The extraterrestrial brother: George Clinton on time, space, and funk
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Few musicians define a genre like George Clinton shaped funk. After a stint in the New Jersey doo-wop group The Parliaments, Clinton launch both Funkadelic and Parliament in the late '60s, two ambiguously separate entities with different styles of funk (Parliament peppered its funk with a horn section, while Funkadelic used elements of rock and blues) that commonly toured together as the collective Parliament-Funkadelic. As chieftain of P-Funk, Clinton became synonymous with bizarre, psychedelic theatrics (gaudy costumes, nakedness, and spaceship props) and a whimsical sense of humor, winning a cult following with several records in the '70s. Since P-Funk’s glory days, Clinton released 10 solo records (the 2008 cover album George Clinton And His Gangsters Of Love was the latest), produced a Red Hot Chili Peppers album (1985’s Freaky Styley), and appeared as a hidden character on NBA Jam, introducing a new generation to the godfather of funk. Before Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic pledge their groovallegiance at Cubby Bear tonight, The A.V. Club talked to Clinton about who should ascend to his throne, the future of his colorful locks of hair, and if he’d like to take a space cruise someday.
The A.V. Club: What are you working on?
George Clinton: I’m doing a Motown album, and we are contributing that to the whole Haiti thing. Sly [Stone] just got his catalogue back so we’ve been working on that.
AVC: Do you anticipate a musical revival for Motown?
GC: Of Motown-type songs, yeah. But different groups going to be doing them, and they going to do their own songs with that own style. A lot of rock 'n' roll bands from Europe, and probably over here now, will start having Northern soul. Radio stations over here will start dedicating a couple hours to it a night.
AVC: So you are just trying to ride the train?
GC: Or be ahead of ‘em [Laughs.] We are going to do a lot of Motown stuff, and I’ve been planning it for a long time. Funkadelic basically was loud Motown.
AVC: Is there a kinship between doo-wop and funk?
GC: Oh yeah, doo-wop is really funky. Just like hip-hop, it’s basic. That’s why a lot of hip-hop samples James Brown and myself, because we were really basic. It wasn’t like bright productions until we got towards “Funkentelechy” and “Aqua Boogie” and all that stuff when we started using a lot of bright pop sounds. And when that happened, bands started coming out with the really teeny-bopper form of hip-hop, and alternative bands started, [sings] “Why don’t you just kill me.” It keeps going around and around—anytime it gets really sophisticated, like rock 'n' roll got to Emerson, Lake & Palmer and started becoming classical or jazz. When it gets to that point, it starts all over again.
AVC: So it’s just a cycle?
GC: Yeah. Hip-hop is getting to the point now where they are going to start sounding like Al Jarreau or Bobby McFerrin or some of the other poets. Some of the better rappers can rap real fast without even melodies. It’ll get to that same point.
AVC: Will it go back to the basics, the fundamentals?
GC: It’ll go somewhere—usually it goes somewhere really crazy.
AVC: So much of your music has been related to space and UFOs. What about space and funk work well together?
GC: Have you heard about Dogon?
GC: It’s an African tribe that says they are from the Dog Star, the star Sirius. Some Egyptians and some African tribes knew about it years ago and always talked about it being there. There’s Sirius A and Sirius B. You know the radio station Sirius? That’s the logo, that’s what that’s about. So the tribe there has always identified with that star and said that’s where they were from. Bootsy [Collins] and I ran into some kind of thing like that where time was lost and we could not identify or tell what had happened. You probably heard of the story over the years. You know I’ve always been a Star Trek person. And I’m pretty sure that I am an alien.
AVC: What makes you believe that you are an alien?
GC: Because I believe that there are a lot of them here. Myself and pretty much all the people around us, we share some kind of strange living being. A lot of people are going to find out, they are going to be described as aliens if you were here at this or that time. It's some kind of way or justifying some different type of people being here. It might not reflect the reality, but reality is belief, really. You get enough people to believe in it and then it’s real.
AVC: So you think we’ve been deceived to think that humans are native to this world?
