George Clinton is an incomparable legend. With his musical identity forever linked with his style, George’s history, mantras, and the future of funkadelic are all on the table when discussing the political groove, Chocolate City.
Episode 1: George Clinton - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: When the legend that is George Clinton got out of his car on the day of this interview, he looked like a magnificent cartoon superhero, and it all seemed completely natural. George and I talked about everything from him growing up in the shadow of Motown, to how he constructed the band, and the songs that would eventually place him amongst the absolute legends of modern music. It was a magical experience and I absolutely loved every minute of him. He is so sharp, and so engaging, and so humble. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the King of Funk, Mr. George Clinton. George Clinton. Thank you so much for sitting down with me this afternoon.
George: Good to be here.
Shirley: I'm, um, a little freaked out looking across at you in all your splendor.
George: Ah, don't worry about it, don’t worry about it.
Shirley: [Laughs] You do not disappoint, let's leave it at that.
George: Okay, good. I’m glad I do that, and you’re over there sounding like Bobby Gillespie [Laughs].
Shirley: I'd love to sound like Bobby Gillespie!
George: That’s- well, we used to have the hardest time understanding each other, but we communicated very well.
Shirley: Well, your hearts are coming from a similar place, of course.
George: Okay, that’s what it was [Laughs]. Primal Scream, yeah.
Shirley: Yeah. I was listening to your music then I'm like, this is spiritual music. It's motivational. It's reaching for something.
George: Well, that, that was the sixties. It was all about Kahlil Gibran and The Prophet, and you know all of that lofty-
George: Thinking that was it, and it’s real. Even though commercials and things take over and pretty much run shit, I always felt that we evolve and that stuff comes in handy and if you can keep a taste of it in the insanity that's going on, you get- It's like prayers. It’s like church.
Shirley: Sure, so was this a deliberate choice? Like you wanted-
George: Well it’s my version of, of church or whatever you want to- I mean, I'm not goin- I didn't go to church to be no gospel singer. It was the philosophy in, you know, dreaming. A lot of it was really real. I might have took it too long. I didn't think about the money until really lately when I realized I got to leave some for my heirs and all of that, that I started taking care of business and getting the copyright issues and all that stuff.
George: None of that mattered to me, just getting the spaceship off the ground, and getting it out there. I can come back and clean it up later, I always thought.
Shirley: Yeah. Did you feel like a hippie?
George: I wanted to be. I was too old already.
Shirley: Oh, do shut up!
George: By the time we got there. When you was 24, you was already too old.
Shirley: So, did you feel like a square?
George: Not a square because we felt hipper than all of ‘em. We saw what they was- we saw, what they was doing, reaching for. We had to sneak into it. You can't just come in and burstin’ in like you know everything ‘cause then you are a square.
Shirley: But you are a rebel, right?
George: Yeah, rebels! Yeah! That's why we put on stuff, “Y’all ain’t really hippies. We're going to show you how to be hippies for real. Put on a diaper. Put on a sheet!”
Shirley: And were you aware that you were freaking people out?
George: Yeah, we used to pride ourselves on chasing them out the club [Laughs]. I mean that was part of it, and I ended up looking at myself 50 years later. You still a hippie, you know?
Shirley: Yeah. So, the purpose of this show is to talk about a moment in an artist's creative life where you're taken somewhere different by your own creativity, your own, sort of, look into what you can do and what's possible, and you have picked Chocolate City. Where were you in your life when you wrote Chocolate City?
George: But it's a DC song, we was writing about DC. I was in Detroit during the time we'd done Up for the Down Stroke and that was, “Okay, we can get into R&B like James Brown or like Sly Stone.” With the Chocolate City, the subject matter was someplace that you never pictured blacks before. Chocolate City, which was DC. And the people, you know, the um, Richard Pryor, and uh, Aretha Franklin, all the current people that was happening at that time.
Shirley: Imagining them in the White House.
George: Yeah, imagine them in the White House, what the house would be like. It sounded like a DJ talking. We had popular DJs back then, you know Frankie Crocker's and the fat daddies in Baltimore and Washington, and all- DJs was like a, a second mayor. They could call the community out, they could get everybody together.
George: And by the time I got to Mothership they started cutting down on DJ's talking, and DJs start showing up in the clubs. That became the radio, and it wasn't but a few, two or three years later before they actually started making records, doing that, talking over somebody else's record.
Shirley: Is that how you wrote Chocolate City? By talking over a track, or did it-?
