In town for a concert this Friday, November 29th at the new Concord Music Hall, I spoke with funk legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer George Clinton about the state of the music industry in the internet age, artist rights and just what the word "funk" means to him in 2013 after nearly fifty years in music at the helm of both Parliament and Funkadelic...
Embroiled in a series of bitter legal battles over the copyrights of his songs, music pioneer and funk legend George Clinton has gotten involved with a new initiative called Flashlight 2013 which seeks to shine a light on artist rights and a myriad of issues with music copyright law in the United States.
Cleaned up and ready to fight, Clinton's battle is an inspiring one - one where an artist in a cutthroat music world is equally as concerned about educating his fellow musicians about song copyrights as he is about reclaiming his own. One where that same artist enthusiastically embraces the internet to carry his message in a manner more effective than artists half his age.
As one of the most sampled artists of all time, Clinton's music helped to legitimize a burgeoning hip-hop scene in the early nineties. As if his own socially conscious contributions to the world of music and a funk genre he had a hand in creating weren't enough, collaborations with/samples by artists like Ice Cube, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and more have helped him cross over to multiple generations, assuring that his music will live on historically (while his mothership does that literally - at the Smithsonian).
Busier than he's ever been despite his age, in 2013 Clinton released the first official new Funkadelic tracks in over twenty years via iTunes (one of which features a collaboration with Sly Stone), continues to champion Flashlight 2013 and tours relentlessly with all twenty-two members of Parliament Funkadelic (continuing, in the marathon tradition of so many shows gone by, to eclipse three hours on many a night).
Hard at work on new P-Funk recordings he hopes to release this spring, a book that will tell his life story, and a Randy Jackson produced reality show that could air on the Fuse network, 2014 looks to be an equally busy year as 72 year old George Clinton marches on in an effort not just to make a living but to cement his legacy.
As he gears up for yet another Chicagoland concert this Friday night at Concord Music Hall, I spoke with George Clinton about Flashlight 2013, the state of the music industry and the meaning of funk in a long conversation. What follows is the full transcript of a riveting, heartening conversation that aired in part on my radio show (The Rock N' Roll Radio Program) last Sunday...
Q. In the summer of 2012, I saw you perform here in Chicago at the African Festival of the Arts. That night you asked the crowd for a show of hands to show who was in attendance in 1978 when the mothership descended upon Soldier Field. You’ve obviously performed here countless times over the past forty-five years or so, so what’s it like for you coming back here and is there a particular moment that sticks out for you as a fond memory of performing in Chicago?
George Clinton: Of course! Y’all have got it. ’78 was huge. That was the “One Nation/Mothership” tour at the same time in ’78.
But we’ve got ties to Chicago way before that. In the sixties… Damn. That was the real chitlin’ circuit. Rodney Jones used to bring us there in the early sixties. And then later on at The High Chaparral.
So we’ve had historical times in Chicago all the way through to the mothership at Soldier Field. McCormick Place - We opened that. We did that with Stevie Wonder and that was a real good one. Chicago… We were right out of Detroit so we used to just drive over there all the time.
[Editor’s Note: The High Chaparral was a black night club in the seventies located on the city's south side at 77th and Stony Island, mere blocks from the historic Regal/Avalon Theater].
Q. You’re involved with Flashlight2013.com which is a website that should be of interest to aspiring artists or musicians here in Chicago who have released songs. This is an initiative that you’ve become involved with in an effort to make artists aware of their copyright rights. I consistently see you mention that 2013 is a key moment in this movement. Why is 2013 such an important year?
GC: A good example is, if everybody would pay attention right now – It’s thirty-five years since 1978. Everybody that did a song in 1978 has the right to reclaim that song right now. And it’s coming up real fast. You have to do it real quick. Everybody that did a record in 1978 can get their songs back, their masters back, all of that back – right now. Thirty-five years after you put a record out, it comes in handy to get your masters back or your publishing back. But they make it very hard for you to do.
Next year will be thirty-five years from 1979. So it goes like that. I’ve got to notify all of the different members of my bands that have had songs out – like The Brides [of Funkenstein], Parlet, The Rubber Band, The Sweat Band, anybody – that they can recapture their songs right now.
Q. In addition to making artists aware of how copyrights work and music fans aware of the issue itself, what do you see as the role of Flashlight2013 moving forward?
