George Clinton is an old man now. He is 73, and gone are the days when he used to hop on the table of some dinner theater's guest, midperformance, and pour wine over his head. He doesn't wear a diaper made out of hotel towels anymore; and he's traded in his colorful hair extensions for a wide-brim hat, striped shirt, red blazer, polka-dot tie and black dress pants. He calls this more formal getup his "costume," a day after Halloween while sitting in an upstairs conference room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.
Clinton is visiting the former Chocolate City to promote his new book, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? A Memoir. He's waiting to be mic'd up—waiting to be told that he can go. No one used to tell George Clinton these things when he was younger. He was free. Now he looks for direction—a book to sign, a question to answer; it's all pretty much routine now for the man who once wore three parallel mohawks in his hair at the same time.
On this rainy D.C. night, an attractive, female reporter offers Clinton her hand; thunder doesn't roll in the distance, but Dr. Funkenstein comes alive. He sits up a bit, smiles a toothy grin and calmly lowers his head while lifting her grip toward his mouth, and licks the back of her hand. He raises his head to the ceiling and barks.
George Clinton still has a lot of dog left in him.
It is the dog—the atomic dog—that they have come to see. The crowd, both young and old, have gathered on this night to see the man who created some of the most spaced-out and smoked-out music ever made. Onstage, in front of less than a hundred folks, Clinton will succumb to his humanity. He will tell the crowd that crack was his worst decision. That it doesn't have the same pull as heroin, but it's devastating. He will call himself a "crackhead."
"I have no problem saying I was a crackhead, and until you can say that, you probably still have troubles on your hand," he says. "I have to say it loud and clear to make myself hear me."
The brutal honesty is shared in the book, so he isn't taking anyone aback with his admission. But there is a part of the process that feels as if the crowd came to see Superman tell tales of how he once leaped over buildings and saved children from fires, only to hear Clark Kent talk about life as a journalist at the Daily Planet.
The crowd will not love him less, though. In fact, they almost love him more. It makes him approachable, relatable—almost human.
During the question portion of the show, people will rise to tell stories of what the music means. And what it means to have seen Clinton in 1972 at Howard's Cramton Auditorium and "how he came out of the audience with fruits in his hair. That changed my life, brother," one man will say. It is as if they have forgotten that he is there to answer questions, not just share in the memories that George Clinton didn't know he was making.
He was the performer then, they were the audience, but on this night it feels like they are just shooting the breeze with an old friend.
Before the night is over, the crowd will go crazy when they hear that the Mothership will have a permanent home in the lobby of Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And they will be fascinated to find out—as will Clinton—that the funketeer's lineage traces back to Sierra Leone. He will be honored with a new Sierra Leonean name and a crown, and welcomed by an official member of the Mende tribe. He will lose his brim hat for his crown, and for the first time this night, Clinton is speechless.
The story doesn't start here. For Clinton, Page 379 is where the story begins. The earlier pages are all tales. There is an almost mythical story of his birth in an outhouse—yes, the pioneer of funk was birthed in the funk. There are the stories of his days as a hairdresser in Jersey; stories of a failed doo-wop group, an epic meeting with Motown in which his group wasn't signed and the beginnings of what would come to be the funk sound. There are tales of drugs, women, more drugs and more women, all laid in between a musical history of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective that nods to influences as vast as Jimi Hendrix, Smokey Robinson, Cream, Frankie Lymon and Sly Stone.
There are several pages filled with rumors, either confirmed or denied. No, George Clinton didn't urinate on Motown legend Berry Gordy during a performance, and yes, he did wear an all-white dress thing onstage, was completely buck naked underneath and—yes—he did flash the crowd.
When asked if he worries that his intergalactic persona is going to be dismantled in a book (written with Ben Greenman) that dissuades any notion that he was born in a pod in outer space, Clinton will smile and say, "Not at all. The truth is just as funky."
That's what he does. He breaks everything down to its rawest origins; everything is somehow birthed out of the funk. For Clinton, everything will be, can be or should be funky. It's for this reason that everything is explained in the realm of the funk. So for Clinton, the gentrification of Chocolate City can be explained simply, "They knew we were having too much fun, getting too funky, so they came back."
Like a yogi, Clinton didn't just preach the funk on countless albums—he lived the funk and still speaks its philosophy; he is still bound by the covenant. The more he talks, the more it seems that funk isn't so much a music as it is a mystical pulse; a vibe resonating on a frequency that only he can hear, like a dog whistle with a hard baseline that plays only for him. So Page 379 is where things get all funked up.
Hidden near the back of the book like a lost track. Even the title reads like an album cut: “Appendix C: Statement of Jane Peterer Thompson.”
In short, Page 379 is this: a statement from Thompson claiming that while she worked for Bridgeport Music, her boss Armen Boladian stole the copyright of music that Clinton and his traveling, rotating band of funk innovators created.
The shorter part—of the short version—is this: Clinton and the P-Funks don't own, nor do they collect royalties on, most of the music they created. The same music that has been sampled and resampled and then sampled again to create one of the structural cinder blocks of hip-hop's foundation, and they receive nothing.
This has become Clinton's new legacy. And when he talks about what he and his fellow musicians have lost, that is when Clinton seems his oldest. Like a man who got into the music game and got taken for his shirt. At one point he literally asks the crowd if they have any ideas. His legacy, he tells them, will be to get back the rights to the music he has lost.
"I think that is one of the biggest misconceptions, is that I am always a nice guy," he says. "I still want to kick people's asses, but I learned early on that it doesn't solve anything."
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.