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George Clinton
& The P-Funk All Stars

interview by William C Leikam

Parliament Funkadelics

The Parliament Funkadelics, 1979
digital effects © Joy Williams/Artist Publications

“It can be said that George Clinton and the Funkadelics are the soul of the Grateful Dead. But then again, it could be said that Clinton is the soul of our culture.

There are many similarities between the P-Funk and what the Grateful Dead was before Garcia died. The Deadheads know the tunes and so too do the Funksters. Each following has hand signals that they pass among themselves and the band on-stage.

Once a part of the Funkadelic Family, always a family member. No matter how many years ago a band member may have been active, played the steady gigs with the Parliament or any other evolution of George Clinton, once accepted, always a member. George said that there were probably some 75-80 members in the Funk family. Back in the nineties, I worked with Steve "Muruga" Booker, probably the most versatile drummer alive and he was a P-Funk All Star because George asked him to come in and play with the band and record on various albums.

The P-Funk was on tour and scheduled to play San Francisco's Warfield Theater that night when I interviewed him. We met in Clinton's hotel room in San Francisco, up there on Vine Street. George kicked back on the bed. Muruga stood while Billy "Bass" Nelson, a longtime member of the P-Funk, and I took the chairs. Billy hadn't hung with the band for nearly 20 years but he had been with George in the very beginning at the barbershop back in Plainfield, New Jersey. I turned on my recorder. We talked.

Q: Let's begin with some background and your origins in all of this, Billy. Where did it all begin for you?

Billy "Bass" Nelson: I started with George and them in the barbershop. So, it goes back that far.

Q: Playing in a barbershop? That's an unusual gig.

Nelson: No, 'cause I was like an employee, you know? George processed hair and I assisted in part of that where I would wash people's hair and get them ready for George to style them. I always played guitar. I just kept on playing and listening to them rehearse in the barbershop—The Parliaments. So, I kept on bringing my guitar around, practicing with them and with the jukebox I got so good I could play whatever came on. I'd try to figure out the cords or whatever, you know? I tried to get it together right there in the barbershop. (Billy was eleven years old at that time.)

Q: So, then what happened out of the barbershop? Did things start to come together? What was the scene like?

Nelson: The barber shop that was the hippest place in Plainfield which was like a small town in New Jersey about 33 miles west of NYC.

Q: Did you have people come in and listen to you?

Nelson: A lot of people used to hang out in that barber shop 'cause it was definitely a popular place to be. In most barbershops the barbers talk about everything that's going on in town but by the time it got to George's shop, man, that was like you know? The energy was intense and for the young people and the only place to be. They had to decide whether they would go home or not. I was deep in the barbershop. To do that and survive was rough as hell in itself but then we all grew up in it like Gary Shider, Eddy Hazel, Terrell Ross, Boogy, Cardel Mossen and his brothers. As we were kids growing up they all had their own bands. Eddy and me really weren't the first band for the Parliaments. I think the band that would have gone out with George in '67 when they had their hit record "Testify" was a group of brothers called Jo-Jo and the Admirers. They were like a Jackson Five group. But, it was the Vietnam War time and they all got drafted.

Q: So things began to develop there, and then you guys took the band out and did the gigs?

Parliaments 1969

The Parliaments, 1969

Nelson: Anywhere between actually '67 and '68. The Parliament had a hit record. They were all hanging around George in the barbershop 'cause they were always going back and forth to Detroit. George and the band was recording at Motown and playing in New York. I was working with a song writing team there in Plainfield and out there at Motown too.

Q: George? You were traveling between Plainfield to Detroit?

Clinton: Yeah, right. In the sixties, I worked at Jobbed, which was Motown and published the Motown song writing. I was also doing promotion at the same time. So, it happened that our first record Testify was very much like the Motown songs and musicians. When we got out there on the road we used our own band and the songs started sounding like the Funkadelic's first records. We did that stuff from '66 to '73 and then we did "Up For The Downstroke" and that began to take on the James Brown group because we had Bootsie in the band. By then Fred Weston and Macio and all of the Horney Horns so we had that James Brown kind of coloring. That's when it changed into a theatrical kind of jazz.

Nelson: Yeah, I was around all during that time. I was in the barbershop then when he was going back and forth to Detroit on the weekends.

Q: So, when did you guys leave the barbershop?

