Long before his music was sampled by everyone from De La Soul to Childish Gambino, George Clinton was just a high schooler with a doo-wop group in 1950s Plainfield, New Jersey. The Parliaments took their name from a popular brand of cigarette, even though Clinton didn’t smoke at the time. After the group traveled to Detroit and had a failed audition for Motown, Clinton began working as a songwriter for the label and others. Although the Parliaments eventually scored a hit in 1967, Clinton’s endeavors during this time were only moderately successful.
When legal issues stalled the Parliaments in the late ‘60s, Clinton re-branded with Funkadelic and Parliament, sister bands with seemingly identical and interchangeable memberships. Funkadelic took the grooves of James Brown and combined them with ferocious psychedelic rock for seemingly endless jams. Parliament took a more refined approach, bringing harmony-heavy vocals and carefully arranged horn parts to the front of the mix. Together, they became one nation under the groove: P-Funk. Albums like America Eats Its Young (1972) and 1975’s Chocolate City—a tribute to majority Black cities—fused political messages with hard-hitting funk and rock. Their bizarre mythology, explored on many albums, took their original characters deep underwater and far out into space. Sitting on top of the P-Funk empire, Clinton became an intergalactic star with one of modern music’s most influential catalogs.
P-Funk concerts have always been spectacles: wild displays of bright costumes, bold hair colors, and never-ending tunes. On October 27, 1976, things reached outerworld proportions. During a Parliament show at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, the Mothership—the group’s very own spaceship—descended to Earth for the first time. The dazzling metallic chariot quickly became an iconic stage prop. Although the original is now lost, a replica stands on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
In the 1980s, Clinton pursued a solo career, leading to collaborations with Prince and releases on his Paisley Park label. In the 1990s, then-rising stars Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg frequently turned to Clinton’s work for inspiration, popularizing the aptly named G-Funk style of hip-hop. Collaborations with the likes of 2pac and OutKast followed. In recent years, Clinton has contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus To Pimp A Butterfly and returned to releasing music under the Parliament and Funkadelic names.
In the decades since the Mothership first landed in New Orleans, Clinton has continued touring the globe, performing over 200 shows each year. Earlier this year, he announced plans to retire from the road in 2019. His December appearances at House of Blues are being billed as the last of his annual New Years shows in New Orleans. As he prepares for retirement, I spoke with George Clinton about the Mothership’s first descent, collaborating with Prince, and the possibility of a P-Funk performance in space.
Earlier this week, you posted on social media that you’re currently in the studio. What project are you working on?
So you’re doing an album with P-Funk Allstars right now?
Yup, and I’ve got one with Parliament that’s out now: Medicaid Fraud Dogg. It’s out right now and then I’m doing one with P-Funk Allstars: One Nation Under Sedation.
Earlier this month, you said you’re hoping to collaborate with [rapper and Sorry to Bother You director] Boots Riley. Would that be on a music or video project?
We’re looking to work on a movie project. We’re just talking about it. We haven’t finalized anything. We’re probably gonna do something with him and we’re probably gonna do something with the Black Lightning people.
What parallels do you see between Sorry to Bother You and what P-Funk started doing back in the ‘70s?
His whole style is a breakdown of P-Funk. He’s been good friends with the band for a few years. We’ve been knowing him and his group for a long time. He’s got the right kind of style to be able to go into the different dimensions of Parliament-Funkadelic. He’s already accepted in that realm, so I think he’d do a good job on the Mothership characters: Sir Nose, Dr. Funkenstein, and stuff like that.
I saw your set at Summer Sonic in Tokyo earlier this year. I was really surprised by the size of the crowd and how much the Japanese audience enjoyed it. When you started doing this, did you think you’d still be playing to crowds of thousands of people in your mid-70s?
I would hope so because the funk is the shit. [laughs] I knew we were heading for that big, big, big crowd but I always took my time. I never tried to hype it. In Japan and all over Europe, it’s really huge crowds over there and its re-grouping it in the States. That was a big crowd in Japan. We had a ball with that show.
Yeah. That was a great show. You were on the beach, Thundercat was right before you, and then the fireworks went off right during “Maggot Brain.”
Yeah. That was special.
This deep in your career, do you ever get surprised by your gig offers? Like: Wait, they really want me in this country?
Not really. We’ve been nurturing all those places for years. They’ve been growing with us. I’m not surprised too much. I was just hoping that we could maintain it. With the grandkids in the group now, they give us the energy. We feel like we felt in 1969! We’re pretty much on time. We’re on schedule.
While I was preparing for this interview, I kept thinking about the widespread significance To Pimp A Butterfly has had on this current generation of young people. It’s very rare that somebody in their mid-70s gets to be a part of a music project that still actively influences a whole generation. How does it feel to still be doing that?
