There are several people on this conference call, but George Clinton is the easiest to identify. With a gravelly voice and elastic Southern accent, the 75-year-old legend's voice is as familiar and road-worn as his legacy of hits.
The singer, bandleader, and P-Funk prophet has been a vessel of funk for more than forty years, since his groups Parliament and Funkadelic burst out of New Jersey and into late 60s counterculture with a flurry of fringe, leather, glitter, and face-paint. Looking like Burners before Burners were a thing, the sprawling P-Funk collective had a giddy extraterrestrial vibe and made music that melted straightforward James Brown funk with heady psychedelia and galactic Afrofuturist ideas. From the achingly spatial "Maggot Brain" to the literal and figurative brightness of "Flashlight," the music was at once deeply soulful, unabashedly joyous and invested in exploring the far-out sounds made possible via the era's emerging audio technology.
That sound and feel would help lay the foundation for modern dance music and its predilection for digital grooves and hyperbolic personas. And just as P-Funk created a celebratory vibe that raised spirits in the Vietnam era, today's dance world offers catharsis in the face of an increasingly tumultuous political landscape.
It makes sense then that Clinton has gotten chummy with the two other people on our call—venerable Boston-bred house duo Soul Clap. After crossing paths at a session in LA (where famous recluse and fellow funk legend Sly Stone also happened to drop by), Clinton and the guys—Eli Goldstein and Charlie Levine—were soon down at Clinton's Tallahassee studio. Here, they mingled with funk royalty while making music that would end up on Funkadelic's 2014 album First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate. Levine and Goldstein served as co-producers for a pair of tracks on the three-disc LP, Funkadelic's first release in 33 years. A new Parliament album is also forthcoming.
The collaboration went both ways. For Soul Clap's latest project, Goldstein and Levine brought in several artists from the Clinton camp—R&B vocal legend Nona Hendryx and Funkadelic bassist Billy "Bass" Nelson among them—to appear alongside frequent collaborators including Nick Monaco and Wolf + Lamb. The eponymous LP, released late last year, begins with the voice of Clinton's nephew, the musician Sa'D "The Hourchild" Ali, who extends his cosmic lineage with a spoken word soliloquy about time travel and aliens before the album launches off into a blissful slipstream of funk and four/four.
With Clinton in Florida and Goldstein and Levine in Brooklyn, we gave the trio a call to discuss cross-genre collaboration, drugs, and making funk in the Trump era.
Noisey: George, what drew you to working with Eli and Charlie? Did you have chemistry from the beginning?
George Clinton: I had seen the Nile Rodgers and Daft Punk collaboration, so I was in the market for it as soon as y'all mentioned what y'all wanted to do. That RedBull session in LA just jumped off. I mean Sly [Stone] just happened to be there. [The track you guys worked on] "In Da Kar" was the perfect song; I've been trying to sing that song for years. The funk works itself out. You just keep your ears open, your eyes open and see what it tells you to do. It all came together like it was supposed to. We didn't have to do nothing but be there.
Charlie Levine: I think it's interesting, this upswing with the new music and the music releases. In the last couple of years we've had the new Funkadelic album. There was the [Funkadelic] video with Kendrick and Ice Cube. The world is so ready. I think it's the perfect time for another Parliament album, especially Parliament talking about "Chocolate City" and this whole theme amidst what the fuck is going on right now.
Clinton: We've already got [the song] "Medicaid Fraud Dog." It's about the sick people of the world. The one nation under sedation. Everybody's on drugs, whether you call them meds or not! Straight people are high! You know they high in Washington DC. All those old folks, they've got to be on meds of some kind. The whole movement right now is so high.
When you get off this phone, go on YouTube and look at our live show from Serbia. That is the cleanest footage you gonna ever find. The kids are so sharp on that performance. We got one song "My Mama Told Me." We're getting ready to put that one out as the first single before the album comes out. It's coming out with Parliament.
Eli Goldstein: Just the funk in general has permeated into pop culture so much in the last year or two, with everything that Flying Lotus and Thundercat and that whole crew are doing, and even into pop music with Bruno Mars putting out super funky jams and Mark Ronson putting out tracks with Bruno Mars. How do you feel about the funk coming back so strong?
