Illustration by Dan Evans
George Clinton is a religion. Suggesting otherwise is blasphemous. Prose about music icons is littered with hyperbole, but the concept of Dr. Funkenstein as a prophet isn’t one of them. If the core definition of a religion is a being a set of beliefs that converses with greater existence, then P-Funk fits the billing. The empire used its James Brown heritage, delivered idioms as truths (“Fake the funk and your nose will grow”), and transformed from ephemeral human beings to immortal characters in a decade reign that opened new pathways for black culture and consciousness. Dancing under the Mothership was an act of prayer. And it still is. The funk continues to shapeshift, and in 2015 it’s reverberated in new ways through the music of artists like Kendrick Lamar and WOKE, the trio of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Shabazz Palaces.
It hasn’t been without its struggles, though. Major religions generally promote peace, yet their characters always face some horrific circumstance. Clinton was never cast into the Lake of Fire or plagued by locusts. That said, he doesn’t deserve to have to tour at the age of 74 to keep himself financially afloat. Over the past few years, Clinton has been fighting Bridgeport Music founder Armen Boladian, who holds the rights to a majority of his catalog—allegedly through altering documents. If Clinton had the publishing rights to his own songs, that’s millions of dollars of income generated by sampling. But instead, Boladian gets to file hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits over P-Funk samples. The power of the funk can not escape brutal opportunism. But Clinton is still young enough to fight.
In addition to raising awareness for his legal case, the P-Funk mastermind is fighting copyright chicanery with a creative renaissance. Last year, Funkadelic dropped the 33-track First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, the group’s first official release in 33 years. What makes it clearer that this isn’t some old coot grasping for a spark is how some of today’s most forward-thinking artists still take from his DNA. He appears on the opener to To Pimp A Butterfly, an album in which Kendrick Lamar shares Clinton’s liberationist funk aspirations. The futurism of Flying Lotus follows in Clinton’s sonic lineage as well. It’s part of why WOKE’s “The Lavishments of Light Looking” works so well as an astral two-step. So the funk philosophy is alive four decades later, but how is Clinton rocking with the funk in 2015? The prophet speaks.
In your autobiography, you ended with a studio conversation with Kendrick Lamar.
I had a record coming out with Kendrick Lamar on his album, and he hadn’t done one with me yet at that time. But since then, we recorded my record together. He was getting ready to be what he is now. I knew that when I did that one song with him, I knew that he was going to be exactly what he is right now.
What drew you to him?
My grandkids were telling me how hip he was and contacted me to do a record with him. I believe that to this day. Since I’ve talked to him, I knew why. He sounds like he’s my age—he got that type of knowledge and awareness of the record business while making music.
When did that session take place?
Philosophically, what would you say is the funk tradition?
Funk is gonna always survive. It’s about doing the best you can, and if you do the best that you can do, you just leave it alone and let the funk take over. It usually leads you to where you need to go. Right now, I’m having pretty good luck working with Louie Vega, Kendrick Lamar, and now, Ice Cube. We did the single for the video “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You,” which will be out in a couple of weeks. And the version with Kendrick and Ice Cube will be out soon. So, just do the best you can and funk leads you to where you’re supposed to go. And I think I’m in the right place right now between the new hip-hop, the old hip-hop, and the electronic dance music. Still doing the funk the way I’d like to.
Is there a liberation element when it comes to the funk?
You always need an adversary to provoke you into making the funk. Right now, our adversary is not only all the wars that’s going on with the world and all that, but on a business level, copyrights that are trying to protect to right of performers and writers. We have a big fight… When I found out what was going on with the agencies that were supposed to protect us—like BMI, big publishers, and record companies—I realized they’re doing the same thing what they did to banks and things a few years ago, they’re doing the same thing with copyright music. They gave me a lot of desperation to want to do a brand new album with 33 songs. So that motivated me.
So the adversary here is record labels stealing from black artists?
