When I spoke to George Clinton on the telephone the other day, there was something real funky going on with his vocal chords. Something so funky, in fact, that I could barely make out anything he was saying. It sounded like the man was gargling frogs. Between all the croaks and grumbles, I worried that I might not be able to make any sense of our conversation.
But by the time I finished transcribing the interview, it was as if the Funk had been magically decoded.
Of course, Clinton's been making perfect sense out of nonsense for more than 40 years. The legacy he's left in his wake is as much about the mythology of funk as it is the music.
So why was he the subject of a recent episode of TVOne's "Unsung" biography series? Turns out it's not recognition that he feels is long overdue, but royalties. If "funk is the DNA of hip-hop," as Clinton likes to say, his '70s-era Parliament-Funkadelic output is the spermatozoa that has impregnated well over 1,000 iconic rap hits and counting (from De La Soul's "Me, Myself and I" to, well, Dr. Dre's whole catalog, damn near).
Armen Boladian, the owner of the copyrights to most of Clinton's P-Funk catalog, is so uncompromising he makes Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk look like the Starchile. Clinton has been in litigation with Boladian for years to no avail, so he's taking his fight to the court of public opinion — where his own image has suffered from rumors of crack addiction.
Over the course of our convo, Clinton comes clean about the difference between his drug use and abuse, reveals his secret to "stay[ing] up on shit," damns his perceived role as the deity of Funk, and professes his confidence in President Obama's ability to shoot 'em with the Bop Gun if and when the time comes.
It's a heady trip.
CL: Everything seemed so funky in your era — from the music to the fashion, even the social conditions. Now we've got a black president in office and rappers who brag about their bank accounts; I don't know if we, as black folk, are as straight-up funky as we used to be. I'm curious what you think about that.
George Clinton: We're funky but funk has gotten sophisticated. We're still funky. The president is cool ... I know it's going to take somebody like him who has that attitude of funk and wholesomeness and is good at heart, but at the same time, he's still gotta know how to push that button if somebody fucks with us. And I have no doubts that he'll do that.
Everybody's funky man, that's what I'm saying. White people, too. The closest [music] you got to [mirroring] race relations in the world is hip-hop. We practiced [living] together for 75 years. We ain't practice that shit for nothing. We practiced that shit to keep from killing each other. 'Cause [African-Americans] were like that at one time, we couldn't say black or nigga to each other. But once we got past that we only had one thing left and that was "Yo mama." And once we got past "yo mama," shit, you my nigga. You my muhfucka. Ain't none of that shit so bad no more once you get past the point of being able to say it and know that you define yourself... .
You ever seen our Mothership show?
Yeah, I have it on DVD at home.
I used to step on top of that thing and think, "Now, I can believe I'm somebody up on this damn thang, 'cause folks look like they're ready to pass the bucket, they're ready to bow." I would tell myself "This ain't nothing but a party. I get paid for this shit." 'Cause I already know I'm 25 feet up in the air, I got on boots that's 9-inches, I'm higher than a motherfucker. I got every excuse in the world to fall my ass from up there. And so all I gotta do is give some entertainment to the thought that I'm Him. Hell no, I ain't the One. I ain't nobody. They tried to give me that guru thing — naw, hell naw, just some pussy and some drugs. And it wasn't that literal, but I knew I had to do something to keep that off of me, from letting that become something that I might entertain.
That spaceship cost enough money to make you wanna bow down to it. But it's got nothing to do with me. It's Him. I already got my excuse for how I'm gonna fall if I entertain that thought. That's enough reason to break your neck, thinking you're somebody.
Funny you say that, 'cause even as a kid, when I would hear people talking about the Funk on the radio it seemed like it was something deeper than music. I didn't know what it was — a philosophy or a religion or what — I mean as a kid I didn't even have those kind of thoughts but I realized it was ...
It is that, but I'd rather not be the one to push it to that length. I'd rather do it the way I feel it. I feel it positively like that for me. But see, I hate to push something for somebody to believe in, 'cause I don't care what it is, it will go through a change somewhere, with somebody plotting to change it and make it bad. 'Cause that's what happened, rock 'n' roll was like that. When you get to — I call it the mountaintop — when you get to that point, you get all kinds of undercover agent-provocateurs pushing in there, next thing you know it's called Jesus Freaks. Then you got all kinda folks selling drugs; before that it was just share, share.
