The Big Bow Wow
The young George Clinton may have once been the best hairdresser in New Jersey, but during the '70s, no one was freakier or funkier. As the leader of Parliament and Funkadelic, he cultivated an indefinable music and outlandish image that influenced future stars like Prince, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Outkast, and Dr. Dre. Here the Atomic Dog charts his transformation from cutting heads to changing the way we thought of diapers.
VH1: How did your early days working in a barbershop influence your style?
George Clinton: We actually started doing each other's hair in the basement of my house, and by the time we got to be around 19 years old, we had the biggest barbershop on the East Coast. We did everybody's hair that came through there, from Jackie Wilson's to James Brown's. Everybody who came into New York or to New Jersey to perform.
The barbershop served a lot of purposes. My group the Parliaments rehearsed there. A lot of other groups rehearsed there. The barbershop was just loaded with all kind of stars. The Monotones - we watched them leave the neighborhood and go on and play at the Apollo. We went to the Apollo talent contests two or three times. One time, we changed our name and put on some different wigs and stuff and went and won again. We had all kind of gimmicks.
We saw the Isley Brothers when they first came to town, which was the rowdiest thing we had ever seen. They started singing ballads, but when they first came to town, it was "Shout" and "Twist and Shout," which was pandemonium! All of that we packed in our little memory banks, and when we did our shows, we went from the Isley Brothers to the Temptations to the Pips. By the time we got big, we were able to pull from everything - similar to what the Beatles was doing.
VH1: How did your image change over the years?
Clinton: The Parliaments were doo-wop until we made our first hit record, "(I Wanna) Testify." We saw that it was going to be hard to keep suits alike and keep routines because it had played out. Even the Temptations had begun to look nostalgic to us. So we said, "Wait a minute, we're going the wrong way." I realized that in order for us to stay there, we had to come up with another image. We said, "Well, let's take funk," which is the midtempo music between rock 'n' roll, which was fast, and blues, which was slow - both of which had become very popular with the white musicians. We got the Holiday Inn sheets off the bed, the towels, and made diapers out of them. Stopped fixing our hair. We didn't have to worry about suits anymore. We didn't have to worry about being older, either, because now we were characters, and characters don't get old. You can watch Mickey Mouse forever. We became Dr. Funkenstein and Maggot Brain and all of that. Musically, we used what we had learned from the Beatles, what we had learned from Motown, and my mother's blues music - B.B. King and all them. There were no boundaries for us.
VH1: So how did your own funk sound come into being?
Clinton: The music had been around with blues bands and those cats. It was funky to just walk into a club and plug in and start playing without knowing the arrangement. Like Weather Report: "I'll meet you back here in 15 minutes." That's funk - it's an attitude. We just made a conscious decision to keep saying the word for political reasons. We was going to say "funk" even if it got obsolete. We weren't going to let it get corny.
VH1: Along with your change of image, your stage show must have changed, too.
Clinton: We shocked people. We'd play a song and a casket would open up real slow. The spotlight would come on the casket - and chicken feet would fall out. You'd hear people get scared, and then you hear somebody giggle as the spotlight hit the feet. You didn't know what to do - run or what! I would have a diaper on. Plus, on top of that, we were in the era of everybody doing acid and stuff. So you had five or 10 fools out there who a couple of years earlier thought they was the coolest things in the earth with the suits and the Cadillacs. All of a sudden, we're out there with diapers and sh*t on, spaced out. We were much older than all the rest of the kids around us. They was like 17, 16, 15. We was out there damn near 30!
VH1: In the early days, did you really need a gimmick in order to get by?
Clinton: You don't know what to do, you just start being stupid. Whatever your act comes out to be, whether it's a casket and a cape or duck-walks or speaking in tongues if you're in church, whatever it makes you do, you're giving up your funk then. We always tried to get the audience in that state of mind where they have to stop thinking and forget the parking lot. "Yeah, it's going to be crowded when you leave. But you better not leave. Because if you leave now, you're going to miss it." When we first got the spaceship, I would start the show with it. It took me one show to realize I wasn't going to be able to follow this thing, so we better put it at the end of the show. When I came out of the spaceship, I had to remind them that I'm getting paid for this.
VH1: What do you think Funkadelic and Parliament's visual legacy was?
Clinton: A lot of people that saw us realized that you could do other things and get away with it. But it was hard for most groups to duplicate the chaos that we did. Because we did it accidentally. When Earth, Wind & Fire played with us, the next time we saw them they had the pyramids and the flipping over things. The same people that made ours, made theirs for them.
VH1: How much was Sly Stone an influence on you?
Clinton: He's probably the greatest hero of mine that there is. Sly is part of the Mothership. He's so much part of the funk that he came on tour with us in '80 - he's so at home just being Sly.
VH1: What would you say are his most important records?
Clinton: "Sing a Simple Song" or "Life" or "Stand!" Just his lyrics. You felt like he was talking to you. He was in a place like Oakland [California] where there was a lot of intellect going on in the schools there. He went to college for music. His family was preachers. He was a DJ on one of the hippie stations out there. You take all of that intellect and street knowledge and church sensibility and you put all that together, you had to have somebody pretty deep. He could just talk all up in the air and you wouldn't understand a thing he said, but you knew exactly what he was saying all the time. He wrote like that.
VH1: What about his stage act?
Clinton: Take Woodstock, for instance. They played "I Want to Take You Higher" for a good 20 minutes. You can't ad lib with the horns and harmony. You can do that with rhythm and everybody can just follow each other. But to ad lib where people had to come in together in harmony is pretty deep when you go 20 minutes and the song is about three minutes. I know he was giving signals somewhere, but it had to be like mental telepathy or something. If you saw them, they played like that all the time. He's the only person I know where it was hip to go to a show and he wasn't there! Fans would walk up to him and say, "You owe me $30. Me and my woman came to see you and you wasn't there. We saw you in the back and you didn't even come out." Was that cute?
VH1: What's the importance to an artist of developing a visual side?
Clinton: It's important that artists have some kind of visual something. Unless they can just be that weird, that they would be seen and really get accepted and it would just be music. It's not that hard to find once you settle down to not being affected by the first two or three problems that come. I pretend that we never made it. We're still trying. So I don't get frustrated. Going underground is a whole new opportunity to do something that you haven't done before, and they'll take anything if you mean it.