George Clinton keeps his booty-shaking, classic sounds fresh by surrounding himself with young collaborators embracing new influences.
➼ Some acts are content to take the stage year after year, tour after tour, and just play the hits. Then there are those who continue to make new music, only to rehash the same sounds that made them famous—and come off sounding a bit stale.
But George Clinton is one of the few who, despite having been in the music business for more than 50 years and amassing a respectable collection of crowd favorites, keeps making new music as fresh and of-the-moment as it was when he introduced the world to “P-Funk” in the early 1970s.
Clinton started off as a doo-wop singer with his band The Parliaments, which had a hit in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify.” But when its record label’s money dried up, Clinton reformed the group as Funkadelic to get around his contract obligations. He eventually regained the right to use the name The Parliaments and used the names interchangeably—all while combining psychedelic rock, R&B, soul, and jazz to form a wild new genre of music.
Four decades later, Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are still going strong. He attributes his longevity to the genre he helped invent. “Funk is like that. You can look at James Brown. You can put on one of his records and it sounds like it came out yesterday,” he says. “Funk never goes anywhere. It’s like classical music.”
But Clinton’s ability to stay fresh is also due to his open mind. From the early hip-hop of the 1980s to the electronic dance music of today, he’s learned to appreciate new music as it comes along, even if it doesn’t immediately appeal to his tastes.
He appeared on the opening track of Kendrick Lamar’s landmark 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and, thanks to that collaboration, he’s now working on his own album with producer Flying Lotus. EDM producer Louie Vega included a remix of Clinton’s 2014 song “Ain’t That Funkin’ Hard on You” on his album Starring… XXVIII, which was nominated for the 2017 Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
“Unless you just want to go out to pasture, if you want to do something new, you’ve got to work with the people moving you out. You’ve got to learn how to stay in touch with them,” Clinton says. But it’s more than just self-preservation. He says working alongside younger musicians inspires him. “When I hear somebody like Flying Lotus, I feel like I haven’t done nothing. I feel like I need to start all over. Those kinds of people make me want to work harder.”
In addition to his project with Lotus, Clinton is also working an on album with Parliament—although the bands are often billed together, Parliament and Funkadelic are actually sister acts. He hopes to take on some heavy subjects, like the dangers of pharmaceutical advertisements.
“Advertisement, that’s the most dangerous thing we’ve got because it influences our thinking,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have that kind of social commentary. Jokingly, though.” Even when taking on weighty issues, Clinton prefers to keep things light—he doesn’t want to be too preachy; he just wants to get people thinking. And dancing. He still loves to get people dancing.
“I have my most fun touring,” he says. “That’s where I feel my most inspiration, being on tour, working the stage.” Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic still play all over the world, from Hong Kong to Amsterdam to Las Vegas. And the appeal isn’t just global—it’s cross-generational.
“You see people with their kids, all the way up to grandparents. It’s one of the few places you can go with your whole family and not feel corny. Funk is that kind of music. All generations come.” That’s why he doesn’t make set lists for the band before going onstage. “I never know what kind of crowd we’ve got.”
If it’s an older crowd, Clinton likes to reach further into the back catalog. If it’s younger people, he likes to play songs they might know through the rappers who have long sampled Parliament-Funkadelic’s records. Recently, at a New Year’s Eve show in Las Vegas, Bushwick Bill from the Geto Boys stopped by. “As soon as we hit a groove he knew, I called him out and he did his thing,” he says. “I didn’t know the song but my grandkids, they started rapping along with him.”
Several of Clinton’s grandchildren now play in the band. “They’ve got new ways to do the funk,” he says. His granddaughters are into modern R&B. One of his grandsons is a heavy metal fan, and another one listens to rappers like Lil’ Wayne and Drake.
Clinton says he’s happy to incorporate all those influences into Parliament-Funkadelic’s stage shows. It’s another way to keep things fresh. But some aspects of his signature “P-Funk” sound will never change. “We emphasize the bottom. That’s what funk is, drums and bass,” he says. “That gets into your foundation. That really moves you. Melody is cerebral. The drums and bass, that gets in your butt.
“I always tell people, bring two booties. One ain’t enough.“