As the song played on through the radio, the strangest thing happened. Behind the car, the streetlights started going off “blink, blink. The streetlights all of a sudden are going down, down. And it’s dark. It was getting dark behind us.” But only a minute ago it was the middle of the day. Later, Clinton would pick up a book about the Roswell incident and he’d be struck by the coincidence that the UFO crash had supposedly taken place on July 4 – the very same day as the first date of the P-Funk Earth Tour, the very first landing of the Holy Mothership.
Spend a little time in the company of George Clinton and you become inexorably aware of the interconnectedness of all things. A story beginning with a book about cloning found whilst riding on the Vought Airtrans automated people mover at Dallas–Fort Worth Airport is liable to curve off into Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, the food science laboratories at Disney’s Epcot Centre, and the ontology of digital sampling. Sampling, Clinton avers, “is cloning. That’s why I say funk is the DNA for hip hop. You take one cell and you can build around it.” Recently Clinton’s been picking out individual stems from his old tunes – a keyboard line here, a bass hook there, anything that you can strip out of the mix while retaining the groove of the original track – and building new tunes around them. “We call it stem cells. Funk stem cells.” A sonic haematopoiesis.
One of the most sampled artists of all time, Clinton quickly cottoned onto the potential benefits of sampling for older artists and in the early nineties he released two volumes of Sample Some of Disc Sample Some of DAT. Jammed full of short loopable outtakes, journalist John Corbett would call them “veritable samples samplers”. But more recently what Clinton calls the “sampling situation” has seen him drawn into a web of byzantine legal struggles. “All the acts pay a lot of money for those samples,” he says. “All the different groups that sampled us. We’ve never gotten any of it!” In order to fightback against what he calls, with only a slight hesitation, a “conspiracy”, Clinton has formed the campaign group Flashlight 2013 in order, as the website says, “to shine a light” on misappropriated copyrights.
“All the record companies that put out those records, lawyers that we’ve had, Capitol Records, Universal, the BMI [Broadcast Music Inc., the American copyright collection society], and the U.S. Copyright Office – they had to enter into a conspiracy so deep to keep all of that stuff under the table, because everybody would be screaming about how do they get paid for samples if they don’t. And since we’re the ones that were sampled probably 60–70 per cent of the time, we’re the ones that they’re really trying to keep from finding out or being able to do anything about it.”
“They’ve paid off lawyers that we had. Judges have made rulings that haven’t made any kind of sense that we can’t even do anything about. We went to congress, went to the senators, went to the FBI, to the US copyright, to BMI. And the same lawyers that represent the people that we’re fighting in the record companies, Capitol and Universal, and Sound Exchange [a supposedly independent, non-profit performance rights organization] – all these people had the same lawyer. The same lawyer that represents BMI represents the number one publisher that we’re fighting, which is Bridgeport who have claimed 90% of my copyrights with a document that the guy admitted is fraudulent. So, you know? Wait a minute: this is a conspiracy.”
Armen Boladian of Bridgeport Music has been called a “sample troll” by Tim Wu at Slate. His highly litigious approach to sampling has resulted in legal precedents that have had made life very difficult for hip hop artists who don’t happen to have the huge sums required to license their samples. And the money from those cases isn’t even going to the original artists. In the past Clinton has directly accused Boladian of outright stealing the rights to his songs. “Public Enemy stopped doing it because it was so expensive to use a sample,” Clinton says. “They took that money from them.”
It’s a subject he gets truly wound up about – and it’s easy to see why. He talks with a real righteous anger about motions filed in court that suddenly mysteriously disappear, sealed documents, and shyster lawyers. The ongoing legal drama is also one of the themes in what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the strangest chapters in the p-funk saga – The Clintons, a forthcoming reality TV show featuring George along with his many, many performing grandchildren. “They’re going to film us coming back from over here. They’re gonna meet me at the airport and film that. Snoop visits with us and he’s talking with the grandkids…”
Don’t you ever find it intrusive, I ask, having the cameras in your face all the time, following you around?
“No,” he shrugs it off, “I don’t pay that shit no attention. I’m a ham first of all. You don’t get tired if you know what you’re doing and you like what you’re doing it for.”
There’s a real warmth that comes over Clinton when he talks about his family – as there is when he talks about the many musicians he has worked with over the years. He tells me how he much he “loved working with” keyboardist Bernie Worrell; how much he “admires” Prince (“extremely cool dude”); describes his recent collaborator, Kendrick Lamar, as “very nice. He’s really slick.” More than anything, he’s full of generosity for his band. “It wasn’t just me, Bernie, and Bootsy,” he insists. “It was Garry [Shider], Glen [Goins], Boogie [Cordell Mosson], and everyone. It took all of them to do what we were doing.” And what they achieved, collectively, changed the face of music.
But as someone who has achieved so much, I ask finally, do you still have any ambitions left to fulfil?
“Shit! I’m just getting started.”
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