Clinton: It's the right time! I've been waiting on this. Childish Gambino—
Levine: Oh that's actually an interesting thing to talk about — he's got a song ["Riot"] where the sample is from "Good to Your Earhole," and there's another track that feels like a reference to something off Maggot Brain.
Clinton: That whole concept was to get as close to that stuff as they possible could. I appreciate that because all of that is justifying funk being back in the mainstream again. The kids are so ready for it on the pop side of town. You're going to get a lot of Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind…, Sly Stone or even Motown. You're going get a lot of that music being done for today's market, for today's kids. Flying Lotus and all of them – it's a hip-hop jazz thing, which means it's funky.
Levine: I'm so happy to hear you embrace Childish Gambino. That's dope.
Clinton: All of it is pretty much the same clique of people. The whole LA scene—Thundercat and all of them. Kendrick told me, "I've got a whole crew of people that are into the funk. Not just with samples, but they're actually playing funky music." He was right. He put me in touch with them, and we've been putting our band together in Tallahassee, which, like I always do, I get a bunch of kids together. Like I said, get that video from Serbia and watch that, the first half an hour at the Exit Festival.
Do you think there's a reason the funk resurgence is happening now?
Clinton: Whenever political shit gets to like what's going on now, you always find that music rises up to be a part of it. This reminds me so much of '66 and '67 when the Vietnam War was heating up and people started understanding together the civil rights concept that everyone was fighting for. Everyone came together around the Vietnam War. That's what happens with this kind of bullshit.
The women's march, all that needed was some funky music to it. They had different causes, but they all know positivity and felt that they had to be there together, and that's what's going to happen with this shit. You're going to get so many people rising up that the whole country is going to come together. Funk will be around when that shit is needed. You have to dance your way out of your constrictions, and you need some funky music to do that.
So you think it's important to be joyful right now?
Clinton: We're making it so like every night can feel like Mardi Gras! You've got to celebrate.
Goldstein: Yeah, it's more important than ever to dress funky and be out there and expressing ourselves.
Clinton: We going back into our costumes now, because we need to be Mardi Gras'd out.
George, you've been through this before in consideration of the political climate, but Charlie and Eli—what does it mean for you to now exist in this world where everything is so politically charged? Do you feel more of a responsibility to, like you said, be joyful and dress up colorfully?
Levine: Among the other DJs in our world, we're already wearing funky colorful patterns and trying to make a statement to kind of break away from the typical black-on-black outfits or wizard kind of drapey fashion.
Clinton: You can it in a lot of the electronic DJs; they've already taken on their characters. Deadmau5, for example. You could see all that coming into the electronic world a few years ago. Now it's full-fledged. All of the big stars look like aliens.
Levine: Yeah, it's true. EDM DJs have their characters.
Clinton: They're the DJs of the world. They're not DJs for any given city. The DJs now play around the world, and the internet is your new radio. You're going to get a lot of characters, imagery and aliens, and the music is out of this world too, with the frequencies that DJs play with nowadays. That's some 21st century shit —the sound of computers. Now you're in the digital USB world, and you've got a whole bunch of new sounds and visuals. It feels to me like I've taken acid. I was watching Flying Lotus and damn, the imagery makes you feel like you're trippin'.
Levine: George, have you tried virtual reality goggles yet?
Clinton: I did, but that just scared me. It felt like I was taking drugs, and I ain't trying to find no new drugs. I don't need no new habits. That just made me feel so fucking weird! It rubbed my psyche the wrong way. That's like drugs. You need to be 16 or 17 to figure that kind of shit out. I don't trust nothing to take me that far out. I've been waiting on it, but now that it's here I have to tiptoe through my social media shit. I'm tip-toeing like hell, because I know that shit can become a habit. I really do tiptoe through anything new and fun.
George, beyond the technology aspect, is there anything that you feel is particularly unique among the younger generation of artists you've been working with?
Clinton: The DJs around the world, they make a lot of money. You don't get paid like that unless there's something happening. Soul Clap, when y'all came in we were jamming, and then all of the sudden we were out in front of all of these people in New York and Detroit. We were on private planes and shit. I can feel when shit is coming up, when it's brand new and it's working. I can tell that this is the new shit. It's 1968 again. I can see everybody getting hyped on the new way to make music, and I'm glad that we're still here because we still play instruments. We're actually making people interested in playing guitars and horns again.
