"We majored in making people cool," George Clinton said of his first gig cutting fades at a New Jersey barbershop. But throughout his five-decade career, the founder of Parliament/Funkadelic and funk pioneer has been lending cool to fans and peers alike. With his mind-splitting music, ever-evolving style, and shamanistic way with words, Clinton's well aware of his influence, was glad to share game when he sat down for an intimate conversation with Jeff Mao at the Brooklyn Museum for the Red Bull Music Academy. Here's a few of the notes we took, in his words.
You pay attention to the ones that are just getting ready to kick you out. If you can pay attention to them, you'll learn what's getting ready to happen. So you can stay there. You can't hate on them. Cause the minute you hate on them, you actually make them more popular. Anything parents hate, or old musicians hate, that's the next shit.
You can't be corny. You're corny if you start hating on them. I just keep that in my mind, so I feel young just by using the word "corny." I just don't wanna be corny in the eyes of the other kids, not my peers, because they're old like me. I'm looking for my grandkids to tell me what's on YouTube. That's like how I found out about Chief Keef: That's that shit I don't like! That sounds just like what we were doing when we were saying, Shit! Goddamn! Get off your ass and jam!
I love everything on [Kendrick Lamar's] album. Really proud to be a part of it. As a matter of fact, he just did one with me, on my album. He reminds me of when Pac was with Digital Underground. You can see it and you can feel it in you, but you can't put no interpretation on it. They use a term nowadays: "Do you feel me?" "Can you feel me?" Well, all you can do is feel him. And I feel the positive in it. I have no idea how to explain what he's talking about, but he just feel good! You know if your intention is great, it's all that matters.
He came to Tallahassee out in the country and hung out. I thought, to him, that would be pretty boring, but he came and hung out and engaged in conversations that he had no business even knowing anything about. He'd been talking to some people that kept him up on things.
Funk is anything it needed to be to save your life at that time. Do the best you can, and get funking. Once you've done the best you can in any situation, ain't nothing else you can do. So you'll be able to stay funking with out guilt: "I've done the best I can, so now let's get down." And that's the way you apply the music. You look at old Blues players who walk in and start playing. Funky. It don't matter what key it's in, what arrangement. It ain't that deep. Let's just get down.
I don't think I heard it as a genre of music until, you know... Maybe James Brown might have said it. But as a concept, as a genre, we wanted to make it special. It wasn't Blues, jazz or rock & roll—it was something that you heard. Jazz musicians used it, Blues musicians used it, but nobody said "We gonna play the funk." I think that's what I continually wanted to say then, because rock & roll had been changed so thoroughly. Black people didn't know it was theirs. "That's white music," because white stations were playing their version of rock & roll. And we just gave it away. Without Jimi Hendrix, we were going to have no claim to it. He actually single handedly took this shit back. I mean, we really took it back. We were like, "We got another version of that same thing." So we did "Free Your Mind, Your Ass Will Follow." We were tripping our ass off, turned that shit up as loud as we could, all the amps in the world, and we just went off. Because I knew how to make street records. I worked at Motown, and theirs was completely clean and straight. We knew how to do that, but it was time to change. They had all types of names for us: The Temptations on acid, James Brown on PCP.
If you're in a group, everybody is their own person. Everyone wants to do their thing at their pace, when they want to do it, so the best you can do is just do what y'all do, but funk it. Stay with each other, even if you're apart. Work together even if you can't stand each other, because the music deserves to be out there. You might have to wait till you get broke to come back and feel something good, but my thing is, show me a studio. I don't care where it is. I ain't got nothing else to do. I'm not saying you gotta be all goodie goodie—sometimes you gotta put your foot in somebody's ass. But arguing ain't getting no music made.
We got busted enough. When I got ready to change, I did that. I got married. My wife is in the building. I made an album with 33 songs on it. I wrote a book about my life, and I'm just getting started. I had a lot of time on my hands in those days. Believe me, doing that took up a lot of time doing nothing. You just sit around getting high, and you spend a lot of money, and a lot of time. I thought, "Damn if I've spent this kind of time and money on anything, it should really make money." And that's what I did. I started to work on the book, and on the album. It had to make a statement. I needed something to piss me off to make me go again. And since I can't get my drugs, I'm pissed off. So I had to get a new thing to get me interested in taking the time. Now, I go out and feed the birds and shit. Watch the squirrels in the back yard. You know, it's cool, I've always done that, but now I'm aware of it [laughs].
Being at Motown, you thought of James Brown like I thought of my Mother's music. "Yeah, it's got a groove and it's cool, but he ain't writing lyrics." That's the way we thought of it. Especially with the stories that Motown wrote, that was the shit. But when it came time to sample that shit, the first thing [rappers] sampled was [James Brown ad-libs] "MM. GOOD GOD. HEY!" Which let me know he must've been saying something! It must've been a lot of message in that tone. I had to go back and re-evalute what we thought about James. We just thought he could dance and had a tight band, but ain't shit happening. So we took what he was doing, put a little story in there, a little silliness, some soul of the moment, and you had what we called P-Funk. But we didn't have enough sense to realize—"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag"? He meant that shit. It wasn't nothing like that yet.
"We Want The Funk," I was biting off David Bowie. Faaaame! Weeeeee want the funk! I would be sued like Robin Thicke right now. I would be in trouble. Because the beat and the feel—I didn't copy the melody, because if you copy seven notes of the melody, that's what the copyright law is. But the feel. I just added the silent parts that he didn't say. It's the same feel. Of course David Bowie had funk! You don't know David Bowie if you ask whether he had funk.
I bring up the topics for people to think about, I don't try to give them answers. Food for thought. I say things so you think about it, you should think about it, like: "What the fuck is he talking about?" I bring up a lot of things people won't say. I may say "America eats its young." You couldn't say that nowadays. They'd be all over your ass if you said that nowadays. But it needed to be said from somewhere in my head, because I was hearing it from all the other artists we were around and all the kids we were seeing. At any given time, I could be political. It was one thing to have Jimi Hendrix up there by himself with two white boys, but to have ten of us up there doing that, loud as we were doing it? That's a whole another thing for everybody to see. We were too black for white folks, and we were too white for black folks. But the people that liked us, kept multiplying day after day after day.
It was time to change everything. So you might as well just change the way you have to see yourself everyday, too. So I'm like a new person to me. I had to change into something that I knew well. Like I said, we used to make people cool, that's what we did in the barbershop. So I had a pretty good notion of how that works and all the different styles. I could go quickly from hip-hop, to doo-wop, to hippies, to homeless. Don't matter to me. We're just human beings. So I can do a style and don't feel nothing about. I just knew this was one i didn't really have to think about. And it worked good. I like me, too.
I'm always waiting to see what dance they're gonna do, because dance is always changing. But I trust the fact that funk affects the booty. So when I see somebody doing some type of dance, I always try to figure out what groove does it take to make the booty move like that? I'm really a bootyologist. I don't just look at it cause it looks good, but how can I make sure with my music, the booty is at its optimum?
Photo Credit: Red Bull Music Academy