He’s been in the business for 60 years and he’s still growing strong. The founder and shamanistic frontman of the seminal funk bands Parliament-Funkadelic and the P-Funk All Stars reflects on his long career, and shares lessons he’s learned along the way.
George Clinton was born in an outhouse in North Carolina in 1941.
At 13 he persuaded four friends to form a doo-wop band, the Parliaments. Years later Clinton moved the band to Detroit to try to get signed by Motown. But it was too late. The ’60s, with its cacophonous rock ’n’ roll, race riots and psychedelic drugs, had changed Clinton. “One day I put on a sheet and cut my hair in a Mohawk and walked around town,” he said. “I thought if nobody kicks my ass or arrests me, we’re gonna take this craziness to the stage.”
Within a couple of years, Clinton had become a grand funk provocateur. Under his management style of anarchistic humanitarianism, the musicians of his sprawling funk collective have flowed in and out of the bands that Clinton formed, splintered and merged, putting on outrageous shows and recording music that reflected America’s counterculture and black consciousness. Now in his 70s and still touring with the P-Funk All Stars, Clinton’s musical legacy that began in the era of doo-wop is a still a staple of the era of hip hop. Prince once said of Clinton, “They should give that man a government grant for being so funky.”
1. Someone has to be the ringleader. I was always pushing something. I was just a kid when I started our little doo-wop group, the Parliaments because we were all in love with Motown. I’d go into New York City, knocking on doors to try and make the deals. After we got our hit “(I wanna) Testify,” I moved the band out to Detroit because I wanted us to be the Temptations. Years later we had so many people coming and going on different labels with different acts, I got us our own studio and label. Sure it felt like responsibility, but the guys always left it for me to do all the business stuff. Someone’s got to be in control and if you know what you want, it might as well be you.
2. Grab what you like and bring your own thing. Keep your eye on what’s happening. By the late ’60s, Motown was going pop and that wasn’t right for us. The white boys–Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones–were playing the hell out of the blues so they were able to own it. We missed out on that. I made sure we weren’t going to miss out on the funk. Funk was the future, We took the discipline of Motown. We took the blues and speeded it up. We added the psychedelic sounds and made it chewy. We took the hard stuff of MC5 and the Stooges, the churchy stuff, the R&B stuff, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Eric Clapton, the Beatles–and we were all of them at once. We mixed it all up and called it funk.
3. Free your mind. In the ’60s, acid and the hippies busted things wide open. [But] we were going to deliver our message our way, to the black community. On the records we’d just talk about the shit that was going on–inequality, greed, corporatism, the war taking our babies and drugs turning people’s minds into maggot brains. It’s not that we were into preaching. We were just into having people think. And if the people didn’t want to listen, the music was good enough that they could just bump.
4. Take it to the stage. Around the mid ’70s, I saw that bands were coming up with theater concepts like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Who’s Tommy and even Hair on Broadway. So when we started looking at some real money I told our record company, “Get me a spaceship.” I wanted to make a funk opera with Afronauts coming from outer space–our version of Sgt. Pepper. I knew it would really blow some minds. The other guys in the band wanted houses and cars with the money we were making but I told them, “As soon as we stop making hit records they’ll repossess our cars, but they can’t repossess the Mothership!” We had a designer from Broadway make us a spaceship for $275,000. We landed it in Times Square and again in front of the United Nations. Then we went out on a monster tour, playing the big, sold-out arenas.
5. Create characters. The thing about characters is they live longer than people. Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Mickey Mouse—they’re ageless. I started creating strange characters in about ’75–Dr. Funkenstein, Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk, Mr. Wiggles, Starchild–as part of an ongoing black cosmic funk opera. These characters were different incarnations of us and you can keep being them cause the other thing about characters is, you don’t have to be young and sexy to play one.
6. Listen to Feedback. One night in St. Louis before we came out we heard the audience chanting, “We want the funk. We want the funk.” I turned to someone and said, “Damn, we gotta put that on a record.” We put it in “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” and it became our first certified platinum single. We let our fans know, “You hear us. We hear you back.”
7. Stick together. By the mid-’70s we already had so many artists playing in so many bands and record deals on different labels, I had to maintain that friendship thing with all of them. The minute they have to make appointments to see you, it’s all over. A band is a family. You fight, fuss, kiss, love, and make up and start all over again. And if anybody gets in trouble, we’re all going to stick with that person no matter what. They’re all our little brothers and sisters, all the people who grew up together. If you’ve ever been in the Funk, you’re in it forever.
8. Don’t go crazy (offstage). The advice I’d tell a young musician is play crazy, act crazy, but don’t ever go crazy for real. You can spend so much energy worrying about what people can do to you that you don’t have the energy to do your thing. Your feelings are the one thing you can take control of. I survived cause when things would get crazy, I’d think, “Okay, I’m not going to go crazy. I’ll do another thing.” And it’s worked so far.
9. Keep chasing the dream. It’s easy to get tired in your 70’s, but I’m not successful yet. There’s always more ground to cover. If you get to the top and catch up with happy, you got a real problem because you’ll get bored. I’m not trying to catch up with being happy—because it’s the pursuit of happiness I’m after. I want to be so close behind it I can almost touch it. That’s what keeps me looking forward to moving ahead.
–Excerpted by Fast Company by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield. Copyright 2013 by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield.
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