…doo-wop is probably the funkiest of all of the R&B music…
Are you hungry for some “Cosmic Slop”? If you’re “Up For the Downstroke” you must be a George Clinton fan.
Only to the freaky few would Clinton’s lyrics make sense. But that’s OK with him. He’d rather you keep your eye on the funk. “Free your mind,” he’d sing while Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins followed.
He has over 40 R&B hit singles—including number ones “Flash Light” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep”—to his credit In some incarnation or another, whether it was with his bands Funkadelic, Parliament or P.Funk All-Stars, Clinton has been searching for soul for most of his 70 years on this planet so far.
Speaking with Gene, Clinton starts off in outer space discussing his love of sci-fi. But it doesn’t take him long to get to the ham hock.
GENE: I read that you were a fan of Star Trek as a kid?
George: Oh, I loved it.
GENE: Was that part of what inspired your intergalactic funk?
George: Oh, yes, probably, and science fiction. I got to New Jersey around the same time as “War of the Worlds” came out. That was like in 1952 or 1953 or whatever that era was. I fell in love with that stuff then, and then that Captain Video. And all that just ran into Star Wars.
GENE: Have you seen the latest Star Trek?
George: No, I haven’t seen the latest one. I’m going to see it.
GENE: You were also a doo-wop fan. Do you think you’ll ever start a doo-wop group?
George: Parliament was a doo-wop group.
GENE: A doo-wop version of “Testify” was one of your first hit songs, right?
George: Yeah, we was doing the Ritchie Valens “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and “Sunday Kind of Love” and all those—right when the Monotones did “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” We did it with the same [record] company that the Monotones did “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” with. It was Revilot Records in New York.
GENE: It seems to me that doo-wop is the polar opposite of what you’re known for. Do funk and doo-wop have anything in common to you?
George: Well, I mean, doo-wop is probably the funkiest of all of the R&B music ’cause it is really basic. The only thing that got close to doo-wop is hip-hop, with the spitting the beat. The doo-wop, you sung the music parts as opposed to having all instruments. You have a few instruments, but you actually vocalize the instrument parts and the harmonies. So it was real basic, which is funky as you can get. Then you have a cappella—really funky instrument parts with the vocals. Then you start getting slick and get all the way up into Motown, Phil Spector and all that. It’s still R&B music, but it gets sophisticated in pop. When you get less and less instrumentation in there, it becomes funky.
GENE: In your group now, there’s how many, 20-something members?
George: Yep, almost 30. But we’re never on stage all at the same time.
GENE: If somebody wants to go take a shower they can?
George: They can, and it’s a tag-team thing. It doesn’t matter who it is in fact. I’ll take off, or anybody can take off and we just keep going. The funk thing of it is that we can do it no matter what’s up there, and that actually helps the music and that keeps us on our toes.
GENE: My mind is still trying to get around the similarities between doo-wop and hip-hop. I would’ve never thought of them as being similar before.
George: Yeah, funk is the DNA for hip-hop. Hip-hop means that you basically just spit the beat or rap, talk; and with doo–wop you’re just a lot of, “Darling, I love you…” lots of forms or half-forms or semi-forms and you sing the beats, the doo, doo, doo. Basically, it’s pretty much the same.
GENE: People can easily hear the influence of Sly Stone, James Brown and Frank Zappa in your stuff…
George: Easily. All of it fits in there.
GENE: Are there things in there that people don’t usually pick up on?
George: We have a lot of jazz, a lot of classical music. A lot of our Funkadelic songs you’ll hear piano parts going through there that this guy [Bernie Worrell] had to go to school to learn. He did. He graduated from Julliard and Berkeley. Funkadelic had the ability to put any of that stuff together with each other. There is no set laws about nothing. We were real. Motown, that was my favorite stuff. And I love the Beatles. You take all those concepts and you just put them together and you get stuff like the psychedelic Jimmy Hendrix and the spacey poetic-ness of his lyrics, or Bob Dylan or any of the nonsensical 60s stuff. Rap, Yes or Queen, all of that, you can mix them all together. It doesn’t matter.
GENE: In your song, “What is Soul,” you sang soul is “a ham hock in your Cornflakes…”
George: What is soul? A giant roll of toilet paper, the ring around your bathtub, all of that, what is funk? That’s all the same thing.
GENE: And what is it these days? Is there another definition for it these days?
George: Soul and funk encompasses all of that. It has to be the soul that you really appreciate in the abstract art of funk. You have to be soulful to appreciate feedback. You got to have that opening of your soul for it not to be noise. There’s a certain threshold where noise becomes appreciatable.
GENE: So soul makes the artsy-stuff make sense?
George: It makes sense, right. Things were ugly and all of a sudden there was peace and love, and you’d be surprised at how wide that could be stretched. First is artsy-fartsy, then a lot of people don’t believe in it. But as they get comfortable with it, you actually are able to appreciate Sun Ra or say, Miles Davis, when they just start sounding like their horn is broke. It takes soul to appreciate that, and that space in your head where you allow yourself to grow.
GENE: Do you remember what your first memory of music is?
George: My first memory is my mother listening to Louis Jordan, stuff like that. But me being interested in being the one to do it? That would’ve been my cousin taking me to see The Shirelles rehearse and then going and seeing them and The Spaniels all at the Apollo when I was about 13 or 14, and saying, “Damn, I wanna do that.” Then Frankie Valens came out, and I said, “I know I’m gonna do that!”
GENE: When you’re doing music now, do you get a similar feeling to the feeling you got from it back then?
George: Oh, yeah. Every time I hear somebody do something that’s really fresh to me, and I wish I had done it, I’m ready to start all over again.