George: Yeah, yeah, sometimes I'd talk while they was cutting, and I left it on there cause I did most of it on the fly, and I just left it on there, but-
Shirley: It was all improvised?
George: Yeah, most of that. Yeah, I knew the topic, the subject matter so it was easy to just talk shit over top. Especially if it's a cool track, you just get into the flow of it. It's almost like a preacher. “W. E. F. U. N. K, we funky. Home of the extra terrestrial brother, dealers of funky music, P-Funk, uncut funk, the bomb coming to you directly from the top of the Chocolate Milky Way. 500,000 kiloWatts of P-Funk power. Kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your ear hole. I'm known as Lollipop Man, alias ‘The Long Head Sucker’, and my motto is, ‘Make my funk the P-Funk.’ Uncut, don't step on my funk, it's the bomb.”
Shirley: When you finished the track, did you know it was special?
George: Oh yeah! But then we had gotten out of trying to make singles. We came from that rock and roll of albums, like jazz albums, gospel albums, and rock and roll didn't have to have hit records. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have no hit singles, his whole album was hits. His licks was hit off each song. So when you did it like that, you didn't have to be in that day to day competition with ‘who's on the chart? Who's not on the chart?’ They called it underground.
Shirley: So, what did the record company say when you presented it?
George: Well, we had just got with a company called Casablanca records, which was Neil Bogart. He had Kiss, Donna Summers.
George: The Village People, all of us was controversy.
George: So he, but he already had his army together to promote it. All the pop stations loved him, but when he got us, I told him, “We got a first hit record, uh, Tear the Roof Off. You ain't got to give me the money, buy me a spaceship.” Once he got spaceship, it was the best prop ‘cause now I'm able-
Shirley: Now hold on, hold on, hold on. What do you mean, ‘once you got the spaceship’?
George: He gave me the finance, instead of giving me my royalty. He was at the bank-
Shirley: Gave you some money.
George: He, the bank gave me the money, and I had the spaceship built in New York on Broadway where they would do Broadway plays. The spaceship became one big promotion. So I finally got with somebody who could promote the way that-
Shirley: You saw it
George: That I saw- especially about doing something strange.
Shirley: Was Bernie Worrell your co-writer with Chocolate City?
George: Bernie Worrell, and… Let’s see, who else? Yeah, Bernie- Bootsy.
Shirley: And how, so how did that work? Say, “Play this, try that”?
George: But I-I-I wrote most of the lyrics, you know?
Shirley: And you sing them, right?
George: And I sing them pretty much back then, and that was usually the songwriting. But I cherish, you know, the band members so much that I wanted them to be a part of it.
George: Participate. So, if they participated, and it became like the foundation of a song. You know, most of the musicians you pay them for the session and they’re expected to contribute what they do, so to get the next session. But I like- they special, they- some good part of the song and we can all be, if even if I did it or you did it we, the three of us was partners: Bootsy, Bernie, and myself, on the songs we did together.
Shirley: Did you have a vision, or like you say you just were in the studio and you, you freestyled?
George: I knew- I-I just knew that one was going to work, you know, just- my job was just to stay out of the way of the track. I can talk shit but just don't get in the way of the track with- too much. And Chocolate City was that one I could actually talk some really profound stuff, really. “Was was that m- CC?” Blah blah blah, you know? You street talk and just do that, but stay out of the way of the music.
George: And what I had learned at Motown, how to write a straight song, you know?
Shirley: And you were a writer for Motown, right? Staff writer?
George: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, coming out, and then seeing all those writers and producers, that was, to me, was the best school of music there ever was.
Shirley: And now you don't play an instrument, is that correct?
Shirley: See this blows my mind that you're this- so accomplished and yet you don't actually play anything.
George: Well, I paid attention to what each one of ‘em do.
Shirley: So, of course, I mean.
George: So, you know, so it’s basically like a range- like an- a producer, a director, or arranger. I'm just the quick wit, who can do what and I bring those elements together with each other and a lot of them once I do, is people that wouldn't even get together themselves with each other, you know, cause they just going the opposite ways, but they would come together for me. Our band was like our little brothers. We had told them in the, the neighborhood, um, community center. They had drums and guitars when they first picked them up. So Billy Nelson was the, he was the guitar player at first. He didn't know what a guitar was, had to get him one. He'd take it apart and couldn't even put it together again. But by the time we got on the road, he was the first musician. By the time he get back home, he got his friend Eddie Hazel. And so they just ran in and out of the barbershop all the while we was there. But now we had a lil’ band that all had to play with the chords basically. You know, it's like, um, Duke Ellington, George Duke, Frank Zappa, they brought people together. You know, the same thing is happening now with hip hop. They do features on each other's record. When I did that, I tried to have different musicians all in the same band.