Nelson: No, well actually kind of, I guess George knew. He probably knew well enough to kiss that damned barbershop shit goodbye. Then, after we were out there doing the gigs during the summer of '67 like by '68 we knew what was happening. We were on by then. We had become pretty much accepted as the Parliament but we were thought of as the back-up band and we got sick and damned tired of being called that, and we came up with the name Funkadelics and the rest is history.

Q: I assume that the "delics" tagged on the word Funkadelics draws from the psychedelics of the time. Is that how the word came about?

Nelson: Yeah, it came out of a conversation. We were talking on the way to a gig back in probably the last part of '68 because the Funkadelics didn't emerge until '69 so you know, that's where it came from.

Q: George? I've never heard anyone really try to define funk. How would you talk about it?

Clinton: Well, funk is anything you need it to be at any given time. It's something that saves your life, or it's an attitude, or it's that attitude that helps save your life when you feel like it's not worth it anymore. You get to a place where you just want to jump out the window. Funk is that comical voice that come to you and says, "Why brother, ain't anybody gonna miss you." It's an attitude. It's whatever it needs to be at any given time. That's the way I look at it. Funk is really all music. It's the attitude that helps people to change and do new music even though my bag might have been something else. It can be anything with that beat.

Q: Where did the word come from?

Clinton: I don't know. It has a lot of meanings but like dark, damp places like the womb or then you have the sweaty jazz dens that are funky. I don't know but it may have something to do with radio in Germany. Telefunken, funk. But it's been in the jazz music scene for a long time and it means hanging very lose and very sweaty again. It always leads to that.

Q: Is that the way you approached the music when you started pioneering this style?

Clinton: Loosely, yeah just playing lose and jamming, grooving, the simplest form of making music which is probably the first. You know there's beating on a tree trunk with a stick, which is very funky. That's why rap is so funky, because they take somebody else's record and just scratch it around. You know (when) you can't afford instruments, you scratch and start rapping to it. That's a very funky rhythm.

Q: Yeah and it's effective too.

Clinton: Oh, yeah, it always ends up brand new. It starts off very simple but according to the person's creativity, the one who's doing it, it always ends up into something brand new of its own.

Q: What are some of your memories back in the barbershop in Plainsfield? Billy's mentioned some details but what's your perspective?


Clinton: Yeah, he was about ten or eleven years old hanging around the barbershop. He was too young to even be in there. I remember when he was just out of his diapers. So, yeah Billy went on the road with us when he was about thirteen.

Q: It seems rather odd that a barbershop would spawn a new kind of music.

Clinton: Yeah, it's kind of weird that it would do that but Plainsfield New Jersey is a weird kind of place. Those were the days of doo-wop singing. We were all in love with Motown but we were there in Jersey, you know, waiting to be discovered. So, the barbershop's the best place to do it because you got the kind of customers that will come (to the shows) when they can 'cause they're there to get their hair done and hear the music. So, because I could schedule my customers, I was allowed the opportunity to go back and forth between New York to Detroit. In those early days we had Cadillacs at seventeen years old and no one had a license. Plainsfield was just a weird place. It was probably like the first highly scholastic black town. I mean, the high school was like the highest. You know, I was from Newark but with all the kids hanging around there, I tried to teach them music 'cause most of them were on junk; shooting heroin and stuff like that. They were young. It was a strange place having come from Newark. It was just it didn't seem right 'cause all the junkies were like older people and it was never considered a hip thing to do. But in Plainsfield everybody did it, so we were the older ones and we had this community center kind of thing for the kids, for music, for Billy, for Eddy (Hazel), for all of them just trying to keep them out of that scene. So, they all ended up learning about guitars and more.

Q: Did that environment influence your style of music?

Clinton: Yeah it did because the attitude we had to deal with was one that you had to confront. It was like your little brother's playing an instrument in the band. We'd go on the road and we stared with a doo-wop group and then we saw the Temptations, Motown and all that and as we said, "We ain't gonna stay cooped up 'cause there ain't no room." But we had to stay together and we had little kids like Billy playing bass, Gary (Shider) and we had to make all kinds of concessions to that situation. If anybody got in trouble, we had to say that we were all going to stay with that person no matter what because we're all in it together. We had to say, "Funk it!" We couldn't fire anybody because these were all our little brothers and sisters, all the people who grew up together, so we had to deal with it no matter what the problem was. So, it made us strong being able to say, "Funk it as far as problems." We had to hang together or we'd have broken up. A lot of that holds over into the group right today. Billy is about thirty nine and I'm in my late forties and he hasn't played with us in years but for the last two weeks he's been playing with us and that's the way it is. If you've ever been in the Funk one time, you're in it all the time and the fans feel the same. They feel like they're part of the band. They don't feel like they're just an audience and so you get a real loyalty from all that.