GC: That’s our way, without b----ing about it, to put up the facts of the court cases. I don’t even give you my point of view on that [site]. We have another site (funkprobosci) where you might get my biased opinion. But on Flashlight 2013 it’s the straight facts for people to figure out what’s going on. They can look at it and get it all and put it in chronological order right down to the statement that we have – we have a manifesto that we can lineup and back up with documents – you can get all of that on Flashlight 2013 and put it together yourself. That’s what we put it up there for.
We intend to make history. The mothership is at the Smithsonian and Flashlight 2013 is going to have all the documentation of all of the court cases that went on [regarding song copyrights]. People will be surprised how many songs that they’ve known over the past thirty years that have originated with the help of P-Funk songs – not to mention the P-Funk songs themselves.
If, in history, if people decide to look at this whole phenomena of funk, hip-hop and black music in general, then rock and roll – If they want to learn about this in later years, they’re gonna find it all at Flashlight 2013.
Q. Right now at Flashlight2013.com, there’s a YouTube video posted of you interviewing Pat Lewis, who’s written with you, Isaac Hayes and so many more for a long, long time. She's also had her works used by contemporary artists like D’Angelo. It’s a really sad story of an artist exploited, of her copyright rights being exploited…
GC: I mean, this is downright… She did all this music for us, for Motown, for Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul [album], The Andantes – She’s been in the background on my records since “(I Wanna) Testify.”
[Editor’s Note: “(I Wanna) Testify was a #3 hit released in 1967 by The Parliaments – a doo wop act that Clinton formed in the mid-fifties and a precursor to the funk success that would follow with Parliament in the seventies and beyond].
So she’s been around forever with Armen [Boladian] and all the people there in Detroit and everything. D’Angelo and Roy Hargrove did the song “I’ll Stay” which she and I wrote back in ’62 or something.
[Armen] gets her – and she’s in dire straits right now – He gets her to sign over, for five thousand dollars that he owes her a thousand times over, a new thing granting him renewal rights to the songs. That’s really horrible.
Garry Shider was on his deathbed and couldn’t make any kind of decisions. And to help his wife and kids, he signed all of his rights away to [Armen] and had the kids sign it too - At a time when he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I was helping him at the time – trying to get him not to sign those things – but he was worried about his family. He signed away all his rights. And he had never been paid all those years in the first place for “Atomic Dog.”
But that’s what we’re up against and Flashlight 2013 has to shine a light on that kind of stuff. Because that’s what they’re doing to everybody: Barrett Strong in Detroit - You’ve got a whole bunch of people who just need to be heard.
[Editor’s Note: A recent Slate.com piece describes Bridgeport Music as “a one-man corporation formed in 1969 and owned by a former music producer named Armen Boladian. It has no employees and no reported assets other than copyrights.” That same article states that in 2001, Bridgeport filed nearly five hundred copyright infringement suits against a large number of artists and labels.
How Bridgeport came to obtain George Clinton’s frequently sampled copyright catalog has become a tangled web that Clinton attributes to forged signatures and more. Regardless, it’s become a path to millions of dollars that little, if any, of which trickles back to the artists being sampled who created the original works.
It’s a controversial practice that’s been dubbed “sample trolling” and it’s most recently resulted in a lawsuit against rapper, Jay-Z.
As a result, Flashlight 2013 has called upon President Obama and Congress to investigate and reconsider the role of what is widely considered to be outdated copyright law in a music landscape that is rapidly changing due to the internet, sampling and more.
Read the full Slate.com article HERE]
Q. With the internet minimizing the need for entities like record labels and giving the artists a bit more control over their destiny, what are your thoughts on the state of the music industry circa 2013? Is it in a better place or is it just more of the same?
GC: It’s definitely a better place. It definitely is. You’ve got a bigger playground to play around with now. You’ve got the entire planet! There’s going to be lots of ways to sell your music that they haven’t even thought of yet. They’re going to do everything under the sun and artists that are into creativity are going to find creative ways to get the music out to the people.
I think people still like music. So I think you’re going to get a lot more people actually going and playing – full bands and everything.
I’m never upset with anything that happens. If it happens, it happens. You’ve just got to deal with it and make it better. Change it to what you want it to be. I like where it’s at now.
Q. You use the internet better than artists half your age. In 2012, you launched a successful crowd-sourcing IndieGogo campaign to restore classic P-Funk recordings and upgrade studio facilities (not to mention your social media presence). Earlier this year, you released the first new Funkadelic songs in over twenty years via iTunes. Would you say the internet has had a positive impact on this seemingly productive new phase of your career?
