George Clinton beatboxed to me.
We were talking about generational changes and how the language of musical expression has changed from the “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” of the ’50s to the P-Funk group chants of the ’70s to the hip-hop culture that began in the ’80s, and that’s when it happened. It was easily the coolest things to ever happen to me, having one of the most influential songwriters/band leaders/musical architects of the past 50 years throw down a beatbox for my benefit.
Make no mistake, George Clinton is one of the most important musical forces of the modern era. Parliament and Funkadelic have existed in various incarnations since the 1960s and Clinton has been at the center of it all, Funkadelic essentially creating an entire genre of psychedelic guitar-funk and Parliament bridging the gap between Motown soul and hip-hop. His work appears frequently in hip-hop, with sources citing him as the second-most sampled artist of all-time, with pieces of his songs appearing on seminal works by Digital Underground, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. In his career, Clinton can claim credits on 1100 songs and 170 albums, including samples.
And he hasn’t received a royalty check for any of it.
“They’ve been giving the money to somebody,” Clinton said. “I got to fight for it even more.”
To put this in a personal perspective, I’ve owned a Parliament best-of for 15 years. This year, I’ve purchased a more comprehensive Parliament compilation and the Funkadelic albums Let’s Take it to the Stage and Standing on the Verge of Getting it On. “I haven’t seen a penny for any of it,” he told me.
He launched a website, Flashlight2013.com, detailing the history of false copyrights and songwriting credits set up to withhold royalty payments for him and dozens of other musicians over the past 45 years. He’s currently fighting in court to retain possession of the 4 albums rightfully his under copyright law, including the now-out-of-print classic One Nation Under a Groove.
This tiff over royalties has spilled over into the release and distribution of his autobiography, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t that Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?. After its initial publication a year ago, it became impossible to find, unavailable to order online and out-of-stock in bookstores for the bulk of 2015. It’s lack accessibility is confusing, considering Clinton’s fame and a high-profile feature in Rolling Stone earlier this year.
“They banned it,” Clinton said. “The record companies got together with the publisher and stopped it.
“They don’t wanna bring visibility on me. But social media is a powerful tool.”
That’s why he’s taking his message and music to the internet. Aside from Flashlight2013.com, he’s made the new Funkadelic album Shake the Gate easily accessible online on essentially all free, streaming platforms.
“I went to YouTube,” he explained. “Now we’re getting a lot of EDM plays. And Flashlight2013’s doing real good. We just had 40,000 people check it out. I was at an interview and I saw Taylor Swift. She told me she’s checked it out too.”
If the visual of George Clinton and Taylor Swift chillin’ seems kind of weird, it really isn’t. It’s that fluidity and ability to ride through different eras of music and technology to reach divergent, multi-generational audiences that’s made Clinton and P-Funk still matter.
“It’s harder for someone in my generation to be relevant,” Clinton said. “You gotta be able to change and adapt with something new.”
That’s the beauty of Shake the Gate. The first Funkadelic album since 1981, it’s a sprawling 3-disc, 33-track opus that spans hard rock and metal, soul, hip-hop, funk (naturally) and electronic dance music, a genre that Clinton has made serious inroads with in recent years.
“People don’t give electronic music a lot of respect, but we play to all these crowds, electronic music festivals with 50,000 people and then we come back here and play to 4,000 funk fans,” he said.
Clinton is the only member of Parliament-Funkadelic from its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted line-up still in the group.Longtime lead guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight is back after a 7-year hiatus to assume the mantle of band leader he held for 30 years prior. Besides that, the rest of the band is younger and mostly new. So, who are they?
“They’re our grandkids,” chuckled Clinton, while crediting them with refreshing the P-Funk sound for this generation. “I love it. It’s like brand new because the kids got the same energy we had back in the day.
“We play a 3-hour set and we play it all. We can do ‘Standing on the Verge of Getting it on,’ ‘Cosmic Slop,’ ‘Maggot Brain,’ we can change it up every night.”
And, not content to be a nostalgia act, the new songs get regular burn on stage too.
“They come off so good,” he enthused. “It’s still Funkadelic, still chaotic. That’s what makes you able to do it, so it never gets old.”
On top of Shake the Gate, Clinton is putting the finishing touches on a new Parliament album, Medicate Fraud Dog/One Nation Under Medication. Featuring horn player and familiar funk faces Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, it contains much of humorous, yet pointed sociopolitical commentary that’s a hallmark of Parliament’s halcyon days. He’s bringing the same fervor he had for racial and ethnic harmonies in the ’70s to tackle an overmedicated, drug-addled society.
“When something’s bad, you change the meaning,” he explained. “Take the word ‘nigger.’ Hip-hop took that word back. That’s why hip-hop is so important. It’s done more to erase racism than anything we’ve ever done.When you can’t change people’s minds, change their reactions to shit.
“There’s 2 percent of people out there that don’t want shit to get better. It’s engineered bullshit, socially engineered, anarchy-induced chaos and a lot of adverse advertisement,” he continued.
“We’re a drug society that don’t want to admit it,” Clinton said. “We got all the parents hooked on prescription drugs that are mimicking street drugs. Then the street level is real ghetto and real slop. And as long as money can be made, it’s a problem.”
No stranger to the perils of drug addiction himself, Clinton knows exactly what he’s talking about. Clean for 4 years after a 30-year crack addiction, he finds himself feeling better than he has in years.
“I’m doing great,” he affirmed. “Crack was the wrong way to open your eyes. I was tired, sicker. Now I’m in good health.”
He wishes he could say the same for his longtime friend and occasional collaborator, Sly Stone. The reclusive Stone is popular music’s JD Salinger, creator of iconic work, but largely unseen or heard from over the past several decades, excepting a handful of random one-off appearances. A recent court ruling in his favor for $5 million in unpaid royalties revealed Stone is alive, living in a van and deep in the throes of crack addiction.
“I’m scared for him,” Clinton remarked. Referencing the $5 million and Stone’s inability to access it, he delved further. “He’s too sick to fight back. A habit is a sickness. You just can’t stop.
“He’s still making music. We do stuff every now and then. He just went to New Jersey to play with the Family Stone. But they (record labels and lawyers) know how to push his button. They don’t want him to get on his feet.”
Clinton counts himself as blessed to be out of that downward spiral. “I was lucky to be able to make that decision (to get clean),” he said.
Now that he’s clean and focused on reclaiming his rightful legacy, Clinton plans to keep doing this as long as possible.
“We got a lot going on, right up until next year with the Mothership going to the Smithsonian. I make a different type of record and I don’t fall out of love with it if it isn’t a hit.
“Man, we have a lot of fun and as long as I can keep people interested, I can do this with a smile on my face.”