Features I by I 23.02.14

Uncle Jam: George Clinton talks sample trolls, Kendrick Lamar and UFO crashes

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George Clinton, paterfamilias to the ever-growing p-funk family, has been in town.

And he’s been busy. Between sessions with Rudimental and Joss Stone, hanging out with Prince and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (of The Last Poets), recording a whole album direct to vinyl, and chowing down on a chicken doner in a Goldhawk Road kebab shop, Dr. Funkenstein found time to impart his (other-)worldly wisdom at a Q&A session held at Shoreditch House, at a masterclass for young producers at Metropolis Studios, and over a can of ginger beer with your reporter.

The afternoon was already stretching into evening by the time I was admitted into the studio control room where Clinton, resplendent in a silk tie and black fedora with a plume of red and blue feathers in its band, sits back in the producer’s chair, chuffing on a pastel-coloured electronic cigarette as fat as a cigar. The previous night, Clinton had been here till gone four, working on a new track with Omar, Dennis Bovell, and Boy George. At Metropolis studios, Clinton seems right at home. With its high ceilings, it reminds him, he tells me, of United Sound in Detroit, where he recorded such classic albums as Computer Games, Trombipulation, One Nation Under a Groove and the acid-fried masterpiece, Free Your Mind …And Your Ass Will Follow.

Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in July 1941. But it’s from Chase City, Virginia, where he moved with his mother in early childhood, that his earliest musical memories derive. “My mother was a big Louis Jordan fan,” he says, humming the lead sax line from Jordan’s 1945 jump blues cut ‘Caldonia’. “Living in Virginia, what you heard on the radio was country and western –” and here he breaks into the refrain from Slim Willet’s ‘Don’t Let the Sun Get In Your Eyes’, “then R&B stuff, you heard on records.” Louis Jordan, along with Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, and Elmore James was the music Clinton’s mum listened to when she was getting ready to go out. “That would be the first music that made me.”

“I was a Star Trek freak,” Clinton confessed to me when I asked him about the origin of his outer space imagery. “I was a Trekkie like a motherfucker.” 

In the early ’50s, they moved to Newark, New Jersey, and around the same time one of his cousins moved just down the road to Passaic. “She lived right next door to The Shirelles. So I went over to her house and she was into rhythm and blues, so I got to hear The Spaniels, The Flamingos, The Fascinations, The Velours and I fell in love with doo-wop. That’s my love.” But it was the release of ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in February 1956 that set the course of Clinton’s future career. It was at the point, he told me, that he realised, “I wanted to be a singer.”

He was just 14 at the time, and straightaway he formed his first band, The Parliaments, while still in grade school. Taking their name from a pack of cigarettes, it would be nearly twelve years before they scored their first hit with ‘I Wanna Testify’. Meanwhile, Clinton had been cutting hair at a local barbershop and writing songs out of an office in the legendary Brill Building, just down the hall from Don Kirschner and Lieber & Stoller. He contributed to future Northern Soul floor fillers like ‘I Say Yeah’ by The Pets and Pat Lewis’s ‘Can’t Shake it Loose’. But by the time ‘I Wanna Testify’ struck it big in 1967, music was starting to go through vast tectonic changes. Clinton, likewise.

“1959 ended doo-wop. Motown was the new doo-wop. But it was slick. Motown came along with violins, electric bass… So it was a whole ‘nother thing. By the time we got around to having a hit record, Motown was peaking. The Beatles and English groups were coming over and taking over everything. Rock ’n’ roll was becoming this serious music. So we had to change again. We had to get some horns in there some kind of way.”

“Bootsy [Collins] came to us, but we knew he had to have his own group cos he was no back-up nothing. He had to be up front, he’s so dynamic. I told him, look, you help me do Parliament and I’ll help you do whatever your group is gonna be called. So we did Chocolate City, the first one that really worked pretty well, got us up there. And then the next one was Mothership Connection and Bootsy’s Stretchin’ Out On a Rubber Band. We did them both together. That came out; the whole world changed.”

“That was what we called p-funk. You had Funkadelic, Parliament, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, all that in one thing. Horns? all that! You had Maceo [Parker], Fred [Wesley] – you know what I’m saying? That was the James Brown sound in there. Along with Bootsy, his brother Catfish, Bernie Worrell, Garry Shider, Eddie Hazel. We had a foundation of folks in Funkadelic that was already out there. So when you mixed that with Fred, Maceo, Kush [stage name of trumpeter, Richard Griffith], Rick [Gardner], then you had a whole ‘nother thing and you couldn’t call it nothing else but pure funk.”

By the end of the 1970s, Clinton was overseeing a whole slew of different acts whose musicians could be plucked from a family of, by his own estimate, some 65–70 musicians. There was Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet… “We had a way of doing all the music we wanted to do,” he says. And thanks to the can-do attitude of industry mover and shaker Neil Bogart (of Casablanca Records) it seemed increasingly like anything was possible. Having watched the success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tommy, and the hippy musical Hair, Clinton was seeing the importance of grand guignol theatrics. He could say to Bogart, we want to put a spaceship on stage, and Bogart would say, sure, how big?

“I was a Star Trek freak,” Clinton confessed to me when I asked him about the origin of his outer space imagery. “I was a Trekkie like a motherfucker. And then Bootsy and I actually – something actually happened. Something hit the car. Some kind of light.” This was around ‘66–‘67. Collins and Clinton were driving back to Clinton’s home in Mississauga, Ontario, having just finished an all-night recording session in Detroit. It must have been late morning, maybe 10:00am, and they were coming up to Bloor Street, the main drag leading from Toronto to Mississauga. “We saw it from about a quarter of a mile away. A straight beam like a laser, coming out of the clouds. Nice day. I said, did you see that too? And he said, yeah, what was it? I said, damned if I know.”

They kept on driving for maybe another five miles, riding down a country road, when they saw “the same light again coming down through the trees about two blocks ahead of us. And you see it hit the ground, and it looked like electricity wire. It hit the ground and sparks were flying. On our side of the road, but it’s like two blocks away. We see it through the trees. And before we could say anything, it hit on the opposite side of the street, in the same block with us. Bam! Bam! By this time, I’m reaching for the radio. I remember ‘Jonny B. Goode’ was playing.” This was around the time of the Voyager Golden Record and, as Clinton points out, ‘Jonny B. Goode’ was one of the tunes inscribed on that spacefaring disc.

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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.”

“All the different groups that sampled us. We’ve never gotten any of 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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