Q: So, that's how the P-Funk Family grows?

Clinton: Yeah, grows and grows and grows and when somebody does leave to do something else they're still in the band and they'll always show up some place again sooner or later.

Q: Do you have any idea how large the P-Funk Family is?

Clinton: Oh, I'd say fifty to seventy-five 'cause everybody in Bootsie's band is in the Funkadelics. Maybe it's more like seventy five 'cause everybody in the brass, the Parliaments and Horney Horns is in it too. Anybody who's ever been in any of the bands that we've done feel like they're a part of it all. I mean even bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone and Muruga Booker all feel the same. So, whenever we play they're around, they'll be right there on the stage with us and the same with them; whenever I'm around I'll be right up there with them too.

Q: What are some of your thoughts on the recording, the entertainment business and talent?

Clinton: Talent? Like it don't count. They (record companies) loan you money and you cut a record. It should be a joint venture like any other commodity. If I had an apple and you bought it, we'd be in business together but it's not like that. They give you money to cut the record and then they get their money back and their profit before you can even think of getting paid. So, it's like your talent doesn't count. That concept has worked but now people are beginning to question it and now we're getting better contracts.

Q: What are people actually going to make that happen?

Clinton: Just renegotiating 'cause the records aren't yours anyway. After it's over although you paid for it, they took all their money back and their profit. The recording still belongs to them. Same with videos. They take their money out of the profit or your advances to cut the video but it's not your video. You don't own the product you created.

Q: What's the roughest recording contract you've ever had to deal with?

Clinton: Just to cut any record and get paid for it. There ain't no monopolies on that question 'cause most of them are like that.

Q: I heard Nina Simone once say something like that. She was at the end of her rope because the recording companies had stolen her recording profits. She had returned to the United States, from Africa, where she lives, to collect her dues.

Clinton: Well, if you're good, you get to learn that stuff and if you can stay in the game, you can change it a little bit. They sometimes try to keep you out of it when you're learning but you can still learn it. We're getting better deals now because we know what it is. We still got the power we had before. They won't stop it. We ain't subject to when the record companies can say it's over, obsolete, because we know how to keep regenerating it. As long as that happens, we know that there's continuous money involved. They have to conclude that there's no bad risk with us and we ain't gonna subvert the whole thing. We're gonna help it grow.

Q: So, you build up a trust there. You're good and they know it.

Clinton: Yeah and the main thing is that you're worthy of it 'cause if you're not, then they don't feel like messing with you anyway. But we make them know that we ain't going no where. They've learned that we ain't gonna destroy the concept but we are gonna change it. Surviving makes our fans happy. Just to see us survive means that they like us and they buy our records.

Q: Well, when you hit the music scene you pioneered what has become an institution.

Clinton: Yeah, a movement. It might be a bit foolish but it's a movement. We try to keep it that way 'cause I ain't no guru. I want to go out there and get me a woman, a joint. You know what I'm saying? I want to party like anyone so I ain't' gonna be no guru and I do know that there are a lot of practical things too. It's all self-protection. Be cool with each other 'cause if it ain't cool with you, I gotta worry about you hitting me upside the head. It's all just that simple.

Q: It's sometimes seemingly impossible for beginners to break into entertainment and get people to recognize them. There are a lot of great musicians playing all over this country but no one will ever hear about them outside their local community. When you were coming out and beginning to move, how did you succeed?

