- 12 Jul 23
On July 12, 1971, Funkadelic released their iconic third album, Maggot Brain. Produced by the group's leader, George Clinton, it was the last of their LPs to feature the original Funkadelic line-up – and it's since gone on to be considered one of the greatest albums of all time. To celebrate, we're revisiting a classic interview...
Originally published in Hot Press in the late '90s...
GEORGE CLINTON By PETER MURPHY
In the beginning was the word, and the word was da Funk. Deep in the prehistoric bog, two microbes rubbed together, caused some friction, got frisky. They got it on, these little bitty particles, and begat pond slime, which begat fish. Funky fish. So funky they grew legs, crawled ashore and got it on, in broad daylight, on terra firma. Then lizards. Then bipeds. You know the rest. The hipbone connected to the thighbone connected to the… well, the bone.
The cosmic and chronological upshot of all this pelvic activity culminates in one George Clinton, sitting here like PT Barnum in a bashed porkpie hat and peacock tresses, getting ready to ringmaster the Dublin date of a four hour P-Funk All Stars all singing, all dancing extravaganza.
So tell us o shaman of the hip-shake: What is the definition of da Funk?
And George says…
“Anything it need to be whatever need to be that. It morphs into whatever the new era need, whatever the new generation need, it’s the DNA for all that’s here. Look at hip-hop: the DNA for hi-hop is funk.”
So what’s the DNA for funk?
“Funk is the DNA. In blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, it’s the ability to say, ‘Fuck it!” I do the best I can and you got it. Y’all gotta take it from here’.”
Can Da Funk be taught?
“You usually get it when you first start playin’. You lose it through thinkin’ you’re cool as you learn how to play technically. When you first start playin’ that groove, you’re so glad that you got it, you play it forever. And then as you start getting technical ability, it get boring to you. So you have to be able to go back to that no matter what you learn, remember to always keep that in your repertoire. What you first started out doing? That’s valuable. I could play in a gym now with no monitors if I have to. No ’lectrical equipment. And that’s funky.”
We’re sitting here in the Chocolate Bar in Chocolate City (okay, the Red Box, Dublin) with George and his right hand man Billy “Bass” Nelson, an original Funkadelic member from 1966-71 who rejoined the circus in 1994. But hold on just a second; we’re not done with da Funk just yet.
“You gotta be born with it,” George continues, like a big old teddy bear. “It’s like hip-hop. Every nationality have their own ghetto and their own basic language, and that’s the basic (sic) of hip-hop. The heart. The talk you talk in your natural environment, you talk real. That’s the way the funk or any other folk music is. All folk music have funk in it, (whether) you got broke strings, three strings on your guitar…”
Billy Bass: “Even the Irish, you see how they be doin’ that dance they got, where it’s spreading all over the place. You know that dance where they stand up real straight and proper and kick their feet up real high and stuff?”
That’s the first time I ever heard Irish dancing being called funky.
“Well it is!”
George: “Pubs! Pubs has always been funky!”
Talk about getting’ jiggy wid’ it. So folk is funky?
“That’s what made the Beatles so good. They could do everybody’s folk music. They knew all of it: r’n’b, Indian, they had a world receptivity to everything. Put ’em together and that’s a magical mystery tour for real. That’s what I liked about Cream. I learned more about Robert Johnson from Eric Clapton… my mother had all the records at the house, but that was just uncool to me ’cos blues was not (gettin’) pussy: I’d rather get some doo-wop records and sing the songs that get girls.”
Which was where it all started, with doo-wop in Newark, 1956. George Clinton was a Carolina native who moved to the big city to found The Parliaments while under the spell of acts like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Shep and the Limelights, The Dells, The Heartbeats. He maintains the origins of P-Funk were plain to see even then.
“Oh yeah the roots of it was there. ’Cos we’d do a show and if people wasn’t getting’ off, wasn’t jammin’ like they supposed to, we start clownin’ and makin’ ’em shout. If people was too stiff, really cool and dressed up, we’d be, ‘Aw wait a minute, hell no. Gotta jam, gotta party. Get up on the floor, make ’em dance with us. Even though we had suits on, we’d end up takin’ our suits off or somethin’, put a girl’s wig on, somethin’ to make ’em get off, have some fun.”
Back then, Motown was the place to be, and The Parliaments got a deal with a Berry Gordy subsidiary label Revilot. Except things didn’t work out, and contractual obligations necessitated a name-change. Funkadelic was born. This was the late ’60s: the draft, the ’67 riots, proto hip-hop like the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, loud clothes, psychedelics and Hendrix. Over the next decade Clinton would oversee the twin Funkadelic-Parliament aesthetic. The former was a hallucinogenic rock ‘n’ roll trip, the latter a coked up, groove driven thang.
