By Ralph Sher
For decades, funk’s seemingly infinite and hypnotic grooves have permeated popular music; the essence of funk has played a significant role in house, boogie, electro, hip-hop and even certain takes on grime.
One name that will forever be attached to the genre is George Clinton, the mind responsible for the funk-heavy odysseys of Parliament and Funkadelic. Having seen musical movements grow, die, and regenerate for more than 50 years, the 74-year-old legend still holds an ultra-progressive view on music today. Outkast, Prince and almost every Wu-Tang affiliate have the Clinton watermark on their records, so it was only a matter of time before he came to work with Kendrick Lamar on his critically acclaimed sophomore album To Pimp A Butterfly.
Mr. Clinton was kind enough to take some time away from writing to speak to us about his relationship with Kendrick, the importance of the funk, and just how much influence he takes from younger generations.
Hey George, how are you?
I’m doing pretty good!
Where are you at right now?
I’m in the studio with Mahogany, one of the girls that sings with the group. I’m working on Parliament’s new album; it’s called Medicine Broad Dog.
So you and Kendrick Lamar are both incredibly important figures in music. We wanted to find out a little bit about how your relationship came to be and how you guys worked together, if that’s cool with you?
That’s cool with me, yes! Well I’d say it started about a year ago, he called and asked would I be on his record. My grandkids said, “Granddad, he’s the one!” He had captured them already.
Had you heard any of Kendrick’s music before?
I knew “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and thought it sounded silly as hell when I first heard it. It’s a hit record but you have to wonder, “Why the fuck is it a hit record?” But you know, after I met him and talked with him I realized it’s just his era of communication, and he had a lot of other stuff to say. He was saying things in brand new metaphors that I knew was going to fuck people up.
How did it go when you first met?
Kendrick came to Tallahassee and gave me the tape and I listened to it. The conversations we had reminded me of myself in ’68 and ’69, he had that same kind of enthusiasm about social issues and the world. You know, him being that young and talking like that—it was surprising, he captured my mind right away. And the stuff he was talking about—I said “if you writing songs about that shit, and you’re already popular, you’re gonna be the one!”
He was already on the right page for you musically?
He was on it already. I wasn’t surprised that the album came out sounding the way it did. I could tell from the song I did with him, the way he was talking and his interpretation of funk, that it was going to be something new. Kendrick told me respect was going to be paid to the funk.
He’s very aware on how to approach music in a commercial sense. His choice of artists like Flying Lotus, Ronnie Isley, Pharrell Williams, and myself to work on the record shows he knows how to pick the right shit to make a real record for today. I didn’t know he had that kind of taste at all; he got a slick young jazz band who knew how to appeal to hip-hoppers. I always thought jazz was good realm for hip-hop, because R&B has been beat up on. The record was so good he had to go put out the leftovers!
I could tell from the song I did with [Kendrick], the way he was talking and his interpretation of funk, that it was going to be something new.
Had you heard the songs on untitled. unmastered before?
I hadn’t heard those, but when I did “Wesley’s Theory” we did a trade off. The first verse on “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” was originally written for my song with Louie Vega, “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?”
Do you have a favorite Kendrick song?
[Pauses] Boo boo! I always forget the name but I love that track!
Do you have any plans to work together again?
I did two or three other ones with him when we were recording but I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. We just worked on a video with Ice Cube for “Ain’t That Funkin’…” that’ll be out soon. It’s going be very interesting for people to see it.
You’ve referred to Kendrick before as “an old soul working in a futuristic way.” Do you think if he were around 50 years earlier, you two might have still worked together?
Easily! He reminds me of Sly Stone in the way he’s poetic and political but also very inclusive of everybody in the mainstream. Kendrick is pointing out the faults of himself and greater society at the same time. When you can tell the truth like that and still appeal to the kids, still have street cred, you’re doing something really good. To me, that’s what younger artists are supposed to do, they’re supposed to simplify shit and take it back to the beginning.
Do you tend to stay in the loop of current music?
Well, I got a million grandkids running around me most of the time so I couldn’t get around it if I wanted to. I’ve always made it my business as a songwriter to keep up with young people that pay attention to song, even if older people think it’s the corny shit, that’s what they supposed to think, they getting old. I look for stuff that gets on my nerves; I know it’s going to be the next big thing when it gets on my nerves.
What Motown had in the ‘60s, Atlanta has with hip-hop today, they have a mechanism for it and they do it very well. Each one of them sounds sillier and sillier but it works!
I look for stuff that gets on my nerves; I know it’s going to be the next big thing when it gets on my nerves.
A lot of the time when listening to contemporary music, be it hip-hop, R&B or house, you’re hearing funk without even realizing it. Could you shed some light on why you think it came to play such an important role in hip-hop and popular culture in general?
It all just started out with people wanting to dance. Once people realized that it was the funky part of the song that made you want to groove, shake your butt and get down, that’s when everybody started using it. No matter how you package it, you get hypnotized with it.
I think you’ll find more bands will form now because artists are going to run out of samples to create something new with—or else they’ll do like Kendrick did and get a real smart jazz band that grew up in the hip-hop world.
Do you and Kendrick stay in touch?
We hung out during the video for “Ain’t That Funkin’…” and we’ve been in touch getting ready to release it, but he’s number one right now! It’s hard as hell to be in that position with so much attention, but he’s got a good team around him. It’s hard to deal with and still try to be creative at the same time, but he has that in check. The only other person I’ve seen do it like that before is Prince! It’s a crazy amount of pressure, but for me, I learned the value of playing crazy—people think you’re crazy, they don’t bother you as much. Kendrick’s got a mission set out for him, I don’t know if he fully realizes it yet but it’s there.