George Clinton Talks Keeping Funk Relevant, New Brainfeeder LP

Parliament-Funkadelic legend on why he admires Flying Lotus and Thundercat, how hip-hop saved his career, and what's next


In the final pages of his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?, George Clinton posed a question. "When you don't top the chart anymore, does that mean that everyone's over you?" he wondered. "Or are there other ways to get over?"

Lately he has been busy finding an answer to the second query. In 2014, the legendary artist released a new Funkadelic triple album, First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate – "Thirty-three [songs] was overboard, but I don't regret it," he tells Rolling Stone – and the autobiography; last year, Clinton appeared on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. He has also kept an eye on his legacy: The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened this past September, includes a 1,200-pound Nineties replica of the famed Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership, an integral component of Clinton's dynamite live shows.

Clinton refers to all this activity as "reinventing the whole movement," and his efforts are paying off – "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?," a single from Shake the Gate, earned him more musical attention than he's received in years. The track was reworked by one of the biggest names in house music, Louie Vega, and both Ice Cube and Lamar eventually contributed verses to the remix. Lamar also introduced the P-Funk legend to other younger musicians, notably the bassist Thundercat and the producer Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder label will release Clinton's next album.

There is a strategy at work behind this productivity. "I tried to get everything to happen around the same time: the book coming out, the album coming out, the video coming out," Clinton explains. "I had to be relevant all over again for people to even pay attention.

"Flying Lotus I wasn't expecting," he adds. "When they announced the Brainfeeder thing, I saw just how much it meant from the feedback on the Internet. That was the perfect move." He hopes that a new wave of interest will help him in his ongoing battle to win back the rights to a number of his most famous recordings. These are currently held by Bridgeport Music Inc., which claims that Clinton signed over the songs in the Eighties.

Clinton's next extramusical project aims to tackle this situation head on: "The other thing we got coming out is a documentary on all the legal stuff so people can see the real story," he says. "Artists don't have a chance. It's gonna be the Enron of the 21st century. I'm doing it for the Mothership. It's in the Smithsonian – it should be respected."

In advance of this spring's Parliament-Funkadelic tour, Rolling Stone caught up with Clinton to discuss his alliance with Brainfeeder, the success of "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?" and how to age gracefully.

How did you first connect with Flying Lotus and Thundercat?
I met them when I did the record with Kendrick Lamar. He hooked me up with them. They remind me of the 21st-century version of when Bootsy hooked up with Parliament-Funkadelic. They sound like the new version of that whole era. They've got the jazz version of that, and they're playing it themselves. Thundercat is a real great bass player. He reminds me so much of Bootsy when he first came around us.

Seeing what they did with To Pimp a Butterfly, getting away with that jazzy feel – that's an elevation of hip-hop musically. It gives a brand new life into the music of hip-hop. I felt good working with them, because I'm familiar with that feeling of something that comes along brand new and takes off like that. They gave me a new connection to what we used to call the underground music. In the Sixties, it was rock & roll on the FM stations. Today it's the YouTube and the Internet where you find music that's not all over Top 40 but so many people love it. I feel good having made that connection.

Were you hunting for a new label?
We all had the same thought. I didn't know they had a label. Kendrick told me, "There's people that are ready to do the funk that [you] wouldn't believe" – he was right! It was easy to say, "We're gonna do this and figure out how to do it later." We both have this independent type of notion.

I had my last record out on my own label, the C Kunspyruhzy. Majors ain't trying to work with nobody like myself who's been around. I'm too old school for 'em. I've always done stuff that nobody knows what the hell I was doing. Neil [Bogart] was always, "Ok, tell me what it is once you're finished with it," at Casablanca [Records]. He gave us the right of way to do Motherships and [The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein] and [Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome], things that an A&R would catch hell trying to figure out if he wasn't a Funkateer.

Do you ever worry about pleasing the executives who can't understand what you're doing?
I always like proving them wrong. Just like fighting for the copyright issues that I'm fighting for, proving that they're not going to mess up the representation of the Mothership, which is going in the Smithsonian, proving them wrong by staying out here and being viable today, relevant for today's market. That to me is so much fun.

How do you keep staying viable?
Basically it's just getting along with the new ones that come along ready to put your ass out to pasture. Get along with them, and realize that it is their day. I'm blessed to still be here, but it is their day – no matter what you think about what they're doing. Once you realize that, you realize that what they're doing is the same as what we were doing when were first started. They're breaking rules and getting on your nerves cause they're moving you out. Regardless of how adolescent you think it is – that's what it's supposed to be.

Once you get to 22 or 23, you're already old school. It's the bubblegum ones that buy records, have fun, party. You get older, you get sophisticated, and you don't go buy no records too much. You have to always give it back to the children who is most likely gettin' on your nerves and realize that is the new thing: That's why they get on your nerves.

"Funk has been able to endure because it's been handed down by way of samples."

To me it's fun after having seen it done two or three times. I can actually laugh about it cause I remember in '57 or '58 when I was hearing "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!" and my mother was saying, "What they hell are y'all talking about?" And then you get to the Eighties and you hear [starts beatboxing] them spitting the beat, you think, "What the hell is they doing to music?" Or the way they all rapping today with the slurs. Kids gonna always do stuff to get on your nerves. That's what they supposed to do.

