George Clinton, funk pioneer, back on the road to reclaim his legacy
There is no Mothership the night we see George Clinton in Indianapolis, but the funk is flying.
Horns, guitars, drums (two) keyboards (three), singers (four, sometimes five), dancer (dressed in white feathers, with a bare and rippling chest), and 72-year-old George Clinton, conservatively dressed in a shiny brown suit, combine with all the theatricality of a Mothership tour mid-1970s.
We meet Mr Clinton backstage in a room about the same size as the Mothership’s interior, but this one is stocked with beer, crisps and other assorted sweet and salty snacks.
Band members and roadies wander in and out to extract a beer from a crate of ice, or grab some chocolate. Every time the door opens, you get a blast of “one, tsu, one, tsu” as the sound guys tune the desk.
Before the show, the venerable funk architect has agreed to talk about the strangely wonderful decision by the Smithsonian to hang the spaceship that was the central prop for the Mothership tour in its new African American museum.
“That’s the perfect place for it,” George Clinton says. “It not only did the shows, but that album has become the soundtrack for the next 25 years. Hip hop is the same music, for the most part.”
When I ask him whether he was listening to fellow space traveller David Bowie when the concept emerged, he starts to sing Bowie’s hit Fame with a little bit of We Want The Funk mixed in. I think he’s summoning up the universal music space gods to demonstrate the unifying forces of funk. Or he could just be having some fun.
When we see the Mothership the next day, back in Washington DC, it’s being taken apart, carefully, silvery piece by silvery piece, and packed away in boxes with foam inserts, ready to rise again when the museum opens.
It does look a bit like a Dr Who prop from the 1970s, a bit like a Dalek on steroids.
Apparently the original prototype was built like a Sherman tank. It was sold for scrap when the collective fell on hard times in the 90s. But this slightly lighter version, we’re told, is true to that prototype.
The Mothership used to land on stage, lights swirling, smoke billowing, and decant George – aka the Starchild.
Funkadelic on tour
George tells us from behind his oversized inky shades, it “blew minds”. The Mothership concept was sci-fi and agitprop combined, demonstrating to a primarily black audience the notion that there might even be black people in space. George Clinton mentions Aurora from Star Trek, but admits that beyond that, space was a monocultural place. His band Parliament had already put black people into the White House (with its album Chocolate City) so space seemed the obvious next step.
But before there was any Mothership, there was the music. George Clinton is the motherlode – the guy who joins the doo wop to the funk to the hip hop.
In the 60s, he wrote for Motown, but a decade later blew it all apart with a mash of horns guitars rhythm and bass, fronting the bands Parliament and Funkadelic. With their theatrical concepts, and fantastical narratives, they built a new kind of black music, but kept its foundations strong.
As George tells us: “The music stayed true to the root. Even though we were popping with all the other stuff, it was still supremely funky music. Maceo (Parker), Fred (Wesley), Bootsy (Collins), Funkadelic, James Brown… You can’t dilute that. So we did all the theatrics, but we still had the bottom from Motown, that same style from James Brown, from all the black that was around us.”
He became a maestro of his own musical movement, with multiple bands producing a funk franchise that fed and inspired the next generations of popular music, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Prince to an entire constellation of hip hop stars. Parliament, Funkadelic and fellow franchise supremo Bootsy Collins sold over 10 million records in six years.
It hasn’t made George Clinton rich.
He’s not only touring the US and Europe this summer, he’s bringing out a book, a reality show (The Clintons – the First Family of Funk) and another two albums.
The hum of activity is a testimony not only to his continuing creative energies, but also his financial troubles, borne of complex contracts, combative relations with former recording companies, and decades’ worth of legal action aimed at regaining and maintaining the copyright to his own work.
As much as he relishes his role as granddaddy of funk, seeding samples in many a hip hop single, he wants recognition and payment for the musical ideas they’ve filleted and mixed.
“That’s why I’m working so hard for the music because it represents so much. We at least have to put up enough of a fight so people know where it comes from. Because if we don’t fight for it, they won’t even know where it came from. It’s been diluted so much, they sampled it and stole so much.”
If you’re looking for George Clinton’s Mothership next time you’re in Washington DC, you’ll have to go to the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens. Find the musical crossroads exhibition. Walk by Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and then look up. Absorb the extremely funky wonder.
Whether you choose to hum We Want The Funk and shake your booty, ever so slightly, is up to you.
For more, go to George Clinton’s website
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