George Clinton, 74, the mastermind behind Parliament-Funkadelic, is in a renaissance period. Not only has he recently put down the crack pipe, but at the end of 2014 he published a memoir that is required reading. He released a new Funkadelic album called Shake the Gate that same year, and won a Grammy this year for his performance on Kendrick Lamar's deservedly heralded 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. Clinton is helping to put the finishing touches on a documentary to be released in September in conjunction with the Mothership (the spaceship that Parliament used onstage) being put on display at the Smithsonian.
All of this renewed focus was spurred by a legal battle he's been engaged in for decades with Westbound Records founder Armen Boladian and his company, Bridgeport Music. Clinton alleges they have illegally claimed the copyrights to most of his catalog. Clinton cites wanting to focus on the legal battle as both the reason that he published his memoir, and the reason he quit smoking crack cocaine.
"I feel great," Clinton says. "I'm glad I did that, 'cause it takes all your energy and focus to do this (legal stuff). At the same time, I'm enjoying marijuana to the fullest."
Clinton has seen it all in his six decades in the music business. As a teenager in New Jersey, he started a doo-wop group, the Parliaments. He went on to run his own barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., the Silk Palace. A lot of the folks who ended up in Parliament and Funkadelic were guys who used to hang out at his barbershop. Clinton first came to Detroit with the Parliaments to audition for Motown, who passed because they considered the act too much of a mix of the Temptations and the Contours, two groups already signed to the label.
But Clinton did get hired by local entrepreneur Ed Wingate, who owned a label called Golden World. This was the start of Detroit being a home base for Clinton. He wrote songs for other artists and recorded singles with the Parliaments. They later evolved into both Funkadelic and Parliament, collectively known as "A Parliafunkadelicment Thang," later shortened to P-Funk.
Metro Times caught up with Clinton over the phone in advance of P-Funk's May 5 performance at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino.
Metro Times: What did you love about Detroit when you first started coming here?
George Clinton: Motown — Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Temptations. It got to us straight out of New Jersey, to the point where we ended up living here, making our own records: (the Parliaments' first hit) "(I Wanna) Testify" in the '60s, and then in the '70s, Mothership Connection. Detroit's just a great place. It started with the music that I like, but the whole area (is great). I like to go up to Mackinac and fish. I got a lot of reasons to like Detroit, but most of all, the music has always been the greatest part. I've been working with the kids. I know that the music is still there.
MT: What was it like when Ed Wingate hired you on?
Clinton: He was like a dad to me. He was the sweetest guy in the world. He wanted us, me and Sydney (Barnes), and Pat Lewis, to be the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. So we did "Can't Shake It Loose" and "I'll Bet You." Mr. Wingate was a character. (He said) "Give me a song: 'Our Love Is In the Pocket.'" He'd always give us the title, and then we'd have to go write the song and record it. (Editor's note: Clinton co-wrote the song "Our Love Is in the Pocket" for Darrell Banks.)
MT: A lot of those early songs ended up getting reimagined with your later groups. In your book, you talk about songs having DNA.
Clinton: I've been around so long, I use the some of the same lyrics and stuff.
MT: At the event you did at the Detroit Institute of Arts in December, you talked about how the concept of (1976 Parliament album) The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, was predicting sampling.
Clinton: Well, cloning and sampling music is similar. My idea was that they would actually start cloning the music. So taking samples and making a brand-new song — I had no idea that that was gonna be a reality, but I just know that it's all in the DNA. All the music — rock 'n' roll, blues, gospel, classical, all of it — there are all kinds of ways to make music. When they started sampling, they discovered a new way. I felt good 'cause it was a way for us to be able to get songs out there. (Today) I sample myself. I sample my old songs, I sample somebody else's songs.
MT: Do you have any memories of favorite places to hang out in Detroit in the '60s and '70s?
Clinton: Oh, all over the place, from the Grande Ballroom, the 20 Grand, all the way over to Eastland. When we first started with Parliament, at 876 Woodward, we used to play every weekend at the union hall. All the clubs, we played. Then over in Windsor, we'd play all the time, you know, CKLW.
MT: Did you play with the MC5 or the Stooges?
Clinton: Oh, we played with them all the time. They were called the "bad boys of Ann Arbor." John Sinclair, we used to play out in the park to get him out of jail for the week.
MT: Did you feel like those bands influenced the Funkadelic direction?
Clinton: We came out as a doo-wop group, a singing group. We saw that Detroit had its own version of rock 'n' roll coming out. They influenced us a lot. We was changing from Parliament to Funkadelic, and it would've been Iggy Pop (who) had a lot to do with that. That craziness. I saw how far you could go and still entertain people. We had the same management agency, Diversified Management. All of us had the same agent: Amboy Dukes, Ted Nugent, MC5, Silver Bullet with Bob Seger, all of us.
MT: What do you like to do when you come back to Detroit these days?
Clinton: I go down to United Sound, the studio I used to record at.
MT: Your recordings from United Sound definitely have a certain magic to them. What is it about that place that is so magical to you?
Clinton: I mean the history of Detroit started out there. Even a lot of Motown stuff was cut there. So it's got a sound of its own, even for the commercials. Chrysler automobiles and all them used to do their commercials there. So it's the sound of America. You have sound that a lot of people recognize, but don't know that they recognize. I love the sound of that studio.
MT: In your book, you also talk about how if a person talks about peace and love too prominently, the government will want to get rid of you.