It feels great! That’s part of the outreach from Compton, having worked with Dre, Cube, Snoop, and all those other people from L.A. It’s a continuation of that. When I met Kendrick, he knew so much about us and we knew exactly what he was doing. It reminded me of Ice Cube when he was younger and getting started. It’s been right on time. It’s the same with Childish Gambino [and] Flying Lotus [who] followed up from that Dre era… and they’re all into P-Funk. I feel pretty good that we’re in step with everybody. Like I said, I’ve got my grandkids and my kids who are about their age in the band now, so it’s all lining up together.
How many of your relatives are in the band now?
Seven… son and daughter, two granddaughters, three grandsons. The drummer’s son is in the band and Garry Shider—who was the diaper man in the past—his son is in the band. All of them are like my grandkids because they grew up hanging out with my grandkids. Third generation P-Funk!
With P-Funk, you made a dynasty where there was nothing before. You’ve already given your heirs your blessing to continue with P-Funk after you retire. Do you hope that they continue to pass P-Funk down to future generations of Clintons?
I hope so. They’ve got kids already growing up that are into the music. I would hope between my grandkids and the grandkids of the band members who have been there forever, I think they have enough information and enough energy to keep the funk alive.
Do you think that one day in the unforeseeable future, some iteration of P-Funk might actually be able to play in space?
Oh, hell yeah! Hell yeah! I want to take a trip, a vacation, when they start doing it in the next year or two. I’m going to at least take a ride up there. The band, I’m sure they’ll play on other planets. Grandkids of their grandkids will definitely play off the planet.
In 1976, the Mothership descended for the first time ever during a show at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. What did it feel like the first time the Mothership came down in front of a live audience?
It felt great! We had to change it after that show because of what we had wrong. We arrived on the stage in the Mothership. The show opened up with the spaceship landing and us getting out of it and performing. It was hard to follow the spaceship! Once the spaceship lands, it’s hard to do anything else. After that show, we started making the spaceship come on last.
You’ve said that the Mothership was about taking Black people somewhere where no one thought they could go at that time. Its live debut was right next to Congo Square, which used to be a slave meeting grounds and eventually paved the way for the creation of jazz. What did it mean to take Black people to space in person for the first time right next to that location?
I wasn’t aware of that, but we’ve been divinely blessed all along in what we’re doing. I had no idea of what I was doing besides basically wanting to put on a good show and, like I said, put Black people in the rest of the universe. That was just my intention. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s a good piece of information to know now. The birth of jazz! Because now I feel that funk is getting the respect like jazz now.
everyone who is coming up with something new uses us as an example of “do your thing.”
The original main Mothership that appeared on stage no longer exists but a baby Mothership that used to fly over the audience was on display [at the Museum of Psychphonics] in Indianapolis until last year. Did that one also debut in New Orleans?
That one debuted in New Orleans! Yeah. Uh-huh. The other Mothership is in the Smithsonian.
But the one in the Smithsonian is a replica, right?
It’s exactly the same as the first one. It’s made from the exact same blueprint so it’s the same as the first Mothership. That was done [and retired] on my birthday in 1999. That was made 20 years after the first one. But it’s the same exact blueprint. The little Mothership is still in Indianapolis.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ then-mayor Ray Nagin made his infamous “Chocolate City” speech. What was your initial reaction to seeing that all over national headlines at that time?
I didn’t see that. Who made it?
Mayor Ray Nagin; he made a somewhat controversial speech saying that New Orleans should be a chocolate city and that it would always be a chocolate city.
[laughs] Could you get me a copy of that? I’d like to see that… I felt really good, though, when Obama became president. “One Nation Under a Groove” was like his thing. Chocolate City had come to life. I was real proud of that.
Let’s talk about Detroit. When most people think about Detroit, they think about Motown, who you used to work for. But that wasn’t all that was going on back then. There were also bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. What kind of an impact did those bands have on the early years of Funkadelic?
They were part of the reason we started doing the psychedelic from Parliament and created Funkadelic. As soon as [The Parliaments’] “Testify” became a hit and we went out to Detroit, the rock’n’roll groups were taking over Detroit at that time. We had the same agent—Diversified Management—as Iggy Pop & the Stooges, the MC5, [and] Ted Nugent with the Amboy Dukes. That was what was happening in Detroit, along with the English groups coming over here: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and all of that. We had to merge into rock’n’roll with the MC5 and all of them. They were part of the design that we saw of what was coming, so we switched right into our Funkadelic mode so we had Parliament and Funkadelic. They had a lot to do with us changing over.
Talking about another Midwest great, you worked with Prince on a few projects. What was it like going into the studio with him for the first time?