Shirley: And a lot of, uh, positivity and-
George: Posit- Always fun!
George: It’s got to be fun. And by having those young kids in the band that kept us a generation behind us. I realized from then on it was always about reach back and get somebody to influence you from a generation behind you for what you just did. Once it was Eddie, Billy, and Tiki, and all them, the next set was their little brothers- was Garry Shider, Cordell Mosson. They were all from the same city, playing from New Jersey, so we would always reach back and they was kids, you know, that sparked something new in us.
Shirley: Where does all this enthusiasm come from? Were you taught to be enthusiastic? Did you practice being enthusiastic? I mean, you are an enthusiast. It's dripping out of you in every way.
George: [Laughs] I don't know, I think- just likin’ what you’re doin’ in- in music and seeing so many good people doing it. I'm never satisfied, as soon as I hear somebody doing what you say, now I feel like I ain't done nothing, I'm ready to start over again.
Shirley: Throughout your career, it seems to me, while you're incredibly ambitious, is that fair to say?
George: I’m a Leo!
George: Yeah, no no no. [Laughs]
Shirley: That explains everything!
George: No, you got to, you got to, you got to have an ego but you got to know when to tell it to go sit down.
Shirley: But you obviously sit on your ego a lot because you're so generous to other talent.
George: Oh- I know, yeah, but I got one, believe me.
Shirley: Yeah, you’d have to.
George: I-I have to tell myself, I can go in the bathroom, and I make fun of it, ‘cause I can tell myself in the bathroom, “You're a bad motherfucker, you the greatest.”, but I make sure I'm in the bathroom, so I can flesh that shit before I leave. Cause there's somebody out there waiting to tell you you ain't shit.
Shirley: Is this an example, because I wasn't familiar really with the term Afro-futurism, is this- would this be an example?
George: We didn't even call it that then.
Shirley: But would you call it that now?
George: Yes, that was ours. That’s- belong to us. Afro-futurism, P-Funk’s been doing it, a lot of the jazz-fusion things been doing it, then Sun Ra was out there. So- Jimi Hendrix, they lived in outer space as far as I was concerned. So it wasn't no futurism. It was present. Shirley: Sure. Are you proud of what you've done? I mean, if, not many people can say that they basically were one of three or four people who created a genre in music.
George: Oh yeah. Because, now we knew we was gon’ do something-
Shirley: Something that big, though?
George: Yeah, we, cause Motown was doing that. I also worked in New York. I've worked on the Brill Building, so I had a chance to see the New York version, the Phil Spectors, The Tokens, and all of the New York version. Uh, Carol King, Don Kirshner. I seen from the New York side of it. Then you see The Beatles in the stacks, you know, all the possibilities of what can happen here. And then knowing that the business, who's running the company has just as much as- you can have the greatest music in the world, if they never heard or promoted, nobody never know about ‘em. And we prided ourselves- we wanted to be the continuation of Motown ‘cause we were late getting there. We wanted to, to let them know we had that other side that they didn't have. They was slick, and everything. We could have been the other side of it, ‘cause music flipped to the other side of it. It flipped to being funky.
Shirley: And wild.
George: You know, and wild. And with the theory that we're not trying to get a hit record as much as we just want to be so interesting you want to see it. Then Beatles, and all of that, we was going to be all of that.
Shirley: So what's next? What do you do? Like, “I need to do this. Now, while I've got the vigor.”
George: Well, I'm doing it. I'm doing it right now. We- the last two albums that we put out, Shake the Gate and then Medicaid Fraud Dogg. We'd sell out everywhere we go now. And those two records, people- again we’re underground. It's like Maggot Brain was never a hit record, but it's been a standard.
Shirley: Yeah. So you're not quitting?
George: Not for a minute.
George: Yeah. I'm going to have to go a, a little longer. You know, my new slogan is, “It was easier to quit crack than it is to quit the road.” [Laughs]
Shirley: And then finally, I just want to congratulate you on your Lifetime Achievement Award that you're about to be gifted next year.
George: Ah, thank you!
Shirley: Long overdue, right?
George: Yeah. They just gave it to you- the other day.
Shirley: Thank you so much. It's been an absolute thrill.
George: Cool. Thank you.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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