After more than fifty years in the music business, George Clinton is taking one last touring lap before saying goodbye to the road. His sense of rhythm, funk and beats set the foundation for the explosion of rap and hip-hop and every band that has tried to blend the two in the last thirty-plus years. Before he sets off on a nationwide tour that will last most of the summer, The Godfather of Funk took some time out of his busy schedule to chat about Star Trek, playing baseball with Dionne Warwick, the state of the funk reserves in America and his willingness to twist Bootsy Collins’ arm for one last appearance in Cincinnati.
You’re just starting your 3-month farewell tour and opening night is tomorrow in Milwaukee. How are you feeling on the eve of your last big tour?
I’m feeling great, I’m feeling great! I’m ready for it. We’ve been off for like three weeks. We’ve been touring for the last two years, we pretty much never stop. So, we just took three weeks off. But I’m ready for it. Got the new video finished and everything is set.
It’s going to be an endurance tour, I think- touring the whole summer. But it’s exciting – you’re coming here to Cincinnati in a few days. I want to talk to you about that in a minute. My first clear memory of Funkadelic is from my teenage years. I grew up near Cleveland and my friends and I would be riding around and at 1:30 a.m. (late Saturday/early Sunday morning), and there was a DJ that always played “Maggot Brain” on (radio station) WMMS and I remember hearing that the first time thinking, “What is this and who is the mad genius that dreamed this thing up?”. I’d never heard anything like it and I still don’t think I have. It’s a beautiful piece of music. It’s simultaneously scary and electric and painful and wonderful [George laughs]. How in the world did you ever convince anybody to release a 10- minute instrumental as the lead title track of an album? And how did you convince people to do that album cover [featuring a photo of a woman buried neck deep in the ground]. Did people think you were off the rails?
[Laughing] We were pretty much off the rail by then for real. After we did “Music for My Mother and “Free Your Mind” we had set the stage for being off the rail because I realized that then keeping up with the top 40 was going to be hard- harder than it needed to be when you can do an album of long songs and music - and it became underground. It became what the FM stations played. You know, only Jimi Hendrix and certain underground groups could get on the FM stations. The top 40s couldn’t even get on there. I thought that would be a better shot after seeing how hard it was to keep up with the top 40 thing. I went for the album cuts which were long and musical and concepts. So, when I did “Maggot Brain,” I thought Eddie (Hazel) played really good guitar. You know, like Jimi Hendrix. He was really young. And I took advantage of, you know, him having that shot. We’d just had a hit record with “(I Wanna) Testify”. Trying to do that again and being on a label like Motown which had the power to push you through... I don’t care how good the music was, you might not get to hear the second follow up. So, I didn’t even try to do a second follow up. I thought it was gonna be too hard to get things into rotation. But being psychedelic like we were – there wasn’t many black groups doing that – wasn’t any that I knew of- and we just went on and stretched out doing it. It took a long time, but we were an underground group for a long time and “Maggot Brain” was like the primo of that concept. He [ Eddie Hazel] played the hell out of that song. That’s why I took all the other instruments off. ‘Cause he was playing so good on the guitar, the drums and bass made it sound too much like a normal record.
It’s extraordinary. I saw one writer compare it to John Coltrane and I think that’s not a bad comparison.
Comparing it to John Coltrane? [chuckles]
Yeah, to (parts of) A Love Supreme, kind of that type of long elegiac piece. That’s pretty great company to be in.
Thanks, that’s deep- that’s deep because I’ve been playing with one of John Coltrane’s great nephews…great- great nephews, Flying Lotus [Laughs]. [Flying Lotus is the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s wife and will be appearing at Madison Theater on September 5, 2019].
We talked about your psychedelic style, one of the things that intrigues me is that you’ve always had your own unique visual style and sense of humor that comes through in your music. I would say in particular, that kind of Sci-Fi influence and look [from the early ‘70s]. And this was a few years before say Star Wars or Close Encounters really made Sci-Fi mainstream. David Bowie was playing around with Ziggy Stardust with a bit of the same vibe, but you had your own unique take on it. I’m really curious how that came about.
It was actually, it was actually Star Trek.
Star Trek? [laughing]
It was actually Star Trek and mixing that with a couple of gospel groups that I knew in Jersey -who was not a group, they were not a full choir because there were seven of them. But they had a movement called the Gospel Clefs. They had like a movement, like, they followed a movement. So, I mixed that with the Sci-Fi and our band members they all liked singing gospel. They liked singing gospel. So, mixing that with the psychedelic stuff, you come up with something that people- they don’t know what it is, but they know what they feelin’. They feel the gospel. But then when they look and see, they see the Sci-Fi and space thing and their imagination has to go somewhere else with that. You know, so….
