Songwriter Interviews

George Clinton

by Greg Prato

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When you free your mind, your ass may follow, but you have to make sure someone else doesn't program it while it's wide open.



Still free in mind and spirit, 76-year-old George Clinton will launch an extensive tour later this year and issue a new Parliament album, Medicaid Fraud Dog. Yes, the Master of Funk is concerned about America's health care system. In particular, prescription drugs.

The backstory: In the '50s, Clinton formed a doo-wop group called The Parliaments that morphed into R&B, then found the funk. By 1970, these guys were recording as both Parliament and Funkadelic (collectively known as P-Funk), with members regularly rotating in and out. Clinton did whatever the funk called for, which created a gnarly legal mess but a massive output of groundbreaking music. In the '80s, when his band names got tied up in court, he recorded under his own name using the same core group. That first George Clinton album, Computer Games (1982), contained the hit "Atomic Dog."

Later that decade, after rappers looped every conceivable James Brown break, they turned to P-Funk for beats and grooves. This new strain of hip-hop included De La Soul, who used the Funkadelic track "(Not Just) Knee Deep" on "Me Myself And I," and Snoop Doggy Dogg, who reverently appropriated "Atomic Dog" on his introductory single "What's My Name?"

Clinton has stuck to his ethos of mind expansion, and his shows remain a haven for all-inclusive musical bliss. We hit him up on a number of topics, including the P-Funk song that is most important to him, how drugs (the non-prescription kind) came into play, and the concept behind those famous chants. Time to turn this mutha out.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): P-Funk has a new album coming out.

George Clinton: We've got an album coming out called Medicaid Fraud Dog, and the first single is "I'm Gon Make U Sick O' Me" [which features rapper Scarface]. It's the first album we've had in 35 years from Parliament [actually 38 - Parliament's last album, Trombipulation, dropped in 1980].

Songfacts: What is the lyrical meaning behind "I'm Gon Make U Sick O' Me"?

George: What drug companies do. They make you sick with one pill, then you have to take another pill for that pill that you took, and then they give you another one.

You get strung out on this pill, so you have to take another one to get off of that. It's worse than street drugs. So that's what this one is about - I'm going to make you sick of me, then I'm going to give you the antidote to make you feel better.

Songfacts: What can fans expect from this upcoming tour? Songs from throughout P-Funk's career?

George: Oh yeah, from throughout our career, plus the new stuff. That's why our shows get so long, because we end up playing all of these different things from different eras - Parliament, Funkadelic, George Clinton, and P-Funk All-Stars.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few specific songs - what was the lyrical inspiration for "Cosmic Slop"?

George: Women that have to prostitute themselves to take care of their kids, and feel ashamed of themselves, or feel like they're not doing God's work by having to do that. But the instinct of having to take care of your kids is a strong instinct, so that's what that whole mental thing is. You think you're dancing with the Devil, and you have to do something like that to support your family. That's what that "Cosmic Slop" is.

Songfacts: Where did the phrase "Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow" come from?

George: Oh... acid. [Laughs] Just tripping. I didn't even know that I had said it to one of the guys that was working with us. He said, "You said something really deep, and the people liked it."

I don't know if it was the music or the act, but I would say things like that, and this guy, Ernie Harris, would write them down, and I'd put them in the next song.

Songfacts: Circa the early '70s, how much of a role did drugs play in the creation of albums like Maggot Brain?

George: And Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow. The trendy chemical substance at the time was LSD. Right up until like, '72 or '73 was when we stopped doing that. But that was the era.

To me, it seemed like some sort of spirit just took over everybody between '68 and '72. To get rid of that Vietnam War, it wasn't just acid or just hippies. That peace and love had to come from someplace special. It didn't make sense as far as where I'd come from - it was about "watch your back." But for that period of time, it just seemed like that was real. And it still is, to me.

But it was very real during that period. That war had to end some kind of way, and it seemed like that's what it took - that frame of mind. Because it didn't even work after that - you'd take all the acid you'd want, and you did nothing but stay up all night and speed, and couldn't go to sleep. It wasn't trips or sights - all that was over. Once Woodstock was over, from then on, it seemed like it started going downhill. Hippies became the bad guys, the long-haired freaks, that whole Manson trip. It's like it poisoned everybody with long hair or hippie clothes. The whole thing changed after that.

