Martin Longley – The Guardian, December 29, 2016
As a major architect of funk, George Clinton deserves a place in music history alongside James Brown and Sly Stone. His work, later remixed and reworked in a string of snatched hip-hop samples, injected inventive energy into the 70s with his albums as leader of the Funkadelic and Parliament outfits.
While he grew up in New Jersey, he was born in North Carolina and Clinton’s southern heritage still has a striking influence on his work.
“I’m a country boy!” he says to me in Texas, as he trucks across the country for a small tour. “We’re getting ready to go out to LA now: in Houston today, leaving tonight, to go to San Diego. It’s the holidays, so there’s going to be a lot of partying between now and the new year!”
At the age of 75, Clinton’s star is still on the ascendant. He’s currently preparing an album for independent record label Brainfeeder, co-produced by founder Flying Lotus and also boasts recent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and the formation of an Afrofuturistic pop supergroup called Woke.
Since kicking harder drugs around the turn of the last decade, Clinton has been performing with renewed vigor. Before a more recent spell in the hospital, he would sometimes take a back seat at his own gigs, hardly delivering the lead vocals, often leaving the stage, and possibly having trouble keeping up with his own legendary tendency towards epic, three-hour-plus shows. Even so, those gigs still cooked, despite any lessening of leader presence: Clinton’s sprawl of players and his extended team of singers and rappers always took care of the funk.
“It’s been great, lately,” he continues, loaded with enthusiasm. “We were just in Hong Kong and Singapore, and it was phenomenal. There’s a lot of creativity going on right now. I’m getting re-enthused about doing this! It’s gradually evolving because the Shake the Gate album [2014’s extended Funkadelic return] is really just now taking off, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You, with Kendrick and Ice Cube. The video did real well. Now, a version of that song is nominated for a Grammy in the electronic music category.”
In recent years, Clinton has returned to a sharper involvement, intensifying the powers of his posse to an even greater extent, as they feed off his manic enthusiasm. He’s slimmer now, imbued with the staying power to stand onstage for most of the set, and is even jumping up and down at key pumpin’ junctures of each show. The psychedelic locks are now sheared, and Clinton’s dressed like an urbane gangster (or possibly a jazz musician). He’ll take lead vocals on many of the songs, and his voice sounds less raw and hoarse than it did a few years back. During the last few days, he’s even returned to a 1970s silver-spangled throwback costume, looking more like Sun Ra than his recent self.
The Clinton output has always been confusing, in terms of the divide between bands. Theoretically, Funkadelic immerse themselves in fuzzed guitar freak-outs, while Parliament tilt towards the dancefloor, but much of First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, although released as Funkadelic, could easily be Parliament material. Sometimes it seems as though Clinton himself is undecided over where any given songs might appear.
“We’re putting out a Parliament album in April,” he says. “It’ll probably be 19 tracks. Medicated Frog Dogs [or quite possibly Medicaid Fraud Dog] is almost finished, and we’re just getting started on the Brainfeeder now. MFD, we’re going into mixing, we’ve just finished putting horns on a lot of the stuff, we just got laying the tracks for the other one. I have a few collaborators with me, I’ve worked with a lot of old members of the band, like Junie Morrison, who did One Nation and Knee Deep with me. Sly Stone is on there, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee [Ellis], of course, the Horny Horns. We’re pretty much closing MFD down, now, because we got too many tracks already.”
A mention of Sly Stone quickens the blood-flow: “I’m gonna see him in a couple of days,” Clinton enthuses. “We did a lot of stuff, and we’re gonna pick out which ones we’re gonna use. He’s gonna get a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys, so I’ll probably be there for that …”
Once in LA, Clinton will be spending time with Flying Lotus, preparing the Brainfeeder album. “It’ll probably be all kinds of ways,” he says, referring to the ratio between fleshly band members and electronic construction. “We’re putting that together right now. We’re just getting started. I’ll put myself in his hands, whereas with Parliament Funkadelic I usually call the shots, but this one, I’m gonna let him call the shots. There’ll be lots of different people, lots of his friends and lots of my friends. We’ve said we’re gonna do it, and we’ll figure out how we’re gonna do it as we go along.”
The next month, starting on 16 February, Clinton will open a much bigger run, the Mardi Gras Madness tour, which will stretch until 4 March. The P-Funk lineup is ever-evolving, but will not feature the return of lead guitarist Michael Hampton, who wasn’t on the last tour. “Not in the near future,” says Clinton. “But he’ll be back sooner or later. Different band members do different things and go different places. Blackbyrd [McKnight] has been back with us this last couple of years, and he’s the main guitarist now. Ricky Rouse is not there now, either.”
The expectation is that his upcoming Las Vegas New Year’s Eve show will tend toward the more epic end of performance duration. “Sometimes they [the venues] won’t let us do the long set! We’re ready for it anyway, because we’re going to have most of the shows to ourselves, the whole three or four hours. Thundercat’s opening up the show this weekend, so we’ll probably do a lot of that stuff together. I did a movie with Lotus, it’s coming out in February. It’s about an hour long. It’s really weird, I can’t even describe it.”
For Clinton, staying relevant is also down to his family, who play a big part in what he does. “I got my grandkids, my kids, my daughter and granddaughter, and a couple of their friends from the studio,” Clinton says. “They’re pretty much on the spot now, they’ve been with us for the last year and a half. I’m really feeling it this time, as my grandkids are just getting into the business. On the record I’m doing quite a bit of singing. They’ve got me feeling good about myself. I let the kids write some for me, and I write for them. My son Tracey wrote a lot of this stuff. I end up trying to mix it between what the band’s about, and what they’re about. I recognise that this is their generation, so I try to merge the two, and we do it together.”
George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic play this weekend in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The Mardi Gras Madness tour starts on 16 February 2017