Funk has been able to endure because it's been handed down by way of samples. The [Ice] Cubes, the Tupacs, the [Dr.] Dres, the Puffys, they sampled the music and kept it alive. They actually helped me back into what I was doing – I'm up here trying to figure out a way to keep up with what is going on. Ice Cube told me, "You can do what you was doing before; you just have to give it to them in little samples. You can't give it to them in 15-minute songs like we used to do." [Now] they into Snapchats and real quickies. You can have 50 of their songs in one of our songs.

Me and Cube are real tight. He did the new version of "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?" It was a nice combination between himself, myself and Kendrick Lamar.

Why do you think that song attracted so much interest?
I was imitating Curtis Mayfield, his kind of tone. But when Ice Cube came into the picture, that gave it a sound that's just like us but not us. It gave us that G-Funk sound. It really married real good. And with Kendrick being there, that gave us the attention that we needed.

We didn't get no radio play, and we knew we weren't gonna get no radio play. They don't play old folks' music. But there's enough Internet stations that you court, you get enough hits and downloads – we put that record straight on YouTube. We wasn't worried about copying – take it. When we get onstage, we can do better than the record.

The brand is what's important to me now. I'm not worried about no charts or how long it's been out. Our records never go away. Free Your Mind ... and Your Ass Will Follow didn't sell shit when we first put it out. Now, the Chili Peppers swear by that album. That makes a whole 'nother fan base.

Louie Vega remixed "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?" as well.
That's another direction. That song got all kinds of directions. Vega doing that got everybody else interested in it. I got my grandkids and my kids keeping me posted on things. My kids say, "Louie Vega from back in the day!" There wasn't no one else paying attention to me, so it was really cool that he was. And then once he did it, then everybody started paying attention to it, even Cube and Kendrick. In this last couple years, Nile Rodgers and a few other people have been doing good with the EDM people. I had my eyes on that two years ago when I saw Nile and Daft Punk and all them doing stuff together. There's a route – [Daft Punk] are DJs for the world; they're not DJs for cities and states. They're so big in the whole industry that other DJs play the records that they play. Vega is big in South Africa and big in New York. He carries some fans with him. You should see over in South Africa – the record's a phenomenon over there.

Do you listen to much house music?
Once you start hearing songs, you know this is somebody else that's diggin' on the funk. So I definitely had to listen to a lot of it lately. Styles move too fast to be partial to anything. If it's funk, that's enough for me. I don't care how fast or slow it is. I got my grandkids up front rapping and doing the new thing. They're teaching each other, bringing us up to date. Even my younger grandson is in there – he's from that Lil Wayne school of music.

I remember Lil Wayne from the beginning of his career. He came to Atlanta; I was working with Dallas Austin at the time. I watched him keep it going until he got the Drakes and all those people. The police-lady song ["Mrs. Officer"] – that used to crack me up. It's always the song that you thought was stupid – then you realize, this is what's happening. Sometimes it's the opposite; they're great in the beginning and they're still great. In the case of, say, Rihanna: When she did "S.O.S.," I thought she was straight from Motown and was the baddest thing around. I had no idea she would flip it and go in all the different directions that she went and still be a great star. Beyoncé – I knew her family. She's always been a hard worker. She's always been what she is today, and she's probably gonna be that way. She's one of these Prince, Michael Jackson people that work all the time perfecting it. And I'm proud to say I picked those [artists] when they were babies. Those are the kind of artists that I like, the ones that can sustain and hang with all the bullshit.

Do you work all the time?
I pretty much work all the time. When I ain't working, I'm figuring something else out, trying to figure out the vibe when I hear a group like Chief Keef. [Sings] "That's that shit I don't like." I knew right away that was the shit I did like! It was the same thing as [Funkadelic's] "Shit! Goddamn! Get off your ass and jam!"

Have you already started working on the next album?
When Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder offered me the deal, he's gonna be producing it with me, so I've gotta get with him to see what he's gonna do. They have a whole 'nother way of doing stuff. I don't want me to be the one directing everything. I want to have whatever the new feel is. I get off on Parliament-Funkadelic. I do those any kind of way I feel like it. I'm in [Flying Lotus'] hands when it comes to his.

I just hope he's not like Prince – Prince wanted me to do it myself. [Clinton put out a pair of albums on Prince's Paisley Park Records.] I wanted him to do it with me! He was so respectful. I said, "I trust you." On the first album, The Cinderella Theory, he didn't do too much. On the second one, Hey Man, Smell My Finger, he was all up in that one.

Once I see where Flying Lotus is going, I'll be able to jump on in there. I know he'll do what he do. I need to learn more about what that is that they do. At the same time, I think we'll have something that he'll appreciate it, 'cause I got the musicians I always had. It's gonna be interesting, I know that.

Are your family members going to be involved in this one?
Oh, yeah. They got more kinship with what Thundercat and Flying Lotus are doing than I do. My talent is to use musicians along with myself – they'll see that I got good taste when it comes to that too.