There's a buzz of activity backstage at the 9:30 Club in Washington. I can hear it over the phone as I wait for one of the godfathers of funk to pick up.
Alongside legends James Brown and Sly Stone, singer, songwriter, producer and cosmic funkonaut George Clinton rounds out what is arguably the holy triumvirate of funk music — the faces that would most likely adorn Mount Funkmore.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, Clinton started a teenage doo-wop group, the Parliaments, in the 1950s. For a brief period he worked as a songwriter for Motown but as psychedelic music came into vogue, and influenced by British invasion rock, LSD, and crazy-ass clothes from Granny Takes a Trip boutique, his band morphed musically, physically and spiritually into Parliament and Funkadelic, later simply referred to as P-Funk.
The freaky group of revolving members led by the colorful, often mohawked Clinton charted numerous R&B hit singles while releasing three platinum albums in the '70s. Known for wild stage personas, members parked their stage prop mothership, now housed at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, inside the Richmond Coliseum for several legendary shows in the mid-'70s.
Through the '80s and beyond, Clinton became a solo artist, produced an early record for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — all while watching his massive influence on hip-hop grow, much of that through sampling. He's still involved in court cases about copyrights.
At 77, having survived crooked record deals, drug addiction, the death of a son, and with a new pacemaker installed and a new marriage, Clinton is on his last concert tour in support of Parliament Funkadelic's first album in 38 years, "Medicaid Fraud Dog," which has received mostly positive reviews.
The New Yorker just called him "one of the most important musical figures in American history" while characterizing his greatest asset as motivational:
"Free your mind and your ass will follow."
The voice that finally answers the phone is thick, hoarse and grainy — sounding almost impossibly spent from a life on the road. But during our brief interview, it lights up with a range of funky voices and exclamations, especially when remembering Richmond.
Style Weekly: So what kind of emotions are going through you on this last funk ride?
Clinton: I'm hanging in there, man. Getting this new crew together and getting them ready for what they gonna be doing when I'm not here. We been doing this for two years now. Getting this new attack from the mothership ready. That's got me excited now.
I'm just leanin' into it, trying to show them what the group is about. The group is the group, it's not just me. To get them to believe that is a valid challenge, too.
Any one reason you're hanging it up?
Naw, I'll be 78 years old by the time I quit. I mean, it'll be time, you know what I'm saying? I want to make sure they can do this now while I'm still around to help 'em do it.
George Clinton: Oh hellll yeah. Shoot. Man. [Laughs]. There was lots of funky days in Richmond. Sho' enuff got some funk. click to tweet
You have any memories of playing Richmond back in the day? I know you've had bandmates from here over the years.
[High pitched] Aw shit yeaahhhhh! Landing the mothership at the Richmond Coliseum lots of times. Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey ... Cherokee. Oh yeah. I used to live in Chase City, which ain't that far (laughs).
Someone told me you used to crash here with a member of the Trash Company, you remember that local group at all?
Naw, I don't remember that.
But Richmond's got some funk in her though?
Oh hellll yeah. Shoot. Man. [Laughs]. There was lots of funky days in Richmond. Sho' enuff got some funk.
What's the story behind the title of the new album, "Medicaid Fraud Dog"?
Well, you know the whole thing is one nation under sedation. The insurance companies and the drug companies and politicians, they got people hooked and they don't even know it. Taking people's money. They got the whole country junkies. You know they make these new diseases — [then] they make new medicines. These doctors and big pharmaceuticals — we guinea pigs!
It's been bad in rural Virginia — you need to read this new book "Dopesick" I just wrote about. Big pharma dropped a billion on lobbying.
[High pitched] Yes! Yes! I mean once they start giving you medicine they can make whatever happen to you happen. Then they treat you for it. They give you one medicine they know gon' fuck your body up, then you need a medicine for that.
I gotta ask you about an old song, one of my all-time favorites — do you have any memories of making "Can You Get to That" from "Maggot Brain"?
Hell yeah [laughs]. Sheeit. [Sings] "I wanna know if you can get to that." I remember. I remember Pat Lewis, myself, Ray Davis, oh shit, Eddie Hazel jamming. Yeah, it was a couple songs, oh wow. Wow. Actually I wrote it as another song and I'm just trying to remember what song it was: [Sings again softer] "I once had a life, or rather life had me … read an old quotation in a book [trails off singing]." Oh! It was another song that we did as Parliament then I did it again, changed it a little bit, slowed it down, and we did it as Funkadelic. But it was another name. I can't think of what song it was [laughs].
I'm fascinated by this alien encounter that you and Bootsy [Collins] had one night in a car. What was up with that?
Oh shit, that was years ago. That was '74, '75. Yep, that was real.
I mean we never knew what happened. We wasn't high, we knew that much. We had just come through the border of Canada, so that was impossible. We had no idea what it was. But just like this, whatever it was hit the car, like mercury in a thermometer, spilt over the side of the car and rolled off. Streetlights went out. It was a phenomenon.
So it was like "Terminator 2" with the silvery liquid junk?
Damn, how you know about that? Yeah! Yeah that's what it was like.
Do you think LSD had a role in the creation of funk?
I mean, hell yeah. My perception of it, yes. People was opening up to trippin' and contemplating. You got "Star Wars," "Star Trek," all those mind-altering concepts was out there during that period. That was on a lotta people's minds, different ways of getting there. I just had a pimped-out spaceship.
So you're playing a jazz fest in Richmond, who are some of your all-time favorite jazz artists?
Aw, shoot. Larry Young Jr. Miles, of course. Sun Ra, shit yea. Weather Report. Wayne Shorter used to live 'bout two blocks from me when we was like 13, 14, in Newark, New Jersey.
Oh yeah? I once saw him do a tribute to Miles [Davis] with Herbie Hancock in Istanbul. Over the years, how often did you get chills from music, either recording or playing?
When you'se on that road, you got chills at everything you did. When you in that zone, all of it. I mean, "Knee Deep," we knew it. "Flashlight." You didn't know where it was coming from, but you knew it. "Atomic Dog" was weird as hell, but we knew it.
Could you narrow down the funkiest dancer you've ever seen?
Aw hell, naw. There always gonna be somebody. As you get older you see muthas defying gravity and physics with their body. It amazes me, you know. I thought hip-hop, you know, break dancing was the end of it. But dayem! Muthafuckas dance like Cirque du Soleil nowadays.
You know what I'm saying? And pretty soon, muthas gon' be flying!
I think you can do whatever you can think of, somebody gonna find a way for you to do it.
Maybe the funk will be headed to outer space next.
I mean, Richard Branson already got his ship, talkin' about vacation cruises.
I got a feeling that will be out of my price range.
Well, I'm gonna see how my credit is [laughs].
How does a 78-year-old godfather of funk retire?
Go fishing. Write some songs. I'm still gonna record, yeah.
When it's all said and done, and the last funkonaut has funked home, how do you hope they remember George Clinton?
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic perform on Saturday, Aug. 11 from 8:30 to 9:45 p.m. on Stage No. 2 — Dominion Energy.