So some of you might be wondering whatever possessed George Clinton, founder and visionary creator of the P-Funk nation, to start wearing a suit and tie. When I first saw the change, I was thinking possibly it was because after so many years of being so much more outrageous — and so much more ahead of his time — than just about everybody else on the pop music scene, maybe he figured this was the one look nobody would see coming.
Then again, for the dear Dr. Funkenstein, a suit and tie just might rate as the most outrageous costume change of all (well, OK, maybe not counting those pre-Parliament, hair-gelled doo-wop days of the Parliaments, but that was kinda different).
But as with most things given birth within the confines of Clinton’s superconductor creative brain, there is a second and third meaning behind every action. Nothing is ever quite as it may first appear in One Nation Under a Groove, a sort of Alice’s Wonderland, but with an even more plentifully potent supply of acid and mushrooms (no, not the kind on your pizza).
There is the rhythm, then comes the rhyme, encased within a hallucinatory space parade of costumes, all of which disguises a silly/serious message that occasionally may require a certain quantity of mind-altering substances to unravel.
The rhythm of vision is a dancer
The art of dancing underwater without getting wet
Funk is its own reward
But whatever you do, never judge a man like George Clinton from the surface appearance. There was always way more going on beneath that sly trickster smile and those rainbow-colored braids than what you thought you might have seen through all those clouds of weed smoke.
Last Thursday night, Clinton landed at the DIA to participate in a Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers event that drew a capacity crowd of more than 1,000 fans of both Clinton and the Twisted Storytellers, a fascinating artistic production created in 2013 by writer, actor and performer Satori Shakoor, who toured for a number of years with Parliament-Funkadelic straight out of Michigan State University during the group’s heyday in the late ’70s as a member of the Brides of Funkenstein.
The Storytellers are described by the Detroit Urban Innovation Exchange as “a non-profit organization with a global mission and purpose to connect humanity, heal and transform community and provide an uplifting, thought-provoking, soul-cleansing entertainment experience that is unique through the art and craft of storytelling.”
Shakoor, a Moth Mainstage storyteller and host, is a recipient of the Spirit of Detroit award, and her creation is a 2013 winner of the Knight Arts Challenge. Her creative nature was on full display Thursday evening when she shared one of her own hilariously insightful stories detailing the urgency of learning how to fashion a living out of doing what she does best.
The evening’s offering also included two other extremely gifted storytellers plus a house-burning performance of one of Funkadelic’s old school hits, “Funky Dollar Bill,” delivered by none other than Detroit’s own Queen of the Blues, Thornetta Davis. Davis, who served as Clinton’s opening act after the brief 15-minute intermission, fired the song up so much that Clinton himself felt compelled to join her onstage and sing the song along with her, a huge smile on his face.
Shakoor also proved to be a more than capable interviewer as she shared the stage with her former bandleader and prompted a wide-ranging near hour-long conversation. It ranged from Clinton’s tales of the road to how certain songs got made to his ongoing legal battles for regaining control of his copyrighted material, much of which he claims was stolen from him by incredibly devious means that he details in his book, “Brothers Be, Yo, Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?”
It is the legal battles to regain control of his creative property that was perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the entire discussion, particularly when Clinton described how his name — and the names of his son and other songwriters — were removed from the copyright of his songs and replaced with the names of individuals that no one seems to be able to identify, all to defraud Clinton of more than $250 million he estimates he is owed for usage of his songs in movies, ads and sampling, going back more than 30 years.
“You’re talking about 30 years of your top stars: Tupacs, Dres, Snoops. You talkin’ about almost all of the hip-hop world, everybody who’s done something has sampled the songs,” he said.
Which leads us back to why Clinton now wears a suit and tie to work — and what gave him the strength and determination to kick his years-long addiction to crack cocaine.
“I couldn’t come up here like some crackhead (complaining) about what I had lost. I couldn’t do that. I had to make sure that I changed my image,” he said, leaning out of his chair toward the crowd, tugging on the lapels of his very sharp suit. “I had to make sure that I was putting out some new music. I got an album out there right now with 33 songs on it. Got a new Parliament album comin’ out in January. You have to be workin’ and look like you deserve it, otherwise people don’t give a s— about you.”
Clinton said he and his organization have been to Congress and are currently talking to the FBI as part of the ongoing process trying to unravel the mystery of where all that money went — and how to get it back. To do that, you have to look the part of someone who knows what he is talking about. And now that he has done that, Clinton says he has caught the opposition off guard and it has them a bit scared. A crack-smoking, hallucinating artist was someone that could be easily managed, controlled and dismissed. They weren’t counting on the re-emergence of Clinton back into his right mind. For more details on all of this, Clinton referred everyone to the website flashlight2013.com.
“‘Empire’ (the hit TV show) ain’t (nothing) compared to this, trust me. You could do two ‘Empires’ a week,” he said.
But as fascinating as all that was, the night would not have been complete without some colorful stories drawn from Clinton’s vast archive of musical experiences. One of the best was the story about P-Funk’s first show in Detroit in 1967. The band had just come down from New Jersey (many of the band members originated from Plainfield, New Jersey) where rioting had already taken place.
“Our first show in Detroit was at the State Theater the day the riot broke out. We had just come from the riot in New Jersey. We got here just in time, hit the stage, and everybody in Detroit was on stage with us. People came through the doors and we didn’t know what was going on. We went out the back door, and it looked just like (inaudible) street in New Jersey.
“They talk about a race riot. wasn’t no race riot. I saw a black guy and a white guy carrying a big couch. They were racing to get that (stuff) in their house,” he said, a remark that drew some of the loudest laughter of the night.
But then, more seriously, Clinton said, “I call it socially engineered anarchy induced chaos,” meaning that we are told to believe who are enemies are and who aren’t, who we should hate and who we shouldn’t “and we fall for it.”
As for how the band managed to come up with so many incredible songs, Clinton attributed it to “being in the zone.”
“When you in the zone, everything you do is right. When it comes through you. God, whatever you wanna call it. But when you start thinking that you the one doing it, then you get in your own way.”
In that same spirit, Clinton said his philosophy as a bandleader was to get out of the way of his musicians and let them work, because he trusted them to do what they do. He instructed the engineers and everyone else to just leave them alone.
“I don’t know what they doin’ and you don’t either,” he said, referring to what he would tell the producers. “When Bootsy came in there, we all looked at each other like, ‘what is he doin’?’ I didn’t known what he was doin’, but I did know it worked. People liked it, so let’s do it with him. Next thing we knew we had Chocolate City.”
But as any musician can tell you, one of the most important things about music is how it makes you feel, and being able to feel it in the right way. Your feelings can oftentimes be more trustworthy than just about anything else.
“It’s why the kids today say ‘Can you feel me?’ You can actually trust that a little better. Because what you see and hear? They got tricks for that. What you see and hear, oh they got both of those. You got to be able to feel me,” he said.