Well black artists in particular, but all artists. They just get anybody who’s young and aspiring; the artists will go for anything just to get started. But once they’ve done that, the record labels take advantage of it. Like right now, they’re trying to take copyrights from my heirs and the heirs of musicians of today. They aren’t just trying to take the money, they’re trying to take the copyrights forever. That’s something people don’t know too much about.
I know you guys started as a doo-wop group. Did you have any fears that you were going to alienate your black audience by moving into psychedelics?
Any time you go pop or cross over, you already begin to lose the audience that you started out with. It just so happened that the black music became the pop music of the next generation. What’s really black for ten years becomes really pop the next ten years. With rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of black people think it’s white music totally. They don’t know about Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The only thing they know is that Jimi Hendrix played some psychedelic. So yeah, you lose your audience if you go from one audience to the next. Most of the black music you get today—hip-hop—it’s totally pop.
What about the idea of expanding one’s consciousness? Do you think that plays a role in funk as well?
Well you know it did. That plays a role in everything making music in ‘67, 8, and 9. That became the reality even if you were playing classical. The trending chemical substance of the day was provoking all the thoughts in music. You had Frank Zappa, who was weird. But all of those mind-expansion drugs played with the territory you were allowed to think in. The Beatles covered so much ground in the stuff they sang and wrote about that, you know… that was the consciousness of the youth of that day. You learned a lot about the world.
Once your mind starts expanding, you start appreciating all types of music: Classical, jazz, classical rock.
Was Sun Ra an influence?
I didn’t even know Sun Ra when we were really doing it. I got more into him in the 90s. I knew the name and a lot of the musicians and everything, but I didn’t have a chance to look at the discography. I just thought it was way outside jazz. I knew of him, but I didn’t know his music. Then I find out years later that he had such a similar career, that he was into doo-wop in his early days in Chicago. He just appreciated all kinds of music—and he was contacted by aliens.
What pulled you toward Flying Lotus?
When I met Kendrick Lamar, that’s when I met him. We did “Wesley’s Theory.” I was just swept by their styles. As a matter of fact, we’re doing a record together now with Parliament. We’ll be doing some stuff with Flying Lotus on that. We’re going to be doing an album together.
I really like them. They’re definitely on the spaceship.
When did the sessions for “The Lavishments of Light Looking” take place?
That one took place just a couple of months ago. That was real quick. Just a month and a half before it came out.
Talk about the sessions for that. It feels fully developed for something to happen so quick.
That was by Flying Lotus. We went by his house. We got together and talked about doing some things and putting on some tracks. He said we had to do something and there was a track to work on. So we worked on it, and before I knew it, it was out.
What did you think of the finished product?
It blew my mind. When I first heard it on Adult Swim, it was smashing all over the place. I didn’t even know it was coming out that week.
What inspired you to have this creative renaissance? Was it just copyright issues?
That’s what I’m saying. That’s what inspired me to want to kick somebody’s… But you know you have to be relevant for people to really pay attention. So, for us to get relevant, we had to do something fresh and right-now as opposed to just screaming about stuff from the past. So I did the book, the album, and tied the book into the album [Ed. note: Both share the same name].
What would you say is funky about Flying Lotus?
Well, shit. Everything about that shit is funky. I mean besides the style, it’s good funky music anyways without any kind of concept. It’s jazzy, but it’s accessible for young kids to get into. They don’t even have a category for it yet.
It still sounds futuristic in 2015.
That’s basically what it is. They want to say futurism, Afrofuturism. That would probably be the best example of what that would mean to me.
What do you think about the term Afrofuturism?
I didn’t know what to think before. After hearing Flying Lotus, it really makes sense to me because that’s a conscious attempt to be futuristic. Sun Ra probably did it to. Myself, I did it as concepts. I did all kinds of things like going underwater [Motor Booty Affair], outer space. Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix, they were definitely out there. What Flying Lotus is doing is what we were doing with the Mothership, but with good music that represents that Afrofuturism.
Brian Josephs is on the spaceship and on Twitter.