Then you got to start watching out for the brown acid, know what I'm saying? People freaking out and the stories start coming around. Then you get a [Charles] Manson and everything was all of a sudden Jesus Freaks. You can tell when something's being thrown into the game. And I'd hate for Funk to get to that point where folks start doing that.
Do you feel like you've been unsung, or typical of the acts that have been on the TV show "Unsung?"
No, I don't feel like I've been unsung, and I don't feel typical, either. We agreed to do the show 'cause we're trying to get a word out on behalf of the band members and all the writers of the group. We have a lot of stuff out, a lot of stuff that's been sampled. Of course, millions of dollars have been made, but band members have not been getting the money for it. There's something called royalty-free usage of our material. That's how they're using it. Universal made deals with the publisher, which is Bridgeport Music.
We have a long history of not getting paid from Bridgeport Music. Just recently Gary Shider passed away, and his whole family had to sign away rights to this guy [Armen Boladian] just to get money so they could save Shider's house just before he died. I mean this guy's been doing this stuff for some time.
So we did this "Unsung" because we figured this was a way that we could at least tell some of the story. Everybody knows the history, a lot of the paperwork is bullshit and the paper trail leads nowhere. But the fact that somebody went through all of that effort to [falsify] all of these papers is enough to let people know that all of this money's out there.
So tell me about this album that you're working on?
We're putting together a box set. And we also have all the stuff that we've been working on since we've been working on this case. It's gonna be kinda late, but we're gonna have some of this stuff available for download. Some of it's going to be available for Christmas. But it's going to be all the stuff that we've been working on over the years that didn't come out. A lotta new stuff that we're recording right now. A lotta stuff me and Sly are doing right now. And a couple of albums that's hot as hell, and we're catching hell, like I say, from them record companies that are trying to block it.
Tell me about the stuff that you're doing with Sly right now?
Oh, that's some baaad shit. Really good stuff. I do something on it, he'll do something on it. And we were doing a lot of stuff for hip-hoppers, we're doing hooks and thangs to throw something on it. The one person that we're really trying to hook up with is Mystikal. We wrote some hooks for him, and some songs with us and him. But Sly is coming with some insane ass songs.
Do you still remember the first time you got introduced to Sly?
What was that like?
There's a book out about it. Matter fact, I think I did the forward to the book [I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly and the Family Stone]. The first thing I say is David Kapralik, who used to be our and Sly's manager, took me to see him at the Electric Circus in New York. You get that, you'll see what it was like.
I think I did read that. Those were some wild times.
Well, that was for real the truth. Dave, he was our manager and Sly's manager. He never knew it 'cause I was going so fast. And the same thing was happening in the '80s when we got together. Yeah, we really were having a ball, so drugs at that time were not a good thing. We did a few songs, I think they're pretty good: "Catch a Keeper". But um, at that point, we weren't doing too good with drugs. In the '80s they got us real good.
They got everybody real good in the '80s.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. But the fact is, when it comes to this music, music overrides all that other bullshit. When we started, it was more about just having fun, and doing drugs, whatever, I think it was more or less having fun with each other and doing music more than anything. 'Cause the bullshit drugs that were given to us were intentionally given to us, it wasn't even good drugs. So I mean we really just screwed up at that moment.
Me and Sly were actually trying to go to rehab together, because "Celebrity Rehab" wanted me to come on. We said "Yeah" until they found out that my reasons that I was gonna give for being susceptible to drugs and food and alcohol, susceptible to anything, is the $160 million dollars [I'm owed] â ��� which I think is a good excuse for anything, habit-forming wise. And so when they found out that's what I was gonna talk about, they kinda backed up off of doing their story. You might have to back off of doing your story, too.
So you're saying they weren't able to talk you into it or what?
Naw, I was ready to do it. I'm saying that the long arm of the corporate world is too afraid for the truth to come out. And all they had to do is make a deal and settle this shit. They can't be disrespectful to all the people that wrote this shit. Especially when they treat people so bad that they get despondent and homeless and get sick and pass away. That happened three times in the last year. [editor's note: Bootsy Collins' brother Phelps 'Catfish' Collins died in August; Gary Shider died in June; and Mallia Franklin, lead singer of Funkadelic's first female spin-off, Parlet, died last February].