Goldstein: There's also this movement that you're really involved in, the whole Brainfeeder thing with all these musicians in LA. Coming from electronic music, bringing back a live element is really important.
Clinton: They're mixing them together! Once they made anvil cases for turntables, those became an instrument too. Now people make tracks on their phones and then go plug it up to an amp. You've got all these new ways to make music in the 21st century. I played Ibiza! It works good with our band; we've always been able to melt with whatever's going on.
You guys were in Ibiza together?
Levine: Yes! We were hanging until Naomi Campbell came and stole George and they went off to Space and went raving and the rest of us went to bed.
Clinton: She took us to another club, and good lord! There had to be 10,000 people in there.
Was that your first time on the island?
Clinton: Yes. I loved it. I was well-advanced on what it was going to be about, but I loved it once I got there and saw it, especially because I could go fishing too.
Are there particularly resonant memories from the time you guys spent together in the studio?
Goldstein: The one that sticks out for me is when we were in LA, and Charlie went out to get some tacos, and I went out to make a phone call or something. I stepped back in the studio, and there was Sly Stone in his red velvet suit with this hat with the feather on sitting next to George.
Clinton: That's exactly what I was going to say! He was really into playing, and that was the first time my granddaughter ever sang professionally, and the first time I had the chance to work with her.
Levine: It was really heart-warming.
So where did all the music you guys made end up?
Clinton: One of them is the title track of the First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate album by Funkadelic, which was three CDs. It was the first Funkadelic in 33 years.
Levine: There are a few tracks on there produced by Sly that are pretty amazing. We ended up doing three song: one of them called "First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate," the sample "loop it to stoop it" and "In Da Kar." That stuff is available on The C Konspyruhzy, which is George's label. Then there are mixes we did on Soul Clap Records. So none of that is on our new Soul Clap album, but there is a lot of inspiration from the time we were spending down in Tallahassee with George.
George you probably don't know, but your voice made it on the album because there was a microphone on in the room and we were recording our conversation, so there's an interlude with you and me and Sa'D talking about the music we had just done. We did a song called "Elevation" with Dayonne Rollins, Freeky Neek and Ricky Tan, and another one with Ebony, and that material made it on our new album.
In terms of you guys all making music rooted in celebration and community, do you feel like you're part of the same lineage?
Clinton: Oh yeah! Once you're connected to the funk, time and space and where you were born and nationality and gender, all that shit disappears. You become one nation under a groove it supersedes all of those other descriptions. You're just together in something.
Levine: I would say that it's safe to say that what's uniting a lot of these others like Trump is un-funk. It's un-funky.
Clinton: No funk in the Trump!
Levine: He's got to do something with hips or something, loosen up a little bit.
Clinton: He can't dance!
Levine: The media used to make fun of the Bushes. It was easy, but this…I've never seen something like this [Trump thing] in my lifetime.
Clinton: Mainly because he's scary. He's such a kid. It ain't that he's like a bad person; he's like a kid with missiles around. You can't piss him off. It's that type of situation, but you have all these other people around him who might have straight up evil notions. I'm more afraid of the people around him than I am of him
Goldstein: The question is what we can do.
Clinton: Make something funky! Make music that talks about what we're going through. You're going to get some Bob Dylans, some Smokey Robinsons and some Mamas and the Papas. Joan Baez. Public Enemy. You gon' get it. You're going to get some young ones right now.
Goldstein: It's already happening with Kendrick and Chance the Rapper. There's a bunch of young cats that are getting political, which is great.
Clinton: Right now they're just feeling their way into it, but you're going to get one of those little superstars – Justin Bieber, somebody that's young singing some information and wisdom.
Levine: Yo, I got it. What if Justin Bieber can come back under the alias Justice Bieber and he can rap positive and talk about what's going on?
Clinton: I think that's going to happen! Look at Miley Cyrus. She done grew all the way up in an instant.
Levine: Yeah and she's got another side to her that's kind of freaky and funky and wild and dope. I saw her on Saturday Night Live and she was wearing this amazing costume and sounding dope.
Clinton: She's got a family of funk with her. I was real good friends with her uncle Peebo. We used to make music together. Young ones like that grow up and realize what's going on, and that they've got power.
All photos by Bill Kennedy.
Katie Bain has gotta have that funk. She's on Twitter .