnt out on being a star. It was like, “Man, I really just wanna be in a band again. I just wanna be Bootsy. I just wanna play in the band.” So when [Deee-Lite] sent me a tape, they let me know they didn’t have any money to pay me. The record wasn’t out yet, and nobody knew it was gonna be a hit. But when they sent it to me, I just had a certain feeling about this record. Then I was getting a lot of flak from the Funk fans about me playing house music. And it was like, “This is just something I feel like I need to do.” And one thing kinda led to another. Once we did the record, we went out and did the tour. And I found a whole new audience, and they gave me a whole new energy. Because I didn’t have to be the star, I was just in the band. It gave me time to reconnect to people and to myself. That was a really important time for me, “Groove Is In The Heart.” Because I had to go back and find that groove. And I found it. That was a real special time, a turning point in my life.

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