Clinton: Oh yeah, especially if you're over 30. If you're under 30, you can get away with (it). But once you're over 30, they don't want you to talk about that. You could hardly make any of the records we made in the early days, like "Free Your Mind" or "America Eats Its Young," protests against the war in Vietnam.
MT: You think you just wouldn't be able to get that stuff out nowadays?
Clinton: Oh yeah. Kendrick Lamar, he said it all. (Things) I wish I could say. Nobody could say nothin' because he was so on it. All you can do is say he's telling the truth. Everybody has a reason to feel good about something he said, black and white, 'cause he told on everybody, including himself. You have to do that before you're 30, because they won't let you do it after that.
MT: What are your thoughts on the rise and development of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Clinton: Anytime something gets talked about, it helps somewhere. It's not going as fast as I'd like to see people understand what they're saying. It's hard for people to understand that black lives should matter. People are just now realizing that many black people were in jail, all this time, with the dope — all of a sudden, dope should be taken care of. Like the heroin problem in the Northeast. The same thing should've been happening with crack in the '80s. But you know, black lives didn't matter, so nobody paid attention. The war on drugs wasn't working, and the government had so much to do with the drugs coming in in the first place. Yes, black lives matter. But people just weren't paying attention. Now they have to pay attention, 'cause there's a lot of commotion going on.
MT: A lot of your lyrics address the issue of societal control. What can people do nowadays to fight against that?
Clinton: Pay attention! I call it socially engineered, anarchy-induced chaos. (It's) being played on poor people — black, white, and any other color. They make us pissed at each other, and tell you the other one is to blame for their problems. It keeps us pissed at somebody else who's in the same predicament that we're in. And we don't have the chance to understand that, because we don't get the education. So all the people end up fighting each other, and nobody can figure out what's goin' on, because it's engineered socially. It's designed for that to happen. So I put lyrics in my songs that make you think about stuff. I'm not trying to preach, but I try to say things that provoke you to think. I don't know the answers, but I know that it needs to be talked about.
MT: Confusion has always been a part of the P-Funk approach. When you look at something, it's not quite what you thought it was originally. Is that still a big part of your approach?
Clinton: Oh yeah, controlled chaos. It makes you think, "What the hell are they doing; what are they saying?" You have to come up with it yourself. I don't know the answers; I'm just tryin' to find the truth.
MT: I can't recall what you said about this in your book, but do you think that the riots in Detroit were basically designed to bring down black-owned businesses?
Clinton: Well, that's the socially engineered, anarchy-induced chaos; it's designed for that to happen everywhere. All of that is designed to do what they want it to do. In Washington, it's politics. The riots took advantage of people's frustration, and that gave them an excuse. So yeah, they designed the riots. But more than the riots, (it's) what they did after the riots.
They'll leave it that way for a long enough time, and they'll build it back up, and people can't afford to come (back), and then a whole new set of people are living there. So in the ghettos, they go to the suburbs. It's a cycle. I think a lot of the bullshit has come out into the open, because the politicians are really at each other's throats. I don't think we would've found out about a lot of shit, except that they got a bunch of crazies up there going for president, that they snitching on themselves. You find out a lot of shit. They all believe the same thing; it's just, what level are you willing to take it to?
MT: What is an average day like for you now?
Clinton: We're working on a new Parliament album. We're writing songs on the bus, in between gigs. And when we're not doing that, I go fishing. The new Funkadelic album is doing great, and you know Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube (just appeared on the song and in the new video for "Ain't That Funkin Kinda Hard on You (We Ain't Never Gonna Stop Remix)."
MT: The opening lines of the video are about dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Clinton: My first memory of anything that I can think of is the atomic bomb. That's what the director picked up on. He read the book; that was his idea.
MT: At the end of the book, you wonder if the bomb could in small doses be a solution.
Clinton: I was saying that the nuclear age has to something to do with our DNA. We're in a new millennium now, and we're gonna find out a lot of things. (Remember) when we thought the world was flat? We're going to find a whole lot of flat Earths in our reality. It's going to happen so fast, you can't even get a grasp on what's going on. You don't know where it's going to settle down at.
MT: Do you have any predictions?
Clinton: I'm waiting for the aliens to show up. I'm positive — they're gonna show up, or we're going to show up to them. I think we've already been infected with alien genes and DNA. I got a feeling that all those kinds of things will come out. I think this has already happened. We've been evolving all the time, whether we came from Mars, whatever.
MT: How do you think time works?
Clinton: I think it's all happened before. I think it's going round in circles over and over and over again. This whole planet has been through a whole bunch of times. Dinosaurs, other beings — all these things are in our DNA memory banks that we call imagination.
MT: You've had quite a few alter egos over the years. Is it time for another one?
Clinton: I use characters, because characters mean a lot to the people. You know, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck — they can be around forever, the characters. They don't get old. The new (Parliament) album is called Medicated Fraud Dogs. There are going to be a lot of dogs in there, like drug dogs. There's fraud in the drug programs, so you're going to get some dog characters. We got Pepe the Pill Popper, popping puppy uppers and dropping doggie downers. All these new dogs on the album? They're gonna be like the Ninja Turtles.
MT: What does it mean to "taste the maggots in the mind of the universe"?
Clinton: Oh, it means to deal with it. Once you've dealt with it, once you've seen it for what it is, and you're not offended, you can take it. Once you've come face to face with it and you've dealt with it and you can handle it, you're on your way to the deep funk. To taste the maggots in the mind of the universe and not be offended.
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic perform at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino on Thursday, May 5; Doors at 8 p.m.; 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-309-4700; Tickets start at $30.