It was cool! We had done a few things before we went in there together. By that time, we pretty much understood each other. I’d do something, P on it, and send it to him. He’d P on it and send it back. We pretty much knew how to work with each other by the time I got to working with him on Cinderella Theory  and [Hey, Man,] Smell My Finger . We knew how to do it. He was real quiet when he was in the studio, so there was never a lot going on, but when we talked to each other afterwards, that’s when we would kick it. He was a talented kid who knew exactly what he wanted to do. He’s on that Sly Stone school of music. He knew everything; before he’d do it, he’d have to rehearse it. We were just the opposite. We made shit up as we played on stage and he thought that was weird. But the two of them together, we were able to work good together.
You talk about him being a lot more concrete and P-Funk being more abstract. Did he change the way you approached working in the studio?
I had done the concrete thing when I was with Motown in the earlier days. You had to do it precisely—you had to rehearse everything—so I had already done that. I was kind of aware of doing both of them. When I was doing Parliament, it was basically arranged and drawn out because there was a big mess of horns to be arranged and harmonies you have to practice. In Parliament, I pretty much used that style, but when I did Funkadelic, it was always jammed: whatever happened, happened. When we got to One Nation [Under a Groove], it felt like a Parliament record; it was so tight, yet it still was a Funkadelic record.
Your stories from the studio are crazy. When you did “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” on Let’s Take It To The Stage, a white smack addict just walked into the studio and started playing guitar, right?
Yeah! [laughs] That’s where I think we are blessed when things like that happen. You couldn’t plan that. He just happened to come by. He heard us jamming and needed a fix. He said, “Give me $25. I’ll play.” I’m thinking, Wow! He must think a lot of himself. Anybody who sounds like that, I’m ready to let him do it. And sure enough, he fired up that solo and got paid before I could get his name! He was gone and we never saw him again!
Is it true that, instead of the $25 he wanted, you liked it so much you gave him $50?
Yeah! I was ready to give him some more by the time the recording ended, but he was gone! [laughs]
You’ve been doing a lot of recording lately. One thing you’ve said is that you’re inspired by music that pisses off parents or that parents don’t like. Does having a lot of young folks in your band keep things more in that element?
Yes. We have a couple of people in the band [that] we don’t have a clue as to what they’re playing [and] why they like what they like… It don’t take long to figure out what they like about it—Cardi B or stuff like that. It doesn’t take long to remember that this is what we did. When we were kids, we got on our parents’ nerves with our rock’n’roll. [Singing] Bah ba-ba bah ba-ba. I remember my mother saying, “What in the hell do that mean?” It’s pretty much the same as when psychedelic came out. It was: “All that noise! All that feedback! It sounds like your amps are broke!” That became the thing. Hip-hop, when they came along, spitting the beat, making the music with their mouth and sampling—we thought that was crazy! I’m pretty sold on whenever something new comes along. It’s going to get on old folks’ nerves for a minute until you let them see, and after that, it’s not so bad. As a matter of fact, that sounds kind of good.
You were talking about hip-hop coming along. You’ve done a lot of collaborations in addition to your work with P-Funk. It feels like every few years you pop back up in the mainstream consciousness. What do you think keeps bringing people back to George Clinton?
They probably see us in whatever they’re doing. We pretty much gave the right to everybody that it was alright to do your thing. Once we did that, everyone who is coming up with something new uses us as an example of “do your thing.” And I get a chance to collaborate with them and figure out what their thing is and it keeps me around! All the new ones seem to look at our music because we’ve done so much music in so many styles. It’s hard to do something where we haven’t done something like it. We did hip-hop records before hip-hop started.
Opening one of the shows in New Orleans is DJ Soul Sister, who has been your longtime go-to opener here. She helped set up George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic Day here and even DJed one of your birthday parties a few years ago. Is there anything you want to say about her?
She’s been into P-Funk since she was a baby. I’ve watched her grow up and I’m so proud of her. She’s been one of us for forever since she was a real kid. She’s one of the best at it. I’m glad to still be working with her.
What are you going to do once you retire? What’s a day in George Clinton’s life going to look like when he’s no longer on the road?
I’ll be making music in the studio with the band. I’ll still be overseeing them. While they’re on the road, I’ll be doing movies and soundtracks. We’re going to do a lot of animation and cartoons. I know you saw the [appearance on Mike Judge’s Tales from the] Tour Bus. We’re going to be doing a lot of that. I hope to be doing stuff with Mike Judge. I was a fan of his for a long time.
Thank you. I’m very excited to see you here in December.
George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic will perform at House of Blues on Thursday, December 27 with DJ Soul Sister and Friday, December 28. For more info, check out georgeclinton.com.
illustrations Ian Smith