How does one even begin to formulate an introduction to a discussion that took place with the funkiest of them all? After George Clinton, it’s not an easy task to come up with names of other individuals who changed the definition of “music” the way Parliament Funadelic did (and still do). Their unique musicianship is rivaled by none.
Exactly four weeks from today (July 15), the collective will take the stage at Queensbridge Park to help celebrate the 30th Anniversary of SummerStage. With more than sixty years since the formation of Parliament Funkadelic, there’s no doubt that this performance will be one for the (music) history books.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble found time in Mr. Clinton’s busy schedule to discuss his early years in the business and how he and P-Funk stay fighting to maintain the rights to their music as the music industry continues on its path to extinction. (Though, we should probably thank those assholes for reinvigorating his creative process.)
I’d like to start kind of at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Up until ten years old, I was in Chesapeake, Virginia, and from then on, Newark, New Jersey until I was in my late twenties.
What was your style of choice growing up?
Did you have favorite bands or artists?
Yeah. The Spaniels, The Flamingos. Frankie Lymon was like my idol. Little Anthony and the Imperials and all that stuff.
How did you end up getting involved in the music business?
Because of all of that, all those groups. That was the thing. Every school had a doo-wop group or two in the group. So, Newark had a lot of them. A lot stars, The Monotones, The Four Seasons. All of those were groups I grew up with before we ever had hit records.
Who would you name as early influences on your style?
The earliest would have been the Motown sound. That was what we wanted to be. But The Coasters also had a big influence on us. Later on, it was Louis Jordan. We started developing the funk and started thinking of the music my mother listened to. It would have been Louis Jordan.
How did you and the members of The Parliaments come together back in the ‘50s? Were you all friends?
Yes, we were all friends in grade school.
What was the reasoning behind the group’s multiple name changes?
Legal stuff. Labels folding and we couldn’t use the name. So, instead of changing over, we just changed the band, made them Funkadelic, and we became their backup singers. They were our backup band.
But you stayed with the same folks throughout that?
Yes, it’s always been Parliament Funkadelic.
Did you find having so many talented artists with so many creative ideas overwhelming at times, or would you attribute P-Funk’s incredible, original sound to all of that power?
Yeah, well it attracted musicians. A lot of them grew up in there, become great within the group, and then ventured out. Everybody always come back. They grew up, and they advanced. It’s a movement, not just a group, not just a band.
Did the birth of the digital age drastically affect your sound?
It just made it where it was all over the world. You could download it everywhere. You know, it made it more accessible to the whole planet. So, instead of being one nation under a groove, it’s one planet under a groove.
Ha, yes! Who are you listening to these days?
Oh, you know. The Kendrick Lamars, and pretty much everything that’s going on. I try to keep my ear to the YouTube. That’s where the new shit is at, on the YouTube. Everything brand new. I don’t even know half of the names. My grandkids be telling me, “This is the one. Check this one out. Check that one out.” Sooner or later, they be right.
Do you find that it’s mostly hip-hop?
Everything. Because I’m like this. I’m a songwriter first, so anything that works, I like.
How did it feel to receive an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2012?
Oh, I felt real good. It was great. I mean, you know, funk getting a doctorate. Yeah, that felt good to get that because I didn’t expect that.
So, it came as a surprise to you?
Yes, you know. I mean, we did a lot of crazy things, but I guess a lot of people paid attention to the stuff we were doing.
You’ve said that one of the most important reasons behind the release of your memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You, was to shed light on the inconsistencies in copyright and sampling laws. Why did you wait until you were sixty years deep in a successful career to share your story with the world?
Well, first of all, I had to get rid of a crack habit that I had the majority of those years to even get the energy to think I could do it or make a difference. So, once I did that, about five years ago, I started focusing on accumulating all of the stuff that was going on. ‘Cause it’s not just one or two songs that I’m talking about.
It’s a history of all that music that’s the representative of that music as the mothership going into the Smithsonian at the end of this year, beginning of next year. And all the music that’s been out for the last twenty-five to thirty years, that’s been based on that. Not all of it, but most of it, has been based on samples from those songs.
So, I think the songs deserve the credit of being looked after. At least I put all of the energy that I could into straightening out what they had taken advantage of when we were into other things and not paying attention to the music. That’s what happens when you get that way. That’s why you call it “fucked up” – you do fucked up shit, and people fuck over you. So, all I could do was clean up and then try to straighten out what happened.
And I’m doing that. It gave me energy at seventy-three years old. It gave me energy to write new songs for the album that was thirty-three songs and to do the book. I wasn’t gonna let this be another, you know, story where they say, “What happened to him?” You know, when they give those shows on TV.
The Where Are They Now series?
Yes. Where Are They Now? They did one on us, and I vowed not to let that be the last thing they said.
Are you pleased with the book’s success?
Oh, yes. I mean, right now, they signed a ban, and they’re suing me for writing it, and you can’t find it nowhere. I’m scared that they have got some kind of injunction or something on it. I know they’re suing me for telling the truth, so it obviously made them mad.
Well, I’m glad I got my copy. When were you approached to join the SummerStage 2015 lineup?
I’m not sure. You know, my office just told me that that’s what’s happening.
They were like, “Hey, you’re playing July 15 in Queensbridge.”
Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went down.
What can fans expect from your set on July 15?
Oh, we’re gonna tear the place up. We’re gonna tear the place up. I mean, that’s what we do. We do that.
Nice, so the whole group’s gonna be there?
Mr. Clinton, is there anything else that you want to add or promote?
No, but have them check out www.flashlight2013.com, and tune into that.