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George Clinton talks Sun Ra, Kendrick, Prince, Jimi Hendrix and more

Space man cometh

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At age 74, there's very little the living legend of funk George Clinton hasn't seen, done, or lived through in music. During the 1970s under the dual banners of Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton and company cemented their position in music history by creating both apocalyptic, feedback-drenched, consciousness-expanding, psychedelic rock epics and unrelentingly funky, burning hot, disco dance floor R&B burners. Clinton's take on music and language laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop and a myriad of other important contemporary musical genres.

But Clinton has never been content to rest upon his musical laurels. He continues to tour relentlessly and record important new work like his current single, the effortlessly grooving "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?" with Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube.


Attending a P-Funk show is one of those must-do musical experiences, a rite of passage for every hardcore music head. If you've never been initiated into the world of P-Funk you'll have a gold opportunity to do so this Friday, May 6 at The Vogue. Clinton promised me the show will be "a three ring circus" that "everybody can enjoy,” adding that all attendees will dance so hard they'll need "to bring two booties."

NUVO: Mr. Clinton, if you don't mind I want to start off by asking you a few questions about the Mothership, the iconic flying saucer stage prop you created in 1976 for the P-Funk Earth Tour. According to a 2011 Washington Post article the original 1976 Mothership was sold for scrap during the early '80s. But a few years ago a reconstructed model of the Mothership was acquired for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

George Clinton: We had the Mothership remade for a tour in the late '90s and that's the one they have in the Smithsonian. But there's a smaller version right there in Indianapolis.

NUVO: That's exactly what I was leading into. The baby Mothership is on display now here in Indianapolis. Have you heard about this?

Clinton: I just heard about it. I heard they have it in some kind of museum?

NUVO: Yes, it's called the Museum of Psychphonics, in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. It's my understudying that the baby Mothership was used in the '70s during the P-Funk Earth Tour to introduce the larger Mothership as it made its dramatic appearance onstage.

Clinton: Yeah, that's the one that flew over the crowd's heads in the coliseums. Then it would disappear and the big one would descend. They worked in conjunction. But I got scared about using the little one because it was flying over people's heads and I didn't want it to fall on anybody.

RELATED: Read all about the Museum of Psychphonics

NUVO: I understand there were also fireworks shooting out of the baby Mothership as it flew over the audience. It does seem like that could've been a huge liability for you if something went wrong.

Clinton: Right, it was a liability and I got paranoid so we stopped using it.

NUVO: How do you feel about seeing these stage props you conceptualized being enshrined in museums. In the U.S., it doesn't get more prestigious than the Smithsonian.

Clinton: [laughs] Right, I know! I was glad they did that. Those props are getting more important as a part of the history of the music because the music is getting so big now. You know, with all the people sampling it. It's becoming such a big thing. It's going to be like classical music.

NUVO: There's been a lot of scholarly analysis of your work in recent years. Some cultural commentators and academics are placing the Mothership era of P-Funk within the context of the concept of Afrofuturism. As I'm sure you know, the term Afrofutursim was coined in the 1990s to describe the work of artists like you, or Sun Ra who were creating art that looked toward the future while mixing themes of space and technology with traditional African or African American culture. Are you cool with your work being classified as Afrofuturist?

Clinton: Yeah, funk or R&B — that groove — they change the name every so often, but we continue to call it funk, and rock and roll is an extension of that. All of that came from a futurist standpoint. It came from an era when we were contemplating space travel. We created funk for outer space: myself, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, David Bowie and Labelle. All of that was the beginning of the theatrical sci-fi.

NUVO: On the topic of Sun Ra, I remember reading a quote from you regarding Sun Ra in an interview with Option magazine in the early '90s. When asked about Sun Ra, you said "Sun Ra is out to lunch - the same place I eat at."

Clinton: Right, exactly. Me and Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix we were eating at the same lunch counter. [laughs] 

NUVO: A lot of music journalists and music historians have speculated, or even assumed that you based a lot of your space-themed concepts on Sun Ra's work. For folks that don't know, Sun Ra was an incredible avant-garde jazz bandleader who claimed he was from the planet Saturn and he recorded over 100 albums of experimental music that consistently explored cosmic themes of space travel and Blackness. I'm curious if you were checking out Sun Ra during the '60s and '70s?

Clinton: I didn't really check Sun Ra out until the '90s. But I had heard of him and what I found out was that he had done doo-wop music too. He had been involved in R&B and doo-wop music early in his career. When I saw how much we were alike I went to see him when he came to Detroit. He was playing jazzy, sci-fi, R&B music. Sun Ra would play anything.

NUVO: Right! Sun Ra recorded some doo-wop records with the Cosmic Rays while he was based in Chicago during the 1950s. I'm glad you mentioned that because I wanted to ask about your connection to doo-wop. In your teenage years during the late 1950s you started The Parliaments as a doo-wop group in Plainfield, New Jersey. You even recorded some very rare 45 RPM doo-wop singles like "You Make Me Wanna Cry" and "Poor Willie". Do you see doo-wop as having an important role in the cosmic equation of space funk?

