George Clinton might not always know what he wants, but he wants what he feels—and that vision has always been instinctively clear. “This is brand new for me, you know?” the founder of Parliament-Funkadelic told VICE on a Zoom call from the group’s tour bus, as we chatted about his newfound foray into painting and hitting the road (again) with the band that was the genesis of the funk genre. Beginning to paint professionally was a decision that felt less like a lightning bolt to Clinton, and more like a slow, smooth trickle. “I feel my way through it. It became my outlet because of the pandemic, when I had to slow down—to sit down,” he said. No mean feat, for a man who’s been busting high-energy moves for the better part of the 20th century, from the belly of the P-Funk Mothership to the 2020 March on Washington. If it’s been revolutionary, then the Godfather of Funk has probably been there to spread the love—and, of course, the funk. Now, for the first time, his Afrofuturist artwork is on display in Light Years at NeueHouse Madison Square.
Musically, Clinton’s trajectory has been nothing short of kaleidoscopic, beginning with a foundation in doo-wop and Motown, and evolving into that inimitably sticky Parliament-Funkadelic collective sound that blends elements of jazz, blues, R&B, and psychedelic rock together like Laffy Taffy. “It’s a sound as much as it is a lifestyle,” Clinton says. “I think it’s the same thing when I paint. I’m still processing the ‘What does it mean?’ question that people love to ask. But before any kind of intellectualizing, comes the feeling.”
Since the 70s, that cosmic intuition has helped make Clinton a barometer of cool, and guided him towards a career of unmatched eclecticism, from working with James Brown and 14-time Grammy-winner Kendrick Lamar to having a role in the Trolls 2: World Tour movie (which slaps, by the way). No creative outlet is too far-out for Clinton, which is probably why he’s always been one step ahead of the game.
“I was taken by styles and costumes early on. I can do the shock therapy real good, you know?” he says about his drippy, playful style. “[Change] it up from wearing diapers to sheets to really slick leather suits and fur things. I can go from one to the other without blinking an eye. A lot of that probably had to do with the psychedelic things [Parliament-Funkadelic] was involved in, where everything was beautiful. You didn’t have too many ugly things on acid, so we tried to put that to the test and get as pretty and as ugly as we could. We did it with the visuals, and with the music. And now, I think I do it with my art.”
In celebration of his latest creative chapter, and in anticipation of Father’s Day, VICE spoke with the Godfather of Funk about the creative items that have meant the most to him over the years—ones that your own music-loving pops would probably love—as well as his most iconic fashion moments, and when the aliens are going to beam us the funk up already.
VICE: Congratulations on Light Years, George. Can you tell me more about what that’s been like, building your painting career?
George Clinton: First of all, I’m color blind [laughs]. But I stick to the same rhythm that I have with making music: I just do what I feel, and what feels good to me, and think, Funk the rest.
I started out just doodling autographs. People would say, “Hey, can you put the dog on that?” ‘cause they’d seen [my dog drawings]. That became a freestyle thing that worked. It’s been like having a brand new career, and this past year has been so exciting with the exhibitions. And the music is coming back around at the same time, so I get to do both of them. It’s fantastic. Especially since I started selling the paintings for big dollars, and thought, oh shit—this really is working! [Laughs.]
What mediums do you work with?
Acrylic, chalk, crayon, markers, spray paint—anything I get my hands on.
In hindsight, how important were visuals to the Parliament-Funkadelic universe?
Oh, we were known for working with artists like Overton Loyd who did the album cover art for Sir Nose and Motor Booty Affair. He lived with me. He’d kind of teach me the bases around art—and that’s when I realized, oh shit, I really am color blind—but I also learned.
The other thing that helps the [painting] process is that I was a barber. I didn’t have to know colors to actually fade something in as a barber, or to shade something. So I started relating that process to painting, which is a lot like sculpting a haircut; you find the values of different tones and shades, get the feelings of the lights and darks and in-betweens.
Do you think your art is a translation of funk to canvas?
I’m sure it is. I’m also a sci-fi freak, so I got all into the atmosphere of outer space, and what I perceive to be alien arrivals in the paintings. You’ll see my interpretations of what we call the Dogons, who [located] the planet Sirius, and their artworks and masks [blended] with different life forms coming in and out of portals. So that’s a lot of what I consciously think of when I’m painting.
How has your sense of personal style evolved in and outside of the genre? Are they one of the same?
I’m still analyzing all of that. Trying to make some kind of logic out of it. But yeah, I think it’s the funk that I can depend on. You gotta do everything with confidence. I was never married to any particular style, and as soon as I saw [an aesthetic] needed to be changed or was about to be done, I could adapt real quick.
Speaking of style, if I were to gift my funk-loving dad some George Clinton and P-Funk style essentials, what would they be?
Oh, it could be a diaper. It could be a long, blonde wig. It could be a sheet. I’ll try pretty much everything, and lately I’m really into sci-fi, so I’m trying to find things that represent that era.
What are you listening to right now?
Every once in a while, I re-educate myself on the old styles, because they become new to the young kids. I’ve been listening to R&B jazz records, and Kendrick Lamar’s new album—that’s way out there, which I expected him to do. I saw that he was on a trip when I worked with him on To Pimp a Butterfly, and now he’s arriving.
What musical instruments and tools do you think make the best gifts?
Oh, that’d be a keyboard. One of the futuristic ones. Synthesizers. Guitars are my favorite, too; you can make a lot of noise on the guitar, and then get into so many styles on a keyboard.
Have you heard of those plant sentience music devices from the Plantasia era?
Yeah, I can believe it. All life has to be some kind of receptacle for sound and frequencies. In the 60s, it was all about not stepping on the grass. Everyone was tripping on all the life forms that there were. [Laughs.] Like I said, I’m into the sci-fi thing, and I think we’re getting ready to jump the planet. The binary thing is getting ready to open up to the universe.
Do you think we should be worried?
Nah, I’m into that. I want it to hurry up.
Speaking of not stepping on the grass—what are your favorite ways to unwind?
Roll me a fat one, get my paintbrush out.
That’s the chillest thing you can do. Kick back with a fat one, throw paint, and feel the imagery. That’s my chill right there, and it’s just getting started.
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