You could walk past George Clinton today and not even realize that you’d just rubbed shoulders with Dr. Funkenstein, the Atomic Dog, the high commander of the Funkadelic Mothership (now docked at the Smithsonian).
Without his trademark psychedelic rainbow of dreadlocks or bushy beard, the prime minister of funk can go almost incognito. In his yellow slacks, candy-striped shirt, black Panama hat and bug-eye glasses, he’s way more flamboyant than your average grandfather but far removed from the eccentric “James Brown on PCP” who starred in PCU.
This is a different George Clinton, sober for most of this decade and focused on the fight to regain the copyrights and publishing that he sold while in the throes of a debilitating drug addiction. He’s openly excited about the latest generation — the third or fourth that has re-translated his influence into youth culture.
Most recently, Kendrick Lamar conscripted him for the first track on last year’s Grammy-nominated To Pimp a Butterfly. Clinton’s next album will come out on Brainfeeder, the label of Flying Lotus, with whom he’s playing at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday (alongside Thundercat, Shabazz Palaces and The Gaslamp Killer).
“With Motown, you had writers with all these different styles around you, all in one place, so I was never partial to just one sound,” Clinton says, explaining the roots of his musical adventurousness, an open-mindedness that continues past his 75th birthday.
“You have to hear it coming before it gets there, or else you end up copying,” the New Jersey native continues. “If you hear [the trends] coming fast enough, you can actually get in there with them and look like you created it. We did ‘Atomic Dog’ realizing that hip-hop was coming on. It sounded like a hip-hop record without being a hip-hop record.”
In many respects, Clinton conceived the blueprint for West Coast hip-hop, heavily influencing Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, 2Pac and countless others. The rolling hydraulic funk samples drawn from Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” come directly from Clinton, who co-produced the track with his longtime bass player Bootsy Collins and was set to release it on his Uncle Jam imprint (before Warner Bros. stepped in).
It was Clinton and Sly Stone who convinced a skeptical Roger Troutman to release the song in the first place.
“We took the first five seconds and looped it, cut the tape, recorded it and kept looping it around the head of a two-track machine. But the song needed more bounce,” Clinton recalls.
“Sly told Roger, ‘Peter Frampton done killed that talk box … the only way you gonna do it is like George said, you gotta do it in harmony, so it’ll sound like a vocoder.’ He did it and it became a hit, but he still hated the song.”
Clinton’s reputation for craziness is partially attributable to his years of drug abuse, but that belies his genius in brand-building and the creation of his own cosmology. He’s less Ol’ Dirty Bastard and more like RZA — the architect that assembled the nation under the groove, recruiting collaborators to help realize his chimerical visions.
In a year marred by the loss of David Bowie, Prince and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Clinton’s immutable relevance and ability feel like a rare gift. Even if you don’t immediately recognize his face, his presence and sound are omnipresent.
“I’m still having fun, living … being relaxed and chill,” Clinton says. “I know how to sit down. I’ve done that and I’m thankful that I’m past that era. There’s a big picture of something getting ready to happen. Either alien visits or we’ll visit another planet with life on it. This is the 21st century that we’ve been promised.”
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BRAINFEEDER AT THE BOWL | Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood | Sat., Sept. 17, 7 p.m. | $20-$60 | hollywoodbowl.com
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.