On Halloween 1976, a spaceship descended on the stage of a Houston sports arena in front of 15,000 people. When the smoke and sparks cleared, a figure calling himself Dr Funkenstein – dressed all in fur with a pair of shades – stepped out to the sound of P-Funk: a psychedelic mix of rock and soul played by incredible musicians in ridiculous costumes.
Dr Funkenstein and the Mothership (a stage prop constructed from a blockbuster budget) sprang from the otherworldly imagination of bandleader, songwriter and producer George Clinton.
P-Funk was conceived as “pirate radio from outer space” but its blend of all-out partying and social empowerment evolved into a way of life. Through elaborate artwork, sci-fi mythology and slang that sounded like a cosmic Dr Seuss, Clinton’s Afrofuturist universe offered young black audiences an uplifting escape from everyday struggle.
But that vision had a practical strategy behind it too. Rather than just start a band, Clinton formed a collective whose various projects could be released through different labels at a prolific pace. That made for maximum impact in the short-term (mainly through the success of Parliament and Funkadelic) but by the 1980s, after a decade of hits, the dynamic burned out amid legal entanglements.
Then, as sampling took off, the biggest names in hip hop began to reappropriate Clinton’s sound. It gave P-Funk a new lease of life that continues to resonate, inspiring collaborations with contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and Flying Lotus.
Today the P-Funk Mothership rests in the Smithsonian collection as a symbol of African-American culture. George Clinton, meanwhile, is still out on tour: preparing Medicaid Fraud Dog – the first Parliament album in 38 years – and throwing P-Funk parties around the world.
In conversation, the 77-year-old sounds like someone who has seen and heard it all… because he has. The further you delve into his experiences – punctuated with mischievous chuckles and hoots of laughter – the harder it is to believe that they all belong to one life.
Richard Pryor used to joke about how the sci-fi world never represented black people. But your music and the mythology behind it changed that. At the time, did it feel like you were part of a countercultural movement?
I knew it was countercultural but I didn’t know it could be successful because those kind of ideas weren’t accepted. We had just become ‘black and proud’ and people were still getting accustomed to that. Then I saw places like New Jersey voting in black mayors, I saw that D.C. had a 70 per cent black population – so I took that idea and just rode it all the way to outer space.
You’ve said that when Bob Marley blended music with activism, speaking up about matters of consequence, you feared for his safety. So what made you feel safe as an artist tackling issues like war and brotherhood?
Well, it was the humour of it; it was just simply asking ‘What if?’ I wasn’t trying to start a specific movement where people follow me. I ain’t no guru. I wouldn’t follow me nowhere; I was always high as hell! [laughs] We played so crazy that we didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of politicised figures. Instead it was about having fun through music and giving people food for thought at the same time.
You’ve worked with some incredible talents and huge personalities in big numbers. How have you managed to keep the circus going?
Oh, I don’t know. I never stopped to figure that shit out! [laughs]
Well, were there any rules?
No! I did my part and everybody else was expected to do theirs. And if they’re down for doing that, we have a good thing going. Easy. If we can’t get along, that’s fucked up for both of us. You also have to remember that when Fred [Wesley], Maceo [Parker] and Bootsy [Collins] came in from James Brown’s band, they were so organised that they were able to help us. The closest thing to a rule was not letting talent outta the room!
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Gettin’ paid. [laughs]
How much money do you think you’ve lost to the record business over the years?
Honestly? Probably half a billion dollars.
It sounds like you’ve been through all sorts of battles to regain ownership of your music, but what did it feel like when people started recycling your work into hits?
I never had a problem with the artists. It was the record companies, the publishing houses and the system itself. It’s crazy; you can’t even find out what you’re owed. I’m actually making a documentary about it so people can see that side of the story.
When Dr Dre pioneered the ‘G-Funk’ sound of gangsta rap, he hired musicians to reproduce your work. How did you feel about that?
Dre did it both ways: mixing samples with live instrumentation. When a publisher made it hard for him, he did what anyone would do: record it yourself. And that’s where the word ‘interpolation’ first appeared on the scene. People tried to sue him and other artists a thousand times on my ‘behalf’. Not me.
What impact did Motown have on your approach to making music?
Oh damn, that’s where I learned everything: producing, arranging, promoting. It all derived from being at Motown and getting my start as a songwriter in the Brill Building in New York. That’s where I got the idea of creating a big musical family of different producers and musicians. You could write songs for any type of emotion and have all sorts of artists perform them.
But to go from that to dreaming up characters like Sir Nose, Dr Funkenstein and Mr Wiggles… I’m sure those people in the Brill Building would have thought that was crazy stuff.
[laughs] Well, I’m from the same generation as Pink Floyd and the Beatles, who also thought in terms of big theatrical productions where you didn’t necessarily have to go from point A to point B. Exploring my own cartoon world came natural to me. And what I realised was that artists don’t last forever, but characters do. That’s why Funkadelic and Parliament were both thought of as ‘brands’ long ago. We even called [1978 album] Motor Booty Affair a ‘motion picture underwater’. Everything was imagined as entertainment on a grand scale – and we did it all ourselves.
How did LSD affect your creativity?
It was definitely coloured by LSD and whatever trendy chemical substances were about. Yes! It was travel for the mind, turning my attention from doo-wop to rock’n’roll to experiments in all different kinds of music and just life itself. It definitely changes more than your mood. Heh heh!
Of all the famous P-Funk fans, which one came as the biggest surprise?
