In the world of funk, no one has created a larger roster of musicians and imparted more myth and mystique to his band than George Clinton. From his start as a singer in the doo-wop (and later, funk) band the Parliaments to the leader of a group of bands that has collectively released over 50 records, Clinton has created a virtual funk empire that even in its off years commanded fanatical devotion to thousands of Funkateers. Clinton has had a hand in records by the Parliaments, Funkadelic, Parliament, The Horny Horns (Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, formerly the J.B. Horns with James Brown), Bootsy’s Rubber Band (by bassist Bootsy Collins, also a former member of James Brown’s Band), Parlet, The Brides of Funkenstein, Sweat Band, and solo records by guitarist Eddie Hazel and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. The Parliament-Funkadelic concerts of the mid-’70s, with huge stage shows including giant props, zany characters from P-Funk mythology and a huge number of musicians playing marathon sets are now legendary.
With the release of a new record, The Awesome Power Of A Fully Operational Mothership, Clinton has launched a new spaceship and tour with members of the old P-Funk mob, who in recent years have devoted their time to solo projects. The first two shows of the “Mothership Reconnection” tour happened in New York’s Central Park on July 4 and 5, and featured, in addition to the new Mothership prop, former bandmates Collins and Worrell; as Clinton explained during his conversation with OffBeat, those shows were just the beginning. P-Funk returns to New Orleans on September 11 at Tipitina’s, and Clinton took some time before heading to Europe for a P-Funk gig in Amsterdam to discuss the Central Park shows, the future of P-Funk, some of his musical history, why the band loves New Orleans so much, and a bit about aliens, spaceships and sexual relations between cartoon characters.
So how were the New York shows? Did those go over pretty well?
Oh, great. Got the Mothership started again. Well, you know, the last time we launched the Mothership was in New Orleans—we launched the spaceship from New Orleans, the first time, back in ’76. This time we did it in Central Park, and it was happening.
Good crowd out there?
Oh, yeah. Most of them stayed for the whole weekend and came to both shows. I didn’t realize there were that many people in town. The hotels said that as many people or more people were outside the concert, just in the park cookin’ and campin’ and listening to the music from outside the little fenced-in part.
So Central Park was overrun by Funkateers.
Funkateers, spaceships were flying around—someone had remote-controlled…somethings flying around. Everybody thought we did it, but it wasn’t us. But them things flying around—we said, “Wait a minute, they really are here.” Everybody was pointing up during the show, pointing up in to the skies and these things were flying around; nobody ever did figure out what they were. I’m thinking someone had some remote controlled things ’cause they were there both nights.
You don’t think they were real spaceships?
No, it was too convenient, you know what I’m sayin’? They knew what songs to come around on—it wasn’t none of our boys [laughs]. It was just a little too convenient.
So how did it feel to come out of that Mothership again after so many years?
Oh, man, it felt so good. It’s a brand-new one—even though the place was small, the hanging points were small, it worked really good. People were jumping up saying, “I believe, I believe!” It was fun, though, we had the whole band up there tryin’ to get used to each other again after all these years. The crowd was, like, kids all the way up to sixty years old. You had all the old Funkateers and then you had all the younger hip-hoppers there.
Yeah, there’s a big new wave of funk fans out there. Every time you’ve come down and played Tip’s recently you’ve packed the place.
Oh, Tipitina’s? Yeah, that’s a vibe, too. That’s almost like playing the Sugar Shack, in Boston, back in the ’70s. You know, people will be outside jammin’. There are a lot of clubs we play that are pretty funky, but Tipitina’s is probably the deepest. Plus, at Tipitina’s you can start at 1 and play until the daylight. And I think we play the longest shows there of any club. The last time we were there we were outside after the show waiting on the busses to come and everyone was still out there jammin’ in the streets. The hotel we were staying at the last time had all these Deadheads and people who worship the spaceships, waiting on them to come. There were a whole bunch of them at the hotel and when I came in they all started bowing. I said, “Oh, no, I ain’t him. I just hang out with him [laughs].” I love playing Tip’s, it’s like the old school places to play where you can play all night and play anything you want to play.
So what are you up to right now? You’re heading over to Europe to do some shows?
Yeah, we’re going over to Sweden to play a really big festival. There are some places over there, like in Amsterdam, where we can play all night, and they’re pretty wild. The crowds over there know every song we’ve ever made. They know all about New Orleans music, all the D.C. hip-hop bands, even ones that don’t have any records out. But the big thing over there is live records. The people who put on the shows or even the artists themselves tape the shows and sell ’em right after the show on the way out. Maceo did that last time he was over in Europe.
What are the plans for all the old P-Funk players? Any plans to play with Maceo again?
Oh, yeah. Whenever we’re in town together he jumps up with us. In fact that happened the last time we were in Amsterdam. Before you know it we’ll have everybody up there. As soon as we get the whole show on the road you’ll see them all up there. Right now I’m just trying to foot the bill for everybody so the people will know that they’re still around. My band is just growin’ and growin’. There ain’t no stopping—whether there’s a hit record or not, there’s no stopping. The band right now is starting to see that this is a good job, at the worst. Now they can play and not worry about how long we’re going to be doin’ it, and everybody’s getting comfortable.
For those readers who don’t know the whole history of P-Funk, can you run down the basics?
