George Clinton Reflects on Five Decades of Funk, Retiring From Touring
“What’s happening, man?” a spry-sounding George Clinton asks when he picks up the phone. The Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind is turning 78 in July, but says he still feels like he did when he was just starting out in the Fifties and Sixties.
Despite this, he’s announced that his upcoming run of shows, a trek he’s dubbed the One Nation Under a Groove Tour, will be his final outing. It’s something that’s been in the works for a long time, the latest step in a plan he mapped out for himself when he put out his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? and two new recent albums with Funkadelic and Parliament. Once he stops touring, he expects the P-Funk band to continue without him, spreading funk across the planet.
“It’s like theater now,” Clinton tells Rolling Stone. “So I feel good to be able to help direct it. The band is keeping on into this new generation of representing what the funk is about.”
Ahead of the tour, the Funkmaster General recently took some time to reflect on just what the funk he’s been talking about for all these years.
You’re calling the trek the One Nation Under a Groove Tour. Why that name now?
We got the masters back to that album. We own the masters. Then we got the publishing back. So the album belongs to me now, even though there’s still a few bootlegs out there. We’re re-releasing it along with some extra cuts and things. I have lots of stuff in the vault.
That record came out under the Funkadelic name in 1978, a couple of months before you put out Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair. And then you had new Parliament and Funkadelic records the next year. What was going on back then?
When we did “One Nation,” we went out on what we called the Anti-Tour. We had been out on the road so long with the Mothership and the “underwater tour” [for Motor Booty] and all of that stuff. We’d introduced [the group] the Brides of Funkenstein, and we went on tour with them. We had on fatigues, like army pants. We had no limos, no roadies. You had to go in and set up the shit yourself. Then “One Nation” hit out of the clear blue, because we wasn’t ready for it. We didn’t have time to get a production behind it. We just said, “Get a flag and some fatigues,” and the band went out as an army. That was the “Anti-Tour.” We didn’t know what to do, but Funkadelic just stayed like we always were: funky.
We bought all the stuff out of the Army-Navy stores, and after that you started finding it in the department stores. It became fashion. And the shit went up so high at the Army-Navy; it wasn’t cheap like it was when we bought it.
What do you remember about writing “One Nation”?
We had just gotten a bunch of equipment from Yamaha. Everybody opened it up, brand new out of the box just to test it out, and it was the first track they was just jamming on. It was Junie Morrison, who had just got with us from Ohio Players, and Bernie [Worrell, keyboard], Doug Duffy [keyboard], Garry Shider [guitar]. It flowed so good that I had a name for it from something someone said. Some people from Washington, D.C. said we looked like one nation under a groove, and that this was my land. And then [sings] “Ready or not … ” and it all flowed together so easy that we put it together in a couple of days. We never really mixed it. We tried to mix it for real with all of the EQs and stuff but we actually took the board mix, and that’s the mix that came out on the radio. We tried to mix it again but nothing sounded as good.
And it became the anthem to all of what we was doing. We was doing funkin’ from every which direction. You better be ready, ’cause here we come. We’re gonna dance our way out of this shit.
You were singing about uniting people.
That’s always been the thing. We came through that from Motown, which was a big family, right into that rock & roll, hippie type of vibe in ’68 and ’69. For me, that was the best thing. One big community of those two sets of families was always the dream to me. It could be like Woodstock with the fans. Funk, to me, was just the groove that united everything.
What should people expect from the tour?
We have to go through the history, and we have to do the new stuff because we have such young kids that’s into the group now that know the history, by way of the Chili Peppers and hip-hop groups. They know us through these different realms, so we have to represent all the different eras we’ve been through. So I usually call the songs when I get on the stage, according to what the crowd feels like to me. I can jump from 50 years ago to right up to now, and people will be familiar with the songs. And since we never do them the same way, it’s a new experience.
It sounds like the band must have hundreds of songs rehearsed then.
You never know what I’m gonna say. With some audiences, we can just jam, so I can just call something that we don’t even know and go through it right there. You can’t do that everywhere. We could play a Motown set and nobody would look up to say, “Why are you doing that?” If we go to Oregon or San Francisco, we can go straight rock & roll and take a little bit of “Flash Light” and “We Want the Funk” and turn them into rock & roll. And then we’ll play some songs that people sampled us on. We’ll do [De La Soul’s] “Me Myself and I” [that sampled Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep”] and sing their lyrics, ’cause they made those licks so famous.
How will you be presenting it? Will you be bringing back the Mothership?
The Mothership is in the Smithsonian now. That’s probably one of the biggest displays there.
So what will you have?
Since [Parliament’s 2018 album] Medicaid Fraud Dogg album is out, it’ll have a doctors-and-nurses look. It’s so theatrical. It’s brand new. It gives it a whole ‘nother energy that looks like the Mothership.
It sounds like you still enjoy performing. Is it going to be hard to stop?
It really is, but I still have a lot to do.