GC: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I think a lot of people really have religious overtones of having come from somewhere. I mean, even the whole concept of religion is kind of alien. Some of them have giants in them. I mean, even the Bible, there’s mention of other beings around that wasn’t quite human or something.
AVC: Do you want to go into space?
GC: Part of me does. I don’t think anybody’s selling tickets right now. If I had the money, I’d go on a trip. They say they’re going to be offering trips pretty soon. If I had the money, yeah. Hell yeah.
AVC: What would you do in space?
GC: I’d probably be pretty high. [Laughs.] It’d be interesting to be up there and see it, with the lack of gravity. I’d like to know what happens to the downbeat in the absence of gravity.
AVC: The downbeat?
GC: The downbeat in the absence of gravity. To see if you get that propulsion in the opposite direction.
AVC: So you want to make music in space?
GC: Oh hell yeah. And see if Viagra has any effect.
AVC: Your earlier shows were known for nudity and spaceships landing on the stage. How do you top that?
GC: We just whoop ass now. And we got a few young ones. We got my granddaughter and a few young members of the band. My granddaughter’s a good rapper. And then we got the young singers. So we pretty much have all the shit to relate to a younger crowd, but even the rock 'n' roll parts. We have kids that come up to us, “I’m only 28, but I’m down with the funk.” We can play Motown music and rock 'n' roll or really funkadelic music or even just doo-wop. If they’re like Dead heads or the Phish audience, they’ll enjoy anything you’ll play.
AVC: Who do you think will carry on the torch of funk?
GC: There’re no young bands. Most of us have been around a while, but most of the hip-hop and rappers have bands now that are really pretty funky. Eminem, even though we’ve known him for years, when he was 14 or 15, Mystikal–he was getting ready to be the shit. Then you got some funky groups like [Red Hot] Chili Peppers. Though they’re like some R&B acts: When you get a few hits, you end up on the pop side of it. They could easily flip it. They have that kind of mentality. Then you’ve got a lot of metal-punk bands that’re really, really funky. Tool and groups like that. That’s some funky shit. They be playing with time and like jazz, but it’s straight off the punk-rock scene.
AVC: Eminem seems like an odd choice to carry the funk.
GC: He got rhythm and melody. He would actually hurt the stage. But his rhythm is so far ahead of most of them, he’s almost singing.
AVC: So what is the defining element of good funk?
GC: Anything that you want to do to save your life or being able to change it and not to be confined in nothing–not even about hit records. To me, it’s not even just the sound and feel of the music. That is the concept of funky, but a funky band, can be a band like Phish or The Grateful Dead. They’re skilled at jam. That’s really funky when you can get enough confidence in it and you can do a whole blues band and say, “What you key you playing,” and just start. And you have to be really funky to take a chance on that. And it still works. I mean, nobody pays attention other than just grooving to the music. Most people, they like you for your last hit record.
AVC: So today’s funky bands are the ones that spurn popularity and take chances?
GC: And still be the shit.
AVC: So it’s not so much a genre as it is an attitude?
GC: Yeah. Prince really could survive when he went into that mode of doing whatever he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. That’s when you got the biggest. He was out on his own and he was lucky enough to have a lot of hits and he would do it when they weren’t about to play those records. So there comes a time when the media gets your ass out of there, because you can be too popular.
AVC: Has popularity ever encroached on your individuality as a performer?
GC: We always make sure we fuck it up or fuck it up by accident. We’ve done things. We’ve hit it too pop, like the album cover of Motor Booty [Affair]. I think if we had put an album cover of me standing on a dolphin, as opposed to the bird—we thought we were like The Beatles, and we could something pop and get away with it. People still had to see the costumes and stuff. They needed something where they could tell it was us. Computer Games was computerized, but it wasn’t that funky groove that they recognized right at the moment, and we probably needed it because it wouldn’t get as much play. Because as big as funk as “Atomic Dog” was, it never got another hit record. It was always pretty popular. Now I know it had something to do with the politics, but I ain’t gonna cry about that, because I know the business too well. In the '70s, we had a spaceship and we didn’t have to play the record, but we did, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because we were that popular at that time. People played the record because of us, and not because of the record company.