Culture Q&A: George Clinton and His ‘Mothership Connection’ to Indy
Set to play the Vogue on May 6, the funk icon gives IM the lowdown on his upcoming Parliament album, ongoing court battles, and ties to Indianapolis.
George Clinton has helped define many genres over the last five decades. From doo-wop songwriting in the Motown era, to shaping psychedelia, to becoming one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop, to, most recently, collaborating with the Grammy-winning Kendrick Lamar and up-and-coming groups like Flying Lotus—Clinton has done it all.
Mostly, though, after releasing Funkadelic’s eponymous first album in 1970, and recording and performing with various iterations of Funkadelic and/or Parliament ever since, Clinton’s career has been synonymous with funk. (He appeared on 37 albums in the ’70s alone.)
With Parliament’s Mothership Connection, Clinton’s stage show became the stuff of legend as well, with not one but two spaceships—a giant prop from which Clinton emerged to start each show, and a smaller version that flew over the audience. That second mothership is now part of an installation by Indianapolis artist Kipp Normand and community/cultural entrepreneur Michael Kaufman at the new Museum of Psychphonics, located in Fountain Square’s Joyful Noise Recordings. (Indy entrepreneur and arts patron Tom Battista used to work on the Mothership tour and saved the prop for posterity). A replica of the large ship recently went on display at the Smithsonian.
Despite protracted legal fights over the rights to P-Funk’s music, Clinton (a.k.a. “Dr. Funkenstein”) wrote a memoir in 2014, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?, and recently released Shake The Gate, the first new Funkadelic record in 33 years.
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic play the Vogue on May 6.
What are you up to?
We doing a Parliament album.
A new Parliament album?
Is it going to be 33-tracks-long like the most recent Funkadelic record?
No, it’ll be like 22, probably.
How long have you been working on it?
I guess I started four months ago, five months ago. We’ve been working—actually, Shake the Gate, we just released the remix with Kendrick and Ice Cube, so we had to repackage the album and keep doing shows. At the same time, I want to have a Parliament album out by September. The mothership being in the Smithsonian, and all of that has taken place, I’m trying to keep up the momentum from To Pimp a Butterfly with “Wesley’s Theory.” Ever since the book came out, it’s all been going as I planned.
You know we have the original little mothership from the P-Funk tours here, right?
It’s in Indianapolis. I’m trying to reach the people where the piece is now. Where’s it at?
Do you want it back?
I just needed to know where it’s at. We’ve been trying to talk to them for a while, because we definitely want it back eventually. We might able to do some kind of museum there, you know, with them. There’s a lot of stuff—the car, too, is there. There’s a lot of stuff that we might be able to get together on. I’m just trying to keep it all cool and together.
Any other connections to Indianapolis?
I’ve got a daughter there.
What kind of memories do you have here?
We’ve been coming to Naptown ever since the ’60s, since “(I Wanna) Testify” was out. There was a club out there called the 20 Grand, just like the one in Detroit, we used to play at. So we go way back with Indianapolis. People I used to work with back in the ’50s used to live there—George Kirk and his family lived there. I’ve been coming there for years.
What keeps you going on tour at age 74?
What really keeps me going, you know, I love the music, but I’m on this mission fighting for the copyright law. All my energy is in that. Being on the road right now helps me reestablish myself. It helps keep me relevant enough that I can really make a statement about what’s been going on in the music that you read about in the book. If not, look at page 379 [in the memoir] to see what I’m talking about. That’s what keeps me going right now, to keep the story going. I have to be relevant to even say something about it—that’s why I’m going so hard right now. The band is better than ever, tighter than ever, and going even harder than ever. We’ll still dare anybody to come to the stage with the music. We still got that attitude with the fresh blood in there [Clinton’s grandchildren perform in the band]. We are tearing places out now.
Yes, I’m thrilled about being able to do it, but my main mission is to be relevant enough to be able to talk about and tell the story. Nobody really knows about all that’s going on with all of that music. Straight Outta Compton just came out—we don’t get a fucking penny for it, plus our names are taken off of the copyright of the song. Nobody knows that’s what’s going on, because it’s so big that the people who are making money off of it don’t want to let it go now. It’s getting super big. We still play all of those old songs, and we keep them big as ever, so doing that helps me keep the focus on what I’m talking about.
I’m not tired. I sprung my back last week, but we still tore the place out.
Have you made any progress with the copyright battle since your book came out?
Everything is in procedure right now. I’ve got five different cases held up in appeals court. What they’re all doing is deciding to wait for all this momentum to die down because of Kendrick. We got a Grammy for “Wesley’s Theory,” and they’ve got me in court for slander. He’s able to go up to the U.S. Copyright Office and change the copyright. That song is brand new, out right now, and for that kind of stuff to be able to go on is—I haven’t been able to get paid for it—you know they will come up with something like, “It was a mistake,” but every time, it’s a mistake.
So I’m not able to get paid for any of the places I get my royalty stream from, because these five cases—they have collaborated with each other to make sure that I don’t get paid. Right now people want to know why our names are getting taken off of the song, and instead it’s the name of some Bridgeport writer claiming they wrote it. We are getting ready to do a documentary on it now. Not what’s being held up in appeals court, but what’s already public knowledge, for people to see. If you go to Flashlight2013.com, you can find a lot of the information there.
When can we expect the documentary?
