George Clinton: That’s Called Funk

Darry Madden
February 21, 2012
George Clinton performs with the Berklee P-Funk Ensemble.
Members of Berklee's P-Funk Ensemble perform with George Clinton, who was at the college receiving an honorary degree.
"Whenever I hear older musicians or parents say, 'that ain’t music,' that sparks my interest. ‘Cause that’s going to be the new music," Clinton told students.
George Clinton interacts with the audience.
George Clinton receives an honorary degree from President Roger Brown.
Photo Kelly Davidson
Photo Kelly Davidson
Photo Kelly Davidson
Photo Kelly Davidson
Photo Kelly Davidson

Here is George Clinton’s recipe for commercial and critical success: A spaceship, diapers, add a willingness to upend music business orthodoxy and reinvent contracts, sampling, and production.

The Godfather of Funk began making music in the 1960s as part of the Parliaments, a doo-wop quintet. Clinton’s evolution as an artist transformed the group into the preeminent funk rock band of the era, playing to crowds of 90,000. His business savvy helped the band navigate a changing music industry landscape, often finding new and revolutionary ways of operating. For example, Clinton was one of the very first acts to license the name and master recordings of a band to a record label, but not the band members themselves. Decades later, his music was engaged in a landmark sampling case, which resulted in a ruling that any sound recording, no matter how small, must be licensed for use.

The day before he put on a show with Lenny Stallworth's P-Funk Ensemble and accepted an honorary degree at the Berklee Performance Center, Clinton shared his five decades of wisdom with Berklee students during a clinic at the Berklee Performance Center. Here is a condensed and edited sampling of his comments:


On making the transition from the Parliaments to Funkadelic:

When the Rolling Stones and other acts started coming over from England, they were playing the Boston Garden, the L.A. Coliseum, and we realized, 'Wait a minute, we’re short sighted.' So we took the suits off, got diapers, sheets, wigs, and Marshall amps [Most African American acts at this time were using small amps, but Clinton wanted to use Marshalls. It changed the types of venues these acts could get into.]

If we were going to change from the doo-wop days, it had to look like money. I said, ‘Give me a line of credit, let me buy a spaceship.’ [the iconic stage prop called the Mothership] The record labels then were promotion men first, so they understood what I meant. They got me a million dollar line of credit. Everyone in the band had Sevilles, somebody had a Porsche. We had 28 vehicles, and I had a spaceship.

On his forward-thinking idea regarding record label contracts:

Like Duke Ellington or Count Basie, we had the same players all the time, so in essence it was a group, but it just wasn’t signed as a group. I signed only the name Funkadelic to Warner Bros. And Funkadelic was whoever I had on the record. Mostly the same people who played in Parliament. Parliament was owned by Casablanca—just the name and myself. I could put anybody else that I wanted to on the record, and that way I could keep spinning them off. The girls became Parlette, or Brides of Funkenstein.

The source of his passion for funk:

Love. I love what I’m doing. That makes it easier. That makes it not be a job. I could do it all day, all night. That makes it much easier, when you love what you’re doing.

Learn from his mistakes, or don’t:

As an artist, you’d do anything to get to be famous anyway. I could tell you about my mistakes, but if I had to do it again, I do it just like that and get out of my mess later on. But I’m not going to miss an opportunity to go ahead and take that shot. You can always clean it up later. If you’ve got that dream and that passion to do this, nothing I’m saying is going to stop you from taking that shot.

Rehearsing with Funkadelic:

We barely ever rehearsed. And when we did rehearse, for something like Lollapalooza, where we got something like an hour to play, we did rehearse to make sure we could get it all in the hour. As soon as we got off tour, it was back to four hours and doing whatever we wanted to. And I have a sixth sense as to how to marshal the band. I’m like a traffic cop. I look out in the audience and think, “Oh, they’d probably like this, that, and that.” We play the first three or four songs normal, and then after that: whatever else happened. That’s called funk.

Starting out on a small budget:

We got towels from the Holiday Inn, made diapers out of them, got a sheet off the bed, cut a hole in it. We came to Boston and we went to the masquerade shop and bought them out of chicken feet and feathers. We got our stuff from the garbage. We wore any and everything we got our hands on. And sometimes we’d wear nothing. But the music was always the main focus.

On staying musically inspired:

Whenever I hear older musicians or parents say, “that ain’t music,” that sparks my interest. 'Cause that’s going to be the new music. Kids love to do what their parents hate. Or what their big brothers and sisters hate. So when I hear that, I’m down with it.