Clinton: Oh yeah, we were preoccupied with vocals in Parliament. Doo-wop was definitely the essence, because it comes from the same place the blues came from. But we'd do it in conjunction with Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins. We had a lot of doo-wop in our sound. In Bootsy's stuff there was a lot about old doo-wop, you know like "I'd Rather Be With You" and "What's A Telephone Bill." Parliament and Funkadelic have a lot of doo-wop in it. That's my thing, mixing all the eras of music from Motown to psychedelic to jazz to gospel.

NUVO: Was doo-wop one of the first styles of music to grab your attention as a young person?

Clinton: Oh yeah, that was the music that you could chase the girls with. You know when Frankie Lymon came out with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"? Rock and roll was just getting started then. Doo-wop and rock and roll were pretty much the same thing.

NUVO: You've likely played well over two dozen shows in Indianapolis throughout your career, and I know you play hundreds of concerts all over the world year after year after year. But I did want to ask you about a couple specific gigs you played here in Indianapolis.

The first show I want to ask you about happened in March of 1978. Parliament-Funkadelic was headlining a tour for Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). You had a date at Market Square Arena with Cameo and The Bar-Kays, but as part of that tour there was also a contest where Parliament-Funkadelic offered to play a gig at a local Indianapolis high school. And you did indeed play a gig in the gymnasium of Broad Ripple High School for the kids right in the middle of the school day! Do you have any memories of that gig in the Broad Ripple school gym?

Clinton: Yeah I remember that. We did a lot of touring through Indianapolis when we were on Casablanca Records. We used to call it Naptown. Like you said at that particular show we played in the school gym! There was a big echoey sound. [laughs]

NUVO: The kids must have gone crazy, right?

Clinton: Oh yeah, that was right when Parliament-Funkadelic was in the heat of it.

NUVO: Do you think the teachers and the principal at Broad Ripple High School had any reservations about having one of the wildest groups in music playing for the kids during school?

Clinton: No! We tore the joint up, but the teachers were out there dancing just like the kids.

NUVO: The other show I wanted to ask you about happened in July of 1972. Parliament-Funkadelic played at the legendary Madame Walker Theater on Indiana Avenue. Do you have any recollection of that show?

Clinton: Did you have a club there called the 20 Grand?

NUVO: No, the 20 Grand club was not on Indiana Avenue. The 20 Grand was on 34th Street, which was several blocks away. But I'm thinking that the 20 Grand could have been the spot where the first Funkadelic show in Indianapolis happened.

Clinton: It was! I have a photographic memory.

NUVO: OK, several great local and national acts played at the 20 Grand. Indianapolis funk legends The Highlighters were the house band for the 20 Grand at one point, and huge stars played the 20 Grand, everyone from Bobby "Blue" Bland, to War, to the O'Jays, to Rudy Ray Moore, to Rufus Thomas, to the Ohio Players played the 20 Grand.

But getting back to that 1972 gig at the Walker.  Do you remember being on Indiana Avenue, and at that time did you have any sense of the music history that went down on the Avenue? Indiana Avenue was like our Beale Street here in Indianapolis.

Clinton: No, I didn't realize that until later on. Later on I realized it was kind of like Memphis or New Orleans and they had a jazz scene and a club scene there. But I did know the 20 Grand was part of some kind of scene because we'd come down there with the radio DJs. They used to call it the "Chitlin' Circuit" and we played that for years.

NUVO: You should check out the book The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach. He demonstrates how the Indianapolis promoter Denver Ferguson laid the groundwork for what would become the Chitlin' Circuit right here in Naptown.

Mr. Clinton, I've been a fan of yours for years. I first saw Parliament-Funkadelic when I was a youngster. I wasn't even old enough to drive and I remember that my mom had to drop me off and pick me up at the concert. The show was at the Murat Theatre. It was September of 1992 and the presidential election was in full swing at that time with Bill Clinton, the first George Bush and Ross Perot running. I remember that show was centered around the theme of the election. You were selling "George Clinton for President" shirts, and you were leading the crowd with chants like "paint the White House black." So I'm wondering if the 2016 presidential election is reflected in your current work and live show?

Clinton: Yeah, we got our latest album out called First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate and the single on that is "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?" with Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube. The album is mirroring all the political craziness that's going on and the vibe that's out there now with all the people that's running. Of course we're always going to have something to say to make you think. It's definitely reflecting what I call the socially engineered, anarchy-induced chaos.

NUVO: I'm curious what you think of Donald Trump and the nasty tone he's established in this election cycle?

Clinton: It's a reality type of world that we live in. That has caught on, the reality shows and that style of communicating and relating. It might not seem quite as bad to some people as it really is - but it's horrible. People are getting desensitized to it. But right now everybody's so pissed at being run over that they really just don't care. It's going to be a mess sooner or later if we can't come to some kind of understanding. Like I said it's socially engineered, anarchy-induced chaos. It's promoted. It's been there for while, but now it's getting real bad.