GC: Yes! That’s what I’m saying! We’re getting ready to put something out now that’s really going to blow people’s minds out. Because we realize it’s making a difference. Even on tour. We’re selling out places and have had to move to a new level of places because the places we were playing were always oversold. So we’re treating it like it’s a new group. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. That’s what we do. We do this!
This sh-t, it gives an old mother f----r like myself the opportunity to kick out the jams again! We’ve got some new sh-t coming out – ‘cause we got dat doo doo! We’ve got some stuff coming out that I guarantee is going to make noise.
And it’s hard to make noise nowadays in music. It’s hard because it’s all pre-planned and pre-packaged and everything.
Ok, so that’s the way it is. But you’ve still got YouTube out there. And you’re going to get more! You’ve got all these new ways for people to get in touch and see something. It’s a big planet!
Q. With the relentless touring – I mean, you never stop – Plus the new music, the autobiography you’re working on, the forthcoming reality show you’re involved in, the Flashlight 2013 initiative – you’re doing as much now at 72 years of age as your ever have. Is it fair to say that at this point in your career you’ve got more at stake than simply making a living – that you’re trying to cement your legacy?
GC: Oh my God! Yeah. Yes. Like in the studio - I’m in the studio all night! I was actually laughing and the band was laughing at me spending all these all-nighters like I used to! When I get enthused about something, I’m enthused about it. And I feel it! I feel this.
Q. Just this morning I was reading an interview that you gave to NME in the U.K. in 1978. In it, of your experience on the business side of the music industry you said the following: “…rarely [you] get but one good shot; you're lucky if you get two. By the time your third comes around you're gonna be so f---ed up by the record companies you're gonna be mad enough to wanna sue – and if you ain't saved no money you're in trouble… Nobody encourages you to learn nothing about this business. Record companies would rather you stay dumb, not even think of it as a business, so they can either rip you off or get you out the way in five years to make way for the new groups.”
You said those words thirty-five years ago – almost kind of an omen in retrospect. You’ve been so far ahead of the curve on this, so what kind of advice would you offer to up and coming artists fighting to sign with a label despite all of the warnings and potential pitfalls?
GC: Damn… that’s really weird with ’78 – that that keeps coming up. Wow. That’s deep.
First, they've gotta shake the gate. You don’t know if there’s a dog behind that fence or not! You better shake the gate.
It would be advantageous for all artists to start, right now, watching the people with anything that was recorded in 1978 and see who gets their songs back and how much trouble the industry gives them getting those songs back. So these artists will know what to do. Because this will continue.
Because you make deals when you first start out – that’s part of the game. You’re gonna do that just to get known. I’d do that myself if I was starting all over again. I’d still do it. But I would pay attention to what I’m saying now: You can educate yourself. It’s a business. It’s fun and everything but it can be one of the most lucrative businesses if you know how to keep that money and not get into tax trouble.
I mean, I’ve done it all – the drugs and everything – you’re gonna do all that. But there’s ways to protect yourself even after having all that much fun.
Q. The word “funk” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people: an uplifting form of music to some, a good time to others and even an art form that was socially conscious and a source of pride in the African-American community. In the year 2013 at 72 years of age, after nearly fifty years in the music industry, what does the word "funk" mean to you? Has that definition changed for you over the years?
GC: Yes. Because funk is anything it needs to be to save your life. If you’re funky enough, you can just let go of whatever you believe and embrace something [new] – that’s being funky.
Music is the same way: Do the best you can and after that, funk it! That’s the ultimate concept to me of funk: Do the best you can, then funk it. As it is, so be it. Let it be.
All that sh-t – All of it’s the same thing: funky.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on George Clinton's Friday, November 29th concert at Concord Music Hall after the jump)
More Chicago At Night coverage of George Clinton in Chicago...
- Interview Audio: Eleven minutes worth of audio highlights of the exchange above edited and aired on my radio show on Sunday, November 24, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM86S_1r-8w
- Concert Review: George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic Live at the African Festival of the Arts - September 1, 2012
- Concert Review: George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic Live at the Cubby Bear - May 13, 2012
- Concert Review: Cameo with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic Live at The Venue - September 30, 2011
(Jim Ryan also hosts "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB - streaming at wimsradio.com and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet - Just search "WIMS" to find it on TuneIn)
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George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic
Friday, November 29, 2013
Concord Music Hall (formerly V Live)
2047 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
Also performing: The Heard and Whysowhite
Doors open at 8PM
Click HERE to purchase tickets