And so this "Unsung" thing, we gave them the whole story. But I got a lot of people that are supposed to be helping us and watching out for me. Because if I'm successful at what I used to be doing, and not so much anymore, I used to be trying to be fucked up. You know what I'm sayin'. And I ain't telling nobody no lie about that, that's the way I been. But ... lately, I haven't even seen too much of that.
I'm finna sell my habit to eBay. They not gonna get me for no bullshit like that.
You mean, like, the police?
I just mean them saying that I'm fucked up and high that's all it took for that money to be gone. 'Cause that's some bullshit.
I got some people that I pay to make sure they remind me, "Ok, you're successful, ain't go no time to be fucked up now." I have people around me who say, "Yeah, you need to chill out." And I'm not afraid to say that. And everybody may say, "Ok, you shouldn't talk about it." Bullshit. I think the longer you don't say shit about shit like that, the worse you get. If you talk about shit like that and you discuss it, there won't be a chance of ignoring it.
Back in the '60s and '70s, do you feel like drugs helped open you up creatively?
Well, I didn't think of it then, but sure in the '60s it opened me up, not just creatively but mentally, period. In the '60s is when drugs were really drugs. Sure, it helped me mentally and just psychologically. In the '70s, hell naw. In the '70s I was having too much fun at a period of time. In '79 and the early 80s, they pulled the wool over our eyes. Period. And it's the same people, same record companies, same management and accountants and shit. All of them were involved in what I call RICO [Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act]. If it got to court like that, that's what it would be because the exact same people are doing it today. The longer I don't say nothing the longer they can use that strategy, you know what I'm saying. You ain't supposed to say no such a thing, but it's RICO when it's systematically the same people. I'm gonna keep talking like this and so are the band members.
So where are you living right now, where are you?
I'm in the studio; I'm all over the place. I got studios all over the place trying to get this album out. I got people doing something in L.A., some doing something in Tallahassee [where I live], some doing something in England.
Weren't you living in Atlanta for a while?
Yeah, I come there to record. I'll be coming there in a few days to record.
With all of the sampling of your music, hip-hop has kept funk on the map. Why do you think the genre continues to be so vibrant and alive?
We're not from this planet.
Well, tell me about that because a lot of black artists, from Sun Ra to you to OutKast, have dabbled in Afro-futurism, talking about being from somewhere else. Why do you think we came here if we're not from here?
I don't have no reason. I just try to be available to that which comes through me. I have no desire to think I did it. I think that all of us, as a group of musicians, liked to do what we were doing so bad that that took priority over everything else.
Funk is the DNA of hip-hop. I did a song called "Clones of Dr. Funkenstein." DNA is what that song was all about. I have no idea, I know where I got it from, by I have no idea why it appeared [to me], why I was attracted to it. But it ended up being one thing that keeps music around. The Funk is still around. Take a little sample and you can come up with a brand new song with it.
Any time you hear people say "That ain't music," especially parents and old musicians, they don't know they just OK'd it to become the next music. That's my whole theory on how to stay up on shit. Every time you hear somebody say, "Man, that ain't music," they just made it music. That's the worst thing a musician that's successful can say. I'm all about what the kids are doing with the music lately. And I love Jay-Z, he's rolling, but that ["Death of] Auto-Tune"? He may wanna leave auto-tunning alone for a bit. [laughs] 'Cause it's getting stronger as opposed to getting old and played out.
T-Pain is right here in Tallahassee. I loved the first record. I didn't know what to call it, but I liked it. And so did a lot of other people. I loved it. To me that's funky. The funk will survive at all costs. I think that's why we're still around, because music is more important, even than getting paid — even though we want to get paid and we're going to get paid. But I think had we not had that attitude, just the sheer amount of money we [could generate] everyday, if you would have known it, it would've killed you.
And we're close with everybody [who samples our shit], we make sure that we stayed close to them because I'm sure they took more money from them than they were supposed to take in the first place. They didn't give it to them or us.
Eventually I'm gonna have something called a Royalty Statement Party. You bring your royalty statement and show me how much they charged you for the sample and I show you that I never got it. So if I didn't get it, you got some money coming back. But we have to be down together for that to work. And sooner or later when they get off the charts and it ain't working so good for them, they'll think about that.