NUVO: A lot of the classic work you created with Parliament-Funkadelic has contemplated the role music can have in neutralizing the "socially-engineered, anarchy-induced chaos" you just mentioned. It strikes me that many of the concepts in your music mirror the writing of Ishmael Reed in his brilliant 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo and I -

Clinton: OH MY GOD! MUMBO JUMBO! You know that book?

NUVO: Yes, it's one of my all-time favorite books.

Clinton: That's one of my favorite books! It's so parallel with funk.

NUVO: In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed writes about the "Jes Grew", which represents a sort-of blend of ragtime and jazz music with other African American cultural forms. Reed talks about the "Jes Grew" as being a force of liberation. The "Jes Grew" spreads like a virus that the government and authorities can't control or stop. Did Reed's concept of "Jes Grew" influence your ideology of funk?

Clinton: Somebody gave me that book in 1978. I was walking down the street and somebody in a long coat walked up to me and handed me that book. That book was so reminiscent of what we were doing with funk and what I thought funk was going to be about. I just treasured that book.

We actually got Ishmael Reed to do a thing for us. P-Funk had our own version of the Grammys and we called it the Sir Nose Awards [note: Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, or Sir Nose Devoid of Funk, is an essential character within P-Funk mythology. Sir Nose represents a square character who never dances and is immune to the beneficial forces of funk]. We got Ishmael Reed to come present an award to Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records [who signed Parliament to Casablanca] and Bob Krasnow from Warner Brothers [who signed Funkadelic to Warner]. They were the people who did the most for us, but at the same time they were also the jerks at the record company. We had to give them a Sir Nose Award because even though they'd done a lot for us, we felt they could've done more. Ishmael Reed presented the award and he gave a speech about rats and cheese. He was so good everybody was looking for the cheese on the floor around their feet because they knew there were a lot of rats in there. [laughs]


NUVO: Wow, so you weren't even aware of Mumbo Jumbo and Reed's work until 1978?

Clinton: Right, I didn't know about that book until 1978 and this guy hobbled up to me and gave me a copy on the street. When I read it, it blew me away with Ishmael Reed's rhythm and all the things he said. You know Prince hadn't even come around yet, but in Mumbo Jumbo Reed said somebody was going to show up in Minneapolis or Milwaukee, a mulatto-type of person who would be doing the "Jes Grew" and I'll be damned if Prince didn't show up!

NUVO: Do you see music as having an important role in the movement for social justice?

Clinton: It's a social and political medicine. That's what music is. My next album is going to be called Medicaid Fraud Dog and it's going to deal with all this medicine you see advertised on television. They messing with the DNA and the food. There's a whole food and drug connection that I'm going to be exploring on the next album. And the insurance companies too.

NUVO: Parliament-Funkadelic emerged in an era of socially conscious music like Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and The Last Poets. Do you think artists have a responsibility to comment on social issues?

Clinton: Basically an artist should do whatever they feel. They shouldn't have no obligations or nothing, because that ain't something you just do. When it's needed — a Kendrick Lamar shows up. When it's needed — a Public Enemy, or a Bob Dylan, or a Beatles shows up. The system is always going to be downtrodden on the people. But artists paint pictures about what they see. We had no idea about NWA when they was doing what they was doing. We thought it was party music and we was jamming. We didn't even realize the social connotations of what they were saying. We realize it now after Straight Outta Compton much more than you could have when they was doing it.

But there's always a group that shows up that has that message. Gospel groups are always doing it. But right now it's Kendrick Lamar. He's got everybody's jaw hanging.

NUVO: As you mentioned earlier, you recently recorded a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. What do you think of this new generation of funksters like Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus?

Clinton: That's what I'm talking about: Flying Lotus - that's the connection. That crew with Flying Lotus and Thundercat, and all the guys playing with them. That's the new style of funk. That is the future of it. That is the Afrofuturism that we were talking about.

NUVO: Mr. Clinton it was an honor to speak with you today, and before I let you go I wanted to go back to that statement you made earlier regarding funk as being a form of classical music. Do you see funk continuing to grow and evolve after all of us here on Earth now are gone?

Clinton: You know a lot of pop standards came out of melodies from classical music. The same thing is happening to funk with samples used to make other songs. It's just a new way of doing it. Classical music had long pieces, just like in funk music we had long pieces. But now people are into Snapchat and they just want pieces of things. Even though we still specialize in jamming forever — the kids just basically need a piece of that. "Gimme a piece of that, lock it into a loop and let me groove to it." That's cool, that's why they got remixes. But we do both, we make the record and then we sample it and remix it ourselves.

If you go: 

George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic 

Friday, May 6, 8 p.m. 

Vogue, 6259 N. College Ave. 

$36.50 - $40, 21+ 

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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