And it’s actually being done in reverse today. You get a lot of gospel people like Kirk Franklin who do not only funk, but Hip-Hop, and he does it better than most [laughs] which gospel is always going to do. They kill that stuff! But when you mix it, especially with Sci-Fi…. I don’t like messing with the underworld, even the imagery- I don’t even... I mean, I play with, you know, “Maggot Brain” or the skull [the back cover of the Maggot Brain album], or something like that, but I don’t play too dark with lyrics or that kind of stuff.
You mentioned going from gospel to funk to hip hop in reverse. I really became aware of your work post- Maggot Brain in the mid/late ‘80s as I heard your influence in groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Bernie Worrel’s work with Talking Heads. So, I kind of came at it backwards from these people that had either worked with you or had been influenced by you or were produced by you. As a white kid it was a blast to discover that music because we weren’t really exposed to it on the radio or TV…
… not like today when you can access everything. And I loved seeing you at Lollapalooza in ’94 tearing it up with Nick Cave and Beastie Boys and L7 and the Breeders. That to me was just extraordinary. And then of course, Snoop and Dre blew your stuff up huge. Did you feel like that era was a turning point where you got a wider audience and maybe a wider recognition?
Well it was another audience. Because we had been there before, you know, earlier. But that was beginning to be, like you say, a wider audience with the Lollapalooza and not only that, working with (talent manager) Shep Gordon at that particular point. So, we were aiming for that wider audience at that point. But then, like you say, Snoop Dogg and them came and widened it unexpectedly – that ended up being pop music. Hip Hop ended up being the pop music of today. So, it’s still, no matter which one of them is doing it – we’re involved in it. The Chili Peppers, we just did a tour with them in Australia. And it was phenomenal, you know, just to see them again. We hadn’t seen them in so many years. We played with them and I worked with them on the Freaky Styley album. We toured Germany together. So just doing that with them recently was like brand new for both of us. You know, there were like 60,000 people – one was a raceway with 90,000 people. Imagine us doing “Give it Away” together. Matter of fact, you can look on YouTube and see-we did that on the Grammys. Doing “Give it Away” when they first went to The Grammys, they called us to come and do it with them. And we did “Give it Away and we did “One Nation”.
Speaking of the Grammys, a couple weeks ago you were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. And you and Black Sabbath, and Dionne Warwick and Julio Iglesias…
…because, you know, that’s a group that I would all put in the same room…
[Laughs] Yeah, you know it’s funny because Dionne and I used to play baseball together, you know, back in the ‘50s [laughs].
So, is there a ceremony like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Did you guys get on stage and jam? Because I would love to see you and Ozzy and Dionne on Walk on Bye. I’d pay huge money for that.
[Laughs] They didn’t get us on stage, but when we went up there, we went offstage [laugh]. We was all off into the audience. I don’t know who all was on that... Sheila E., Bootsy and a whole bunch of people. We was offstage and I was messing around with Sam of Sam and Dave. You know, so it got to be party time. Snoop was mc’ing, so it was something else. But the night before that was…there was Ice Cube, um, what’s his name, the drummer…Anderson…Anderson. Paak, Flea from the Chili Peppers. I mean it was just a room full of musicians and we jammed, we jammed, and we jammed with Ice Cube doing the…Ice Cube bringing “That New Funkadelic”. That’s his new song.
I had this thought – Prince passed away a few years ago. Bootsy just announced he’s retiring. You’re retiring. It feels like American’s funk stockpile is gonna to run dangerously low.
[Laughs] No, oh no, I’m going to still be making music now! I’m going to still be producing the group and the group’ll still be touring.
That’s what I wanted to ask- what’s in your future? Some behind the boards stuff or collaborations?
Any of the new generation you are looking forward to working with? I think I saw you mention Cardi B in one interview.
Oh yeah, but I just did a thing with this album out now with Flying Lotus that just came out. I’ll be working with probably everybody now. You know, ‘cause I’m gonna be out there hustling.
As I mentioned, I’m in Cincinnati and Bootsy is here. I saw him at Branford Marsalis a few weeks ago, he was in the audience.
Tell him to make sure he comes to the show!
That’s what I wanted to ask – odds are decent that he’ll be at the show. Any chance of you twisting his arm to get him on stage one last time?
Tell him I’m gonna twist his arm [laughs]. I’m gonna twist his arm. I’m supposed to see him anyway ‘cause he’s supposed to show me King Records.
Oh yeah, fantastic, hopefully that will get off the ground. He had a restaurant/club downtown for a while and he had a lot of his memorabilia in the lobby and that was great to see.
Yeah, I was down there a couple of times.
Hopefully that will take off because that’s a big legacy obviously with him and James [Brown] and even all the Bluegrass music is such rich history that hopefully we’ll celebrate properly someday. Thank you for the time, I want to wish you the best on your tour and look forward to seeing you in Cincinnati.
Ok, I’ll see you there!
George Clinton’s One Nation Under A Groove Tour stops in Cincinnati on June 1 at Riverfront Live.