Here, we ask about some lesser-known Funkadelic tracks we've always wondered about. "Friday Night, August 14th" comes from their 1970 album Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow; "You Can't Miss What You Can't Measure" is on Cosmic Slop, from 1973.
Songfacts: What happened on "Friday Night, August 14th"?

George: That was just songwriting. Trying to come up with different stories and storylines. That was just one of those ideas.

Songfacts: What does the phrase "You can't miss what you can't measure" mean?

George: My mother called it "mother wit" - "you can't miss what you can't measure." If you don't know how much it was, then you can't miss it. I don't know if that's actually true all the time, but it felt good when we said it. [Laughs]

Clinton attracted top talent by offering an unprecedented level of creative freedom. Among the 100 or so past and present members of the P-Funk family are James Brown stalwarts Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker, Junie Morrison from the Ohio Players, and Garry Shider, his childhood friend from Plainfield, New Jersey who became his musical director. These guys co-wrote many of the songs with Clinton.
Songfacts: Which P-Funk song has the best guitar work?

George: I'll have to go with "Maggot Brain." [Eddie Hazel on guitar]

Songfacts: It seems like people tend to overlook another track with great guitar work - "Wars of Armageddon."

George: You know who didn't overlook that? Miles Davis. He actually came and hired our drummer [Tiki Fulwood] after we did that record. Listen to his record, "On the Corner," and then listen to "Wars of Armageddon." When we did "Free Your Mind," "Wars of Armageddon," and "Maggot Brain," that sound, Miles said he thought that was the brand new thing.

Songfacts: Which P-Funk song is most important to you?

George: Oh wow, that's hard. Most important, I might go with "Music For My Mother" [from the first, self-titled, Funkadelic album]. That was the beginning of the notion that we were going to do a funky band, as opposed to a doo-wop group/singing group like the Temptations. That was a conscious thought, that that was the way I was going to go, and everything else came after that.

Mothership Connection and all that was an after-growth of being in the funk, and it just grew and got better and different as we got Bootsy, Fred Wesley, Maceo. It just grew.

But "Music For My Mother" was my thought of being able to do blues and R&B and keeping it that way, without it trying to cross over. To just do whatever I felt like. "Music For My Mother" was the first song that I did that with.

Songfacts: I just thought of another great Funkadelic guitar track - "Super Stupid."

George: Oh yeah. We do that now in the show. "Alice In My Fantasies" and "Super Stupid" - those were really rock songs. Eddie and myself, we were really up into the rock and roll.

Songfacts: Eastern music sometimes has chants designed to bring about a state of higher consciousness. Does that relate to what you do?

George: The chants are like church grooves that get you in that state where you're receptive to opening up your mind and coming up with positive things. At the same time, you have to be careful that somebody doesn't program you. You have to do it consciously, knowing that you're opening yourself up and people can program you when you open up like that. So, that's why we do a lot of nonsensical stuff that's just fun. You can have a good time and come up with your own parts.

Songfacts: What are some memories of filming the "Atomic Dog" video?

George: That was fun. We had a chance to do that ourselves. The guys that did the album cover [Computer Games], like Pedro Bell, were always part of the storytelling - the album covers, the videos. So, "Atomic Dog," we were able to go into the video games and the designs and levels of when the thing goes up and down the stairs like an elevator - that hadn't been done on too many videos. We had a lot of fun doing that.

It started with Casablanca. Neil [Bogart] would let us do whatever we wanted to do, as far as the concepts of the album covers and the songs. But once we got to my album with Capitol, they let us do pretty much whatever we wanted to do, which is why we're doing pretty good right now, because I'm able to do the songs I want to do, and the video is coming out pretty soon. We're able to do the kind of imagery that we want to do, and "Atomic Dog" started that.

February 1, 2018
For more, visit georgeclinton.com
Photos: Randy Hannan

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Comments: 1

  • Maureen from Santa Cruz, CaI enjoyed the interview, but I admit I was extremely disappointed that neither Greg Prato, or George, acknowledged the irreplaceable contributions of Bernie Worrell, to the P-Funk sound
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