I’ll still be making music, but I’ll be finding different ways of getting it out there, through social media and whatever these new equipments they’ve got going on. Once you reach a certain age with radio stations, you’ve got to be an oldie but a goodie. If you wanna do something new, you’ve got to find a new way to present it to people. Otherwise, ain’t nobody trying to hear that shit. But it can be done.
So you’re not considering a full retirement, where you stop everything?
No, I’ma be in there doing something that my old ass can do real easy.
There are a lot of artists right now doing their final tours: Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, Kiss are on their second farewell tour.
Yeah, we all old as a motherfucker.
“I’ma be in there doing something that my old ass can do real easy.”
Are you still going to come out and do appearances with the band?
Yeah. I’ma check in on them. I’m probably gonna do a reality show to see which one of them is gonna be capable of leading the band [laughs]. That would be a good thing to keep them focused.
How do you take care of yourself on the road these days?
I don’t do shit until I get on the stage. I save all the energy until I get on the stage and then I have a burst of energy and look like I’ve been jamming all day long. But other than that, I’m a granddad, great granddad. I’m all of that shit. A lot of [the band members] are my grandkids. I have no illusions on that. I can do it on the stage and entertain and motivate them, and then I take my ass home.
What was it like in the old days?
Oh, in the old days, you partied all night. You didn’t go to bed ’til 7. You were in bed from 7 to 10 and then you get back up. But I don’t even do legal meds. Back then I had every kind I could get my hands on, illegal or not. Now I look around, and everybody on legal meds look like I looked when I was doing street shit.
Every time you turn around, people are talking about the meds and the government. It’s about your insurance and your meds. Big pharmaceuticals run the world. It’s one nation under sedation.
When did all this change for you?
About six, seven years ago.
That wasn’t very long ago.
That wasn’t long ago, but I ain’t trying to count no days either. It would have come in handy if I had got out of it before then. But that’s the way it is, so shall it be.
When you look back on all the years of touring you’ve done, what stands out as the wildest concert you’ve played?
The first time we played Madison Square Garden [in 1975]. We already had done the spaceship landing, but not with that massive audience with flashlights and things. The whole place lit up like lightning bugs. They had flashlights and those Star Wars swords. That’s where the whole concept of “Flash Light” came from. You couldn’t even hear yourself. When Bootsy stepped in and said, “Hallelujah!” it sounded like the world came to an end.
Do you think you’ll get Bootsy up for any of these last shows?
Oh, yeah. He’s retired, too. He can say he can’t play, but he’ll be up there doing something. He’ll play drums or something. He ain’t gonna let this go by. Him or Sly. They ain’t gonna let that whole thing go by. They gonna do something.
Other than the flashlights in the audience, what stands out to you as the craziest thing you’ve seen in a crowd?
People had boomboxes of every kind in the audience. They tried to dress like Bootsy or myself, but a giant-sized version of it. There were people on stilts and shit. We used to have a crew of people go around with us and be on stilts and you never knew who they were, because they had all these big, 12-feet-tall, big doll costumes. They followed us around for a while.
When you were doing the shows with the Mothership, did you have to pay for that out of pocket or did the label support you?
I did. I told Neil [Bogart, Casablanca Records founder] that it was easier for him to put the money into financing the Mothership than it would have been to give me that much money. That was, like, a quarter of a million dollars. Then the costuming was the same thing. That was Larry LeGaspi, when he was doing all the Broadway plays.
Do you remember your first concert?
The first concerts would have been around Jersey at the high school, the Y or the park. We’d also go over to Brooklyn or up to the Apollo Theater for amateur night. When “Testify” came out [in 1967], we played a block party right on 125th St. with WWRL and [radio DJ] Frankie Crocker. He introduced us with “Testify” being Number One on WWRL. We was friends throughout his whole career. He brought us to Madison Square Garden with some other people, and he brought us back in ’96 at Central Park.
Lately, you’ve been fighting to reclaim the copyrights to many of your albums. How is that going?
That’s been my mission. I’ve got One Nation back, Knee Deep and Hardcore Jollies; now I gotta fight for “Flash Light.” You gotta fight for these copyrights. It gave me energy to reignite my career and write new shit, and I’m thankful for that. I’ma kick they ass. That’s my mission now. I’m gonna do a documentary on this. Nobody would believe what they had to go through to try to hide the millions of dollars that they’ve taken. That’s a bigger story than anything you could write about. So that’s my next mission.
But we got those back and we’re going to pay some respect to those songs. They’ve been a part of a lot of people’s careers — all the people that sampled those songs, everyone. So we gonna try to give it something worthy of it. And we’re getting new shit and getting those copyright straightened out for our families. Some of them, I will probably have some problems with, but we’re up for the down strokes.
Finally, what did you think of Ice Cube’s new song, “That New Funkadelic”? He kind of replicated your sound.
I love it. I had it for six months before he put it out. It took everything in the world I had not to post it. [Sings] “Ice Cube’s got that new Funkadelic, new Funkadelic.” Matter of fact, we’ll be doing it onstage pretty soon.
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