GETTING THE PARTY STARTED
George Clinton on Industry ‘Mobsters’ and How Nobody Wants to Listen to a Crackhead
Legendary musician George Clinton on his long-running copyright battle against ‘mobsters’ in the industry, why he’s sober now, and how he was always concerned for Bob Marley’s life.
Legendary musician George Clinton is having the time of his life. And why shouldn’t he? Beginning in the 1970s, Clinton forever altered the pop-culture landscape—and shook up the Billboard charts with a stream of hit singles (“Flash Light” and “One Nation Under The Groove,” among them)—as the colorful frontman of iconic funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic. And he did so while spearheading an eclectic movement that invented a language all its own (Funkentelechy, anyone?) and influencing many recording artists (as in, everyone from Prince and Snoop Dogg to Janelle Monáe.)
These days, 73-year-old Clinton is in high demand. And he’s likely to pop up just about anywhere. (Bill Murray, you’ve finally met your match.) On The Tonight Show recently, Clinton was jamming alongside Questlove and The Roots. And when the rapper Kendrick Lamar released a video last week for his bouncy new single “i”—there was Clinton again, making a groovy cameo in the clip. Meanwhile, he’s just released his long-awaited memoir: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? With plans-in-the-works to tour and release Funkadelic’s first studio album in three decades, Clinton sounds like a man who is only just beginning to get the party started.
The Daily Beast spoke to Clinton about his new book, his long-running battle to own his music catalog, and why he long feared for Bob Marley’s life. Edited excerpts:
You’ve kept many of these stories to yourself over the years. What was the process like in tracing through these memories?
I said it before and I’ll say it again—if it wasn’t for “Flash Light,” I would have no memory at all. But once you get into the process and start to recall things, then it sparks memories of the journey, especially now that the book is finished. Now I’m seeing some of the faces of people who had been there during that time. They’re showing up, everywhere. And you’d be surprised how close they are to you. It’s really a small country. So this is fun right now.
In the book, you say this of Parliament: “We were too white for black folks, and too black for white folks. We were a source of confusion and that’s exactly how we wanted it.” Can you elaborate?
We were an R&B band, making psychedelic music for black folks—which they weren’t used to. We weren’t white. We were a black rock ’n’ roll band. So we were too black for the white stations to play our rock songs and we were too white for black folks. But the band grew and grew and we were a force to be reckoned with as a concept. And we stuck to that. All we had to do was picture being funky and say it out loud, no matter which side of it we were on—whether it was R&B or psychedelic. So we ended up with two groups. Call it P-Funk. Parliament had the horns and Funkadelic had the loud guitars, but we were just telling our stories.
There’s a replica of the Mothership heading to the Smithsonian Institution?
Right. It’s going into the African-American wing of the Smithsonian, which should open next year. They’re putting the Mothership up there, right next to the Tuskegee Airmen.
You must be overwhelmed by the news.
I am. But it reminds me that for the Mothership to be so important, that’s why we’re fightin’ so hard on this copyright issue ’cause I think it would be a disrespect to the music for people to try and steal the copyright. All the stories in the book are true and they’re a part of my life, but page 379 is the reason why I wrote the book (NOTE: page 379 has an affidavit from a former Bridgeport Music administrator alleging that the label fraudulently obtained copyrights to Parliament and Funkadelic’s music.)
What is the status of your case now?
We have a website that has the whole history of the case. We’ve been petitioning the California attorney general, the Justice Department, and everybody else because we can’t even get to the regular courts to prove a conspiracy of the highest order. There’s over 700 field documents pertaining to the royalties for all members of the group. We’re trying to get those documents open. All of them. Everybody is paying attention to it now. It’s not just me talking ’cause this is happening to most artists who don’t know anything about this new concept of digital music, copyrights and all of that. It’s brand new.
Some of the former record executives at the labels that distributed your music say that your case lacks merit because you were issued advances against future royalties and signed away your claim to the copyright.
There’s no place for them to go in reality. They can’t say I signed something that I didn’t. They didn’t get it clean enough. And I’m not gonna stop fighting to prove it. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. They were never looking to pay any royalties ’cause now they’re saying that they expected us to work for hire. That doesn’t make any sense.
You’ve been very outspoken over the years about drugs and how you believed that it fueled some of your artistic work. Now you’re just as vocal about being clean. What’s changed?
Just seeing how a sophisticated team of accountants, lawyers, and record labels were handling samples under the table and trying to cheat all of the members of the group on the publishing and copyright. They were linked together in this. We all knew there were mobsters in the record industry, but this is some very serious underworld stuff. I have no problem with the artists sampling. This is about what the labels were doing and are still doing. All of this is becoming clear to me now. But I had to get clean to even talk about it because nobody wants to listen to a crackhead.
What is your view on the state of the music business today?
It ain’t no different than it was before, coming from vinyls to CDs. It’s just that now you can download it. You just gotta figure out a way to let people hear what you doin’. You can download new songs from my book. And I’m hoping that will at least give me some new ways of being heard. It’s hard to get on the radio. Like in the ’60s, if you were underground then you couldn’t get on a Top-40 station. So with funk, we have to bring it any way that we can.
You have children and grandchildren. Have you ever sat and watched some of the concert footage of Parliament and Funkadelic that routinely appears on YouTube?
Oh yes, I love it. My grandkids always show me what’s up. I’ve seen most of the ones that are up there. We were pretty hot back then and it still holds up today.
In the book, you say “Absorb youth and you will be absorbed by youth.” Talk about how you’ve managed to stay relevant to so many generations.
The key is that each time you hear some new music that gets on your nerves, recognize that it’s something that you need to be paying attention to. That’s the music that’s getting ready to take your place. But as soon as you get past that and accept what they’re doing and say, ‘OK, let me see what it is that they’re doing,’ then you’ll get it. You just have to find your space within it.
You were concerned for Bob Marley’s life long before he was shot and wounded in 1976. Why?
Yeah, having a microphone and so many people under your control always frightened me. When I started seeing how big the crowds were getting as opposed to little clubs, I was scared of the power of the microphone and being the spokesperson. And that’s what Bob had. I was trying not to endorse an ideology. I was always trying to make a joke out of it so I didn’t have to be responsible for nothing. All I wanted people to do was think. Think. And think. That’s all I would say. I wasn’t trying to be in control of the audience in no other way than to be a DJ on the stage. Let’s have a party.
Tell us about the new album that you’re working on.
It’s called First You Gotta Shake the Gate. And it’s got 33 songs on it. It’s been 33 years since a legitimate Funkadelic record, The Electric Spanking of the War Babies, has been out. A lot of it is from the band, but I also have everybody from my kids and grandkids to Sly Stone, Kim Burrell and El DeBarge on there. It’s a package.
A lot of veteran artists say that the hardest part of the job is touring. Why are you still on the road so much?
‘Cause I got a booty. That speaks for itself.