I would say September/October.
Do you have time for anything beyond music and court battles?
Everybody is coming at us now for a reality show with my kids and my grandkids. You know they all out here doing their thing, and it’s going over good. That’s a thing I have to look into and make sure it works out right for them. I don’t want to throw them into anything with some bullshit attached to it. That’s one of the things. But I’m doing stuff with Flying Lotus. You know we did a 10″ for “Wesley’s Theory,” and now we are going to do some more stuff with [Flying Lotus]. We’re going to be working together next weekend.
How are you able to stay so relevant, collaborating with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus?
I try to pay attention to what’s happening, and be accessible when the chance to be involved with something—to get that call, to be on whatever they’re doing. I pay attention to my grandkids. When [Kendrick Lamar] asked me to do something, of course, yeah, I just figure I had to be ready, because if I do one for him, he’ll do one for me. So now, here’s the one he did with me just coming out. We’ve also got Ice Cube on there. We went to Compton and brought three generations together. In fact, at Coachella Kendrick and Ice Cube ended it with “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You” and “Alright.” They showed the video while Ice Cube was performing it.
How do keep up with so many different projects?
Just from being a songwriter who worked at the Brill Building, and going through Motown, and then going through the English invasion and the Jimi Hendrix thing—looking at it as a songwriter, it’s just another song. Over all those years, I’ve been able to jump from one to another. As a songwriter, you wrote for anybody. But when performing, Funkadelic is what we always become. It’s what we always end up being. I don’t care if it was a Parliament record. I had to guard against it becoming a Funkadelic record on stage. We have to go crazy on any song. Other than that, we’ve got all kinds of musicians who can play all sorts of styles, and I respect them.
When we first came out with “Testify,” we didn’t want to get caught in a bag. That’s why we did the album Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow. We did that so absurd—we already knew how to make a straight record because of Motown—we made that so absurd, to the realm of how Frank Zappa operated, or Sun Ra, but at the same time keeping some kind of commercial hits in it, so we might try to just get a hit song, but we weren’t. We were trying to get a hit album. That’s how Funkadelic became an album-selling group, even though we weren’t getting paid for it. Our following has always been that of a big-selling-album group.
When we finally got a big record through with Mothership Connection, we went straight to where Pink Floyd was at with the big production. I think my understanding of hair, and understanding that I was able to manipulate the group in ways that no one had ever seen for a black artist. Having the spaceship and all that. Having all that information on hair, rocking hard, working at the Brill Building to sell songs, which is what the Parliaments were: a doo-wop group. We were able to graduate from Motown into what the next era was, which was English rock, and at the same time create our own version of P-Funk by mixing Bootsy [Collins] in, and him bringing James Brown’s horn players, and we had our own sound with that called P-Funk. We did that all the way into the ’80s.
We twisted it again with “Atomic Dog,” which matched what hip-hop was doing with sampling. “Atomic Dog” was the perfect record to sample, because it was already a hip-hop song. It became one of the most sampled records ever. All of those things contribute to it, and being tight with Cube and Dre before they were ever even N.W.A., when they was Uncle Jams Army. We always knew pretty much all the major players in the hip-hop groups. Digital Underground we were really close with. Tupac was dancing in that group when I knew him—we were really close. I try to stay close with whoever is happening, no matter what style of music it is.
How are you able to tour on such a huge catalogue of music?
That’s one of my probably greatest things. I can manipulate the songs by looking at the audience. We are putting in more older songs now, because people are going back. Let’s say with Cosmic Slop, I’ve seen the band do the entire album and mix in older songs like “Standing on the Verge.” I don’t focus on which order, I just try to surprise the fans by calling something they don’t know I’m going to call. The fans like the music because it jams anyway. We can go into something they weren’t expecting, especially with the Dead Heads crowd. We can do pretty much anything we want there—they like music pretty much no matter who it is or what it is. It’s not hard to pick what we are going to play. We just have to rehearse more.
How has your life changed since you quit smoking crack? Is recording easier?
Oh, it’s easier to create music, shit yeah! Crack takes up all your time. Even though you wasn’t getting none, it was looking for it and realizing you never got none. I never thought about it or regretted it. I never looked back. I’m not down on it. I know it didn’t do me any good, didn’t do anybody any good, but I ain’t got no regrets, either. I did it, but I got out of there. That’s all that matters to me, is that I got the fuck out of there.
How has creating music changed over the course of your career?
Well, now I’m learning how to make a beat and put the music on it afterward. As for the track, it’s pretty much the same. I just learned to relate to all the new styles, taking new metaphors and old metaphors, and the little country tones that the rappers of Atlanta [use]. New innuendos and words, but it’s pretty much the same once you learn the dialogue. The dialogue is really just baby talk. It’s adolescent, but you still want to sound grown, sound like you’re getting high, even if you ain’t. It’s the same thing we were doing with “P-Funk (Wants to get Funked Up).” We kept insinuating that we were all of that in the hood—it’s pretty much the same. In the digital realm, you get the “click click” when you move something in the track like the Atari video games. Music kinda got that motion to me now.
What’s the proudest moment of your career?
Probably landing the mothership in Oakland and Houston. That’s when I realized we had really done that. The first times we done it, I was really stunned. It was so overwhelming. By the time we got to Oakland and Houston, and it was all perfect. The mothership working so perfectly—that was enough right there.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.