“The album Funkadelic was the beginning of our psychedelic era,” George reflects. “Jimi Hendrix, at that time he was the king of it. I knew him as Jimmy James, and he wasn’t playing like that, he was with King Curtis, went over to England and did that album that he did, Are You Experienced. I was like, ‘Hey shit! He’s doin’ it! As far as that style (is concerned) we was already doing it slightly ourselves anyway – and then Sly (Stone) came along. And we did Funkadelic, and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow was the next one, that was blatantly psychedelic, we just said, ‘Let’s just go all the way crazy’. That was a whole crazy album.”
He’s not kidding. Even today, Free Your Mind’s freaked out phasing and outrageous panning effects sound like some weird amalgam of street funk, space rock and deep dub. It’s hardly any great revelation to learn that hefty amounts of acid were being ingested at this time. George even volunteered as a test student for colleges where they’d scrutinise his behaviour while tripping.
By the late ’60s, Funkadelic had found allies in Detroit, regularly touring with the bad boys of Ann Arbor: Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Iggy, the MC5. It sounds unlikely now, but this was when noise acts like MC5 and the Stooges were more than au fait with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Consequently, the freak flag wavers and White Panthers all went nuts for albums like Maggot Brain. Also, Pedro Bell’s deranged cartoon sleeve designs – coming out of a direct lineage with artists like Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth – had a lot to do with defining the band as a kind of black Grateful Dead, while George’s vocal style on Parliament records drew on the ancestral rap voices of evangelists, DJs, carny barkers and toasters.
“The DJs was being kicked off the radio,” George explains, “it was beginning to get to be all cool, it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, talkin’ shit. We missed that, so we thought we’d put our own DJs on the records. And that was like the birth of hip-hop after that, we was the first ones to call music ‘dope’: ‘Get you hooked on this like dope’. And after that DJs became popular in the clubs, they would talk over the records in the clubs, that’s how they kept you on the dancefloor.”
When Parliament’s Mothership Connection album went gold in 1976, Clinton found that he actually had the funds to finance the kind of day-glo vaudeville he’d always dreamed of. The
show cost half a million dollars to stage, employed a Broadway designer and riggers from Disney On Ice, required seven trucks and Kiss’s rehearsal facility, and featured pyros, bombs, six-foot joints, a strobe light Bop Gun, outrageous costumes, flying guitarists and an honest to god spaceship, on one memorable occasion landing at daybreak in Times Square outside the UN headquarters.
“We was waitin’,” says George, “we’d been plannin’ that since The Who’s Tommy, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Jesus Christ Superstar, we’d been plannin’ to do a funk opera for a long time, so by the time Mothership Connection was a hit record, we put it all together.”
From 1975 to 1980, George’s three-ring circus was one of the hottest arena tickets in the USA, with the Clones Of Dr Funkenstein and One Nation Under A Groove tours establishing new precedents in theatrical silliness.
Obviously it couldn’t last. As the P-Funk operation expanded, it became financially unviable, and many of the mainstays – including unassuming bass wizard Bootsy Collins – split to carve out careers elsewhere. Clinton scored a solo hit with his 1983 album Computer Games, featuring the single ‘Atomic Dog’ but his influence could be felt in acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for whom he produced the seminal Freaky Stylee (“They was just gettin’ started – we always have our hand in something that’s movin’ on up”). Then there was his patronage of emerging rap pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.
“At the same time that they came along it was time for us to go sit down,” Clinton says. “But we didn’t go away, we just… a lot of people thought it was the empire fallin’, but we still building the empire. We ain’t never thought about it as nothin’ but a rest. Y’know, we kept makin’ records.”
Perhaps the most visible inheritor of P-Funk at this time was Prince, who utilised the Duke Ellington-in-space format on his classic Sign O’ The Times and Lovesexy tours.
“Which I hoped for,” George claims. “All the people that worked for us went to work for him when we came off the road, Billy Sparks and the horn section, and now they come back to work for us again. I had a couple of albums out on Paisley Park. But it was time for him to go siddown then! They was tired of him. But he’s survivin’ now underground, like we’re survivin’ underground.”
In more recent times, Clinton has been honoured as a hip-hop godfather and the man who put the juice into gangsta rap. In Death Row’s heyday, Dr Dre souped up the P-Funk blueprint and retitled it G Funk for classics like The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggystyle – ‘Who Am I (What’s My Name?)’ sampled its hook, line and sinker from ‘Atomic Dog’. Even now, you can hear Parliament/Funkadelic all over the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Outkast.
But perhaps the most mind-boggling chapter of the P-Funk saga took place in 1992, when those ‘Paint The White House Black’ prophesies came to pass. There were two Clintons in the house the night George played the president’s inaugural ball.
“I was playin’ ‘Shit! Goddam! Get Off Yo Ass And Jam’,” he chuckles, “and Hillary came up and danced...”
Has George ever considered that the last three American presidents have borne some form of his name?
“Oh yeah, that’s pretty weird. The Bush smoke bush, snort coke, and the Clinton don’t inhale, he get head. So all in all, it seems to be alright.”