Clinton: We played some funky stuff that was crazy. In the sixties we were all maggot brains. We were right in that time when the hippies were happening but we were a little bit older. We knew more about the value of the hippies than they knew about themselves. We were glad to see that there was someone, who meant it because where I came from it was, "Watch your back and do it to them before they do it to you." So, when you get out there and you see somebody that's trying to do it another way, it really means something. So, when it came to Motown, they wrote the best songs. It was easy for us to put it in the songs. Then I saw that the funky hippie was the way 'cause I'd been poor all my life and it made sense. I had styles to being poor. All the variations. We took it to some silly points of view and then once I realize that all those other concepts were what made people uptight, then I made up my mind that I'd never get like that again. Having kept that attitude during the seventies, it was new for those who had gotten back to the straight, structural world. So, here I am, somebody who's playing with this silly look and I mean I could even do it in glamour, even if it looks like a lot of money. Those costumes (I wear) are expensive as hell, but they're gonna ask, "Hey, wait a minute, where's that nigger comin' from?" They can't see a spaceship and think it's just a Cadillac. (Laughter from everyone in the room.) So, your mind don't have certain things that I know, certain things you don't perceive. Either I have to show you the picture of it or I said it. Chocolate City and everybody relates to it for one reason or another the same way.

Q: I guess it was a combination of the times that made it a fertile ground for you to break out of that mold.

Clinton: Yeah, free association and the first black group to do it. There were a lot of groups doing rock 'n roll: Sly (and the Family Stone), The Chambers Brothers but we were like all of it all at once. We were like Motown, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Eric Clapton, The Beatles. We were all of them at once.

Q: Did you go through a down turn during the Seventies?

Clinton: Not during the seventies but during the early eighties. We always play underdog anyway so there's something always fucking with us even at the height, during the times when we were selling platinum all the time. Even then it still looked like we were never at the top 'cause we always kept it that way. You know, you get to the top and there's no where to go.

Q: And sometimes you just can't have fun at the top.

Clinton: Right! So, I mean, there's always more ground to cover. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not dead but if you get to the top, you get bored with what's happening 'cause if you catch Happy, you got a real problem. As long as you pursue it, you can have a good time. Catch it and it's like everything else: You'll be bored as hell.

Q: Doesn't that leave you in a down mood?

Clinton: No, I always got something to look forward to. I mean, no matter what, I look forward to moving ahead.

Q: During the eighties Muruga here recorded on four of your albums. How did that come together?

Clinton: I think our keyboard player was a Berklee and Juliard graduate.

Muruga: Yeah and Joey Z.

Clinton: Yeah, Joey Zelebak, one of the guys who worked with us. Like I said, there's one thing: Once you're in the Family, all your family becomes a part of the Funk Family and it grows like that. Once we met Muruga and heard him play we knew he was good but then I had known him years before that but I didn't know him personally as Muruga back then. I'd seen him onstage at Bakers in Detroit doing the jazz shows as Steve Booker, The Solo Maniac. His solo drumming is awesome.

Q: For the most part, we've been talking about the past and present. Do you foresee any general changes happening and if so what?

Clinton: I don't know what but it will have to be a big one because it's boring right now out there. I don't know what it's gonna be but it'll have to be big and drastic because it's been this way for far too long. We've done it all and all we've done is an offshoot from a lot of things like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Motown, and Prince. The music hasn't really gone that far since Sly Stone was around. So, it's just got to go somewhere. Rap is probably the strongest but with even that, something else has to take over.

Q: Do you see yourself at the point where you're ready to make such a change?

Clinton: Well, if it hits me, I'm always ready to make a change. I'm ready to make a change now but I don't know what that is. That has to come in its own time. It has to come through you. You don't just jump up and say, "I'm gonna make a tape today and it'll change everything." It has to work. It has to be accepted and it has to be promoted. All of those have to fall into the same place at the same time. Rapping's the closest but it ain't enough. Something else's got to happen.

Q: You've heard Muruga's Funky Jacket album?

Clinton: Yeah!

Q: When I first heard it, I thought, "Now, that's something new."

Clinton: "Enlightened Funk," that's what he calls it.

Q: He's headed for trance-rock.

Clinton: If I understand that, he's on target.

Q: As you are. Thank you for this wonderful interview.

Wrapping Up

That night I was backstage at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco as the P-Funk handed the audience another party. I thought about George Clinton's rich history. He is an influential strain in modern music. George adds a twist of humor into it all as well. He is the soul of funk. He is the Black-soul of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia was his counterpoint. So much music has come down over the years. No other era has had so much diversity. George Clinton has been one of the major influences on modern music. He admits it but adds, "It can't be pushed."

On the Road with P-Funk next


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