Wow, I haven’t even thought about that. [long pause] I guess, lately, Denzel [Washington]. He knows lyrics to shit I don’t even remember. Some people have really paid close attention to the stuff we put out. Once Samuel L. Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx all argued over who was the biggest P-Funk expert. So that was a surprise. [laughs]
How have you changed as a person over the years?
Oooh… I went through phases. I got lazy and tired for a minute. But I’m back to feeling like I’m ready to jump all over shit now. That comes and goes with the decades: I slow down on inspiration intake and then speed back up. But I think I’m pretty tempered on everything else. Once I stopped doing drugs, everything else became normal and calm.
I understand that you’d been smoking crack up until relatively recently.
Yeah, I couldn’t stop. The best advice ever given to me was: ‘Don’t fuck with crack.’ And I didn’t take it. [laughs] Back in ’79, it seemed just like cocaine… and it took me 30 years to realise, nuh-uh, it ain’t the same! During that whole Contra era, it was so easy to get – it was there for everybody. I was one of the earliest [users], so it wasn’t a case of learning from others’ mistakes. When you’re one of them, that’s just what time it is… until you find someone who can help get you off.
What was your wildest experience on stage?
Oh, there were a lot of those. [laughs] One time, the Mothership landed on stage in Washington D.C. and Sly [Stone] came out. He hadn’t played in years, so while he was standing there in front of people screaming, I came out right behind him – buck naked.
You could have got arrested for that…
Oh, they would have tried. I did it for a few shows after that! [laughs]
You and Sly are still close friends. What would you say you’ve learned from each other?
Lots of musical things and just a lot of jokes and gettin’ high! Other than that, we mostly have different ways of lookin’ at shit, believe it or not.
What about your relationship with Prince? People seemed to think he could be tough to work with. Yet you two had a long, productive relationship…
I didn’t fuck with him unless we had something to do together. I respected his style – specific, quiet, done his own way – and he respected mine. We just trusted each other like that. He had an ability to arrange things in his mind exactly as he wanted. To me, that made him easy to work with.
Out of all your encounters with musicians, the one that sticks out is you and Bootsy Collins having a possible UFO experience…
Oh yeah, that was in Toronto. We had seen some kind of light darting around before it hit the car and splattered – like mercury out of a thermometer – and ran all down the side. We weren’t high, because we had just crossed the border. It went from being morning time, on a four-hour trip, to all the street lights going on. We arrived at my house in Detroit just as my kids were going to bed. We didn’t realise it then, but we lost time that day. It tooks us years to piece that together.
Have you ever had any experiences with the paranormal?
Heh heh… nah! I probably didn’t call them ghosts but I saw every kind of fuckin’ thing when I was trippin’. [laughs] It was all too friendly to be thought of as paranormal.
What are your favourite memories of your pet piglet, Officer Dibbles?
Aw, shit. The way he would curtsy. He would run to the phone when it rang, knock it over and grunt at it. [laughs] He loved to watch Arnold the pig in [US sitcom] Green Acres.
Before you were doing music full-time, you ran a barbershop where you once bought over a million dollars in counterfeit money from some scared kids for $2,000…
We had to make it look used, so we crumpled it up, dipped it in coffee and then dried it. We furnished the barbershop with new gear; we passed it out around the community; we paid for studio time and cut a lot of records too. I would tell people it was counterfeit and just give them twice as much. [laughs] Then it was up to them to get rid of it. Once the police became aware, we threw the rest of it away – about $200,000 at that point.
A lot of people admire you for being a fearless innovator. Have you ever struggled with insecurity?
Only in the courtroom. When you’re going up against big corporations and fighting for something worthwhile, they’re not going to give up easily. That will make anyone anxious; doesn’t matter who you are. But in a way it’s helped me reinvent myself.
One thing that gets me going is fightin’ for copyright; not just for me but my heirs and my bandmates. They need that legacy to survive. All I have to do now is represent the music I’ve written, keep the group alive and fight back to relevancy. That gives me the energy to prove what I have to prove.
Why do you think funk music continues to endure and inspire 50 years later?
Funk is the DNA of booty movin’ music. Sly calls it ‘the long tail’ effect. You can find it in electronica, hip hop or plain ol’ rock’n’roll. It’ll be around forever, just like classical music. But it seemed the least likely to have that impact at the time. Musicians would say, ‘Oh, it’s funky’ – lookin’ down their noses at it. And I wanted it to be so relevant that you have to look up to it. I think we’ve succeeded in doing that.
From your perspective, what’s the thread that connects you to contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar?
With Kendrick, he’s crazy in the same way he explores ideas in his music. We had conversations during the making of ‘Wesley’s Theory’ [on How to Pimp a Butterfly] and I was just in awe of what he’s doing right now. And Childish Gambino is creative in all kinds of ways. So yeah, I’m proud of that.
How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t care, once I get outta here! [laughs] But as I say, I’ve fought hard for intellectual property. It really only started in the ’50s, when rock’n’roll got popular, so they’re still defining these concepts. We gotta put our claim in, otherwise it’ll be just like the 1800s when slaves were told, ‘You won’t be able to keep your land.’
What is the biggest misconception about you personally?
Probably that I’m a nice, nice guy. I get pissed just like anyone else and would love to kick the shit out of motherfuckers. [laughs] Oh, hell yeah! But in reality, I know you can’t do that. Just like you can’t post shit on your computer and think it goes away. You can’t take those things back. But you think about it!
But what kind of thing would piss you off?
Oh, I don’t even want to entertain it…
Well, what advice would you have for someone just starting today?
Do the best you can – and then funk it. Once you know you’ve done that, it’ll be alright. Leave it alone; don’t go crazy. The psychological world is just as dangerous as all the other shit.