It started in 1956 with the Parliaments, first record in ’57, first hit record in ’67. We went to Motown in ’62 and worked there for a while. We got our first record that became a hit, “I Want To Testify,” out on a small label in Detroit. We couldn’t use the name “Parliaments” for a couple of years and we’d named our back-up band Funkadelic, so we became their back-up singers. Then we got the Parliament name back in ’69. We made Funkadelic records all through the early ’70s—Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, Cosmic Slop. Then we got our first really big record (Mothership Connection) in ’76, after having done Chocolate City and Up for the Downstroke with Bootsy and them who had come from James Brown’s band. In ’75 we got Maceo and Fred. So in the mid ’70s we were doing records for Bootsy, Funkadelic, Parliament, and the Horny Horns. We toured the Mothership around that time, then in ’78 we also started recording the Brides of Funkenstein and the Parlets, who were all female back-up singers.
We rolled it right on into ’81 and took a little break right then—call it our planned obsolescence. Then we tried to sneak back in with Atomic Dog in ’82 or ’83, somewhere around in there. The record broke really big but they were sayin’, “No, your time ain’t up yet, go back into obsolescence [laughs].” So every couple of years we’d come out with a new record. I did a couple of records with Prince on the Paisley Park label, the last being Hey, Man, Smell My Finger, in ’92. That one was breaking and then the company folded. And now I’ve got The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership out on Sony. That one’s working now, so I went on into debt to get a spaceship. I wasn’t going to wait for the hit record, just like I didn’t wait for the hit record to go on the road. I don’t believe it, but we got it [laughs]. Now we’re on the road and we got this whole new following, with the Lollapalooza shows [in 1994] we did and the P.C.U. movie, and all the hip-hoppers sampling the music—we’ve got a whole new audience we didn’t have before, so it’s a brand-new old thing.
How do you feel about all the sampling that rap and hip-hop bands do of your music?
That’s what kept us alive.
So you have no problem with that.
No, no, I have no problem with that. Without the sampling I don’t think we could have stayed around in any kind of way. That itself helped create revenue for the band. Even though the record companies wouldn’t give us money for the music being sampled, BMI would give us money for the record being played on the air.
You think right now is the time for P-Funk to really hit it big?
Without a doubt. There’s no question about that. I was saying twenty years ago, back in Creem magazine, that it would take this long for our stuff to catch on. Since we were waiting on it, it was easy for us to get going again. With this Internet stuff and all that, we’re right for all the media out there. We’re working on our own Web page right now where all the people who played in the band over the years will tell their own little story. We’re going to have everybody’s opinion on it, pro, con and otherwise. A lot of the stuff we did back then, we were out of our minds when we were doing it, so it’s like, “What do you remember about it?”
Your new record sounds more contemporary than the old-school Parliament stuff like Motor Booty Affair. Have you ever thought about doing a record with more of that vibe, or would that just be step backward?
No, there’s definitely a place for it, and when I get a deal for Parliament-Funkadelic, we’ll do a Parliament record or a Funkadelic record, and it’ll work. The concepts are all still there, Sir Nose [Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, Starchild’s nemesis who swore never to dance] is waitin’, and that’s why I’m using the Mothership concept, just to keep people abreast that all the old stuff is still there.
Speaking of Sir Nose, how did the whole P-Funk mythology evolve? Was that planned out all along?
Yeah, you know, I saw Sgt. Pepper and Tommy and I realized that characters stay around longer than people do, so I created Sir Nose, Starchild and Dr. Funkenstein. They’re like Mickey Mouse, they change with the times. People get old and unsexy and all that shit, but characters don’t go through any of that shit. Cartoon characters ain’t getting no pussy, anyway [laughs].
You don’t think Mickey and Minnie are gettin’ it on?
Oh I’m sure they did, but they’re using protection ’cause there are no babies runnin’ around [laughs]. And Donald only had nephews, so he wasn’t gettin’ none, neither.
Well Donald’s brother must be getting’ some, though.
Is that what it is? I always wondered who was the parents of that shit [laughs].
So is funk really a message from outer space?
I’m sure it’s comin’ over the right frequency. I try to take it lightly, but since all this stuff the band is doing is working, I’m sure somebody’s in touch with us. Like with the Mothership landing on Independence Day? We had no idea about that movie; we had the show planned since November of last year. And not only that, but the Roswell Incident happened on the fourth of July in 1947. That movie was about a real thing. There was a spaceship that went down in ’47 but they kept it quiet for years and years and they’re starting to let all the information about it out. It definitely was something else.
So what about you, have you ever had any close encounters?
Oh yeah, Bootsy and I went driving around up in Toronto and we saw something. It was so unexplainable that we didn’t bother to talk about it—we just sat there and said, “What the fuck was that?” It was like this light that came straight out of the sky and hit the car. It beaded up like oil in water, or mercury in a thermometer, and rolled off the car. All the street lights were out for about eight or nine blocks, and we just tried to get down where the street lights were still on ’cause we didn’t know what the fuck it was. We didn’t even talk about, we just sat in the car for hours not saying anything.
There was no answer for it, so I didn’t even want to question it, Yeah, I’m sure that came from up there.
Any last words for the funkateers?
Free your mind and your ass will follow, ain’t nothing good unless you play with it, and I promise to funk, I promise to keep this promise and you will keep the funk. And they will all have fun at the party.