Ahead of his return to Ireland, funk legend George Clinton talks about his friendships with Prince and Kendrick Lamar, why the Trump presidency is on borrowed time and what Obama did right.
George Clinton has spent the past year working through the many stages of grief. He was devestated when Prince, his friend and protege, passed away unexpectedly in April 2016. But time has brought closure and several weeks ago he made a symbolic pilgrimage to the late icon’s Paisley Park complex in Minneapolis.
“I couldn’t deal with it when it first happened,” says Clinton, 75 year-old once and future godfather of funk-pop. “So it was good to go up there and perform. It felt important. I did a concert with [Prince drummer and vocalist] Sheila E. It was fantastic.”
He first crossed paths with Prince in the mid ’70s and was struck by the younger man’s savant-like talents. “You could tell he could play – that he was going to do the business. His whole crew came from our band when he started out. They all worked with us before working with Prince. We used to take his records to all the DJs – so that they would know about this new talent. If you support the up-and-coming artist at the start, later it works to your benefit.”
Clinton remembered that lesson when introduced to an obscure South Central LA rapper several years ago. The kid was raw – but, as with Prince, the talent burned bright. He was also politically outspoken, which reminded Clinton of his younger self.
“Kendrick Lamar has a fresh take on things,” says Clinton, who cuts a notably more engaged figure than when he last spoke to Hot Press a decade ago (he no longer smokes crack or lives out of a Best Western Hotel). “That’s important right now. It’s like the ’60s all over again – we’re back to when the Vietnam War was going on. You need performers who have a world view as to what is happening politically.”
Parallels have been drawn between Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, and Clinton’s 1975 opus Chocolate City. Part of a winning streak of albums put out by Clinton through the ’70s, the record is a valentine to those US conurbations with a black majority population and imagines a fantasy African-American White House, with Muhammad Ali as President, James Brown as Secretary of State and Stevie Wonder as Secretary of Fine Arts.
“All the things we were doing right through in the ’70s – there are similarities with what Kendrick is doing. We need political music. What we really could do with now is a new Public Enemy. History is repeating itself. Trump sounds just like Nixon. And he’s going to be impeached, just like Nixon.”
Clinton, who returns to Dublin for a Vicar Street show on May 16, is a singular figure in African-American music. He didn’t create funk – but, with his bands Funkadelic and Parliament, helped turn it into a cultural juggernaut and a delivery mechanism for strident social views.
Politics was always a driving force. He grew up in New Jersey and spent his adolescence passing through local doo-wop ensembles. That led to a job as songwriter at Motown, from where he launched Parliament and the more rock-orientated Funkadelic .
Initially a contemporary of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, through the ’70s Clinton became increasingly anti-establishment. He has been heralded by The Nation magazine as the African-American Woody Guthrie, with his 1978 smash ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ reading like a manifesto for a post-racial United States. In the ’80s he entered a new phase of his career as father-figure to an emerging generation determined to play by its own rules. They included Prince, Public Enemy and NWA (he and Dr Dre remain close). Kendrick Lamar is part of a proud lineage of artists championed by Clinton.
“I promoted To Pimp Butterfly like it was one of my own albums. It keeps you in touch with the young audience,” says Clinton, “The kids see you’re on it. You know what’s happening and they respect you for that.”
He is set to continue in that vein with a forthcoming new collaboration with Thundercat and Flying Lotus. The record is to be an attack on Big Pharma, which he believes consciously exploits the poor. Clearly Trump could care less about this constituency. Might former President Obama have done more for them?
“He did his best. The Republicans were never going to let it look as if he achieved anything. Their whole strategy was to make it look as if he was a failure. Now people are starting to recognise he did as well as he could.”
Racism, says Clinton, is still very much alive in the United States. What’s changed is that it is nowadays far more insidious. “It’s hidden in the paper work, in the documents, in the way land ownership is structured. And it’s in our copyright laws. It cost me $2 million to get back One Nation Under A Groove. Racism is everywhere in America today.”
George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic plays Vicar St., Dublin on May 16.