By the time they reach their 70s, most famous musicians become less active. They might saddle up for a quick tour every few years to play all the hits for the die-hard fans, or they might retire to spend time with family. But that’s just not how George Clinton rolls. At the age of 72, the funk pioneer is as busy as he’s ever been.
This year alone, Clinton has taken part in a just-released documentary called Finding the Funk, worked on an autobiography and a new studio album (both due out early next year), and is currently gearing up for a reality TV series starring himself and his family. Moreover, he continues to tour frequently with his longtime band, Parliament-Funkadelic, or the P-Funk All-Stars, a massive ensemble that comprises veteran performers Michael Hampton, Lige Curry, Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey and the P-Funk Horn Section, among others.
For Clinton, the dilemma of being on the road versus being with family members was an easy one to solve: he’s simply brought them on tour with him.
“My grandkids are in the band with me now,” he says. “They do a lot of the hip-hop stuff, singing and rapping. So, it’s not an oldies-but-goodies show. It’s always new.”
That newness, Clinton says, is what still makes playing music and touring feel worthwhile after all these years. “We always do a lot of the same songs, but they’re never played the same way or with the same people doing it, 'cause there are so many of us,” he says. “There are 25 [to] 27 of us [on stage], and we do a different show all the time.”
For Clinton, changing things up continually is more than just a means of motivation. It’s the backbone of his entire musical philosophy. In other words, it’s the root of funk itself.
“To stay funky, you have to be able to change yourself, to renew yourself and not be stuck in any one particular place,” he says. “That’s what funk is to me. We’ve never been afraid to change and evolve through the years, and it always works out.”
Clinton’s restless quest has indeed worked out: not only does he still have a productive career of his own, but his catalog has influenced everybody from modern R&B singers to rock bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and hip hop artists like Dr. Dre and OutKast.
“That’s what we call the 'mothership connection',” he explains. “It’s addictive. Once you get into the funk, it’s hard to get out of it. You develop a bad habit. You have to go to rehab to get rid of it.”
Over the years, Clinton’s group has taken on many different names—Parliament, Funkadelic, P-Funk All-Stars—but that “mothership connection” has been at the root of everything. Clinton explains that the name changes have been due to legal, rather than musical, issues.
“Using all the different names was our way of staying alive,” he says. “When the big record companies would swallow the smaller ones, we sometimes couldn’t use [a particular] name anymore, 'cause the companies would take it with them. All the different names [were] just one big group—we had 75 people at one time. We’d just have to change the name and keep on moving.”
As the singer and leader of the ever-changing collective, Clinton has written the bulk of the group's material, despite not playing any instruments himself. “I’ve been a writer for a long time, so it’s easy for me to just hum the melodies to the guitar player, the drummer, the bass player,” he says. Clinton is also the group’s lyricist, responsible not only for its sociopolitical commentary but for the “P-Funk mythology,” an evolving cast of fictional characters and settings that he likens to a “funk opera” of sorts.
“It keeps [people’s] interest in the band,” he says. “They grow with us, they know the story. It’s like cartoons, or a serial [show], and that’s the reason people get into it.”
Recently, Clinton donated the famous Mothership, long a symbol of the P-Funk ethos, to the Smithsonian Institution, a feat of which he is especially proud.
“The music and the spaceship are going to go down in history,” he says. “It’s great that it’s in there, right next to the Tuskegee Airmen’s plane.”
WHO: George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $25