Much of the music Clinton made with principal players like keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins formed the foundation of hip-hop hits from De La Soul's "Me, Myself & I" to producer Dr. Dre's bass-heavy G-funk sound.
In recent years, Clinton has lost his trademark multicolor hairdo, but he's still been leading a vital, unstoppably funky (and funny) version of P-Funk, playing three-hour shows in mostly smaller venues.
Now he's set to hang up his touring shoes, planning to retire to Tallahassee, Fla., with his wife, Carlon, and to concentrate on visual media projects, while promising to still occasionally drop in at P-Funk shows as the band tours without him.
But first, the "One Nation Under a Groove Tour" will come to Franklin Music Hall on Thursday, topping a bill with Fishbone, Dumptaphunk, Galactic, and Miss Velvet and the Bluewolf. The nonmusician who is one of the great musical innovators of the second half of the 20th century spoke on the phone from Springfield, Ill., on the day the tour was set to begin.
It's the beginning of the end. How are you dealing?
You get mixed feelings. All the shows are getting sold out, so that's nice. And I've got plenty to do. Movies to make and cartoons.
People don't realize how good the band is now.
They slept on it for a while, but it's really hot now. We've had two new albums a couple of years ago, and my grandkids, my kids, and the kids of the other members of the bands are out there. So it's a whole new show.
We did a tour with the Chili Peppers in Australia and had 90,000 people at one show. It's happened on the internet instead of the radio.
I started looking at the internet and social media as the new underground. So we actually clowned making the album, doing it on Periscope while we was writing the songs. People saw us writing the songs and watched us record it. Then when it came out, a lot of people felt a close connection to it.
How many people are in the band now?
Twenty-four. I got like six grandkids in there.
How many on stage at one time?
A couple of times all 24. But mostly they're going on and off. It's like a play. We usually play three hours, but on this tour more like two because we got all these other bands. It's gonna be a funky night. Everybody's goin' to be funkin.
You were born in North Carolina before moving to Plainfield, N.J,, right?
First we moved to Virginia, then New Jersey when I was about 10.
What was the first music you loved?
Doo-wop. Frankin Lymon and the Teenagers. And then the Flamingoes. The Dells. The Moonglows. All that in 1956 and '57.
Lee Andrews and the Hearts?
That's Questlove's dad. That was one of my favorites. When I found that out, I couldn't believe it.
I was influenced by all of it. The whole rock-and-roll thing. I worked in a record store. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley.
We started singing when I was about 15 years old. And by the time I was 18, I was into all kinds of music. I was into Motown 'cause they started to have hits.
When were you cutting hair in Plainfield?
All at the same time. You used the barbershop to take care of yourself and your family. And then you'd rush to New York to cut demos and leave somebody's hair straightening there - burning - when you were gone. And trust somebody else to finish it for you.
How'd the customer feel about that?
All your fans, they didn't mind you doing it because they knew you were going to be famous. We did it so convincingly that they knew we were meant to be.
Did you think that?
Yeah. I met the Motown people early in my life and I saw how they was working. I came back and got a songwriting job in New York with Berry Gordy's' wife. You couldn't tell us we wasn't going to make it.
I worked in the Jobete office in the Brill Building. I was babysitting Kerry Gordy. Later, he worked with me on "Paint the White House Black" [on his 1993 solo album Hey Man, Smell My Finger]. The P-Funk Family was based on Motown. We just played louder.
When did it go from being commercial R&B to psychedelic funk and rock and roll? Did the drugs do that? Or the music?
The music did it first. When we had a hit record with "(I Wanna) Testify" [in 1969], we had dreamed of being a Temptations-type group. We did our own hair, we was in the barbershop. So we knew that style. And then everybody was coming out of the suits, and rock and roll was taking over. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and all that was No. 1.
Everything changed, so we had to go psychedelic. I remember Sgt. Pepper, Cream's Disraeli Gears, Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love and Are You Experienced?, Sly, A Whole New Thing. I bought all of them at one time.
We decided the Parliaments need to make a change. We took the suits and ties off and we did did Music for My Mother, which was intentionally loud and psychedelic. The songs were long. They were dark. There was mid-tempo music between the blues and rock and roll that nobody was messing with, with the exception of New Orleans people.
We did that with Funkadelic, and then Free Your Mind ... And Your Ass Will Follow and Maggot Brain. We built it up slowly until we got to do Up for the Down Stroke with Neil Bogart at Casablanca [in 1974]. Bootsy [Collins] had come around, along with Fred Wesley and Maceo [Parker, both from James Brown's band]. And we had Bernie Worrell, a keyboard player with classical training.
Have you ever played an instrument?
Nah. I can hum the parts. I can tap it out. No, no. Don't play nothing.
What gave you the confidence to boss these guys around?
I started with them when they were kids. I was a songwriter with Motown, and they would listen to me. Bernie taught all of us because he was classically trained. Eddie Hazel had so much soul that he could do anything he wanted on the guitar. So I had a lot of different musicians from then they were kids and as they grew, that was their education.
Which bandleaders do you respect the most?
The Duke Ellingtons, the Count Basies. Those kind of people. That's basically what I did was direct the band, then clown and do the records. Then I think Sun Ra. I really respect what James did with that band, what Sly did with his band. What Prince did. He worked people's asses into the ground so every inch of that was perfect, from morning to night. Maceo is one of the best. He did it for James, for Prince, for us, for himself. He's the king of that [stuff].
What did drugs do for the music, and when did it become a problem?
It always does both of those things. In the beginning, it opened up that Are You Experienced? s-. But I think it has more to do with the time, because it don't work for everybody and wasn't working for us after a period of time.
It was over after the Vietnam War was over. Once the goal line to stop that war had become a reality, it wasn't even cool to even do acid anymore. People wanted to spit in the soup that they used to leave for the hippies. The whole thing changed. What used to be about love turned out to be, 'Watch out for the brown acid.' It turned into drugs you can't even get off, like crack.
You used crack for a long time, didn't you?
Too long! That was the worst part of it. I wasn't even getting high and I couldn't stop using it.
When did you get off it?
When I was 70.
You're lucky you're alive.
I am lucky. And I feel good. I feel positive. Everything's going great.
Are you totally clean?
I got my medical marijuana card. No meds, no legal drugs, no illegal drugs.
What are you being treated for with medical marijuana?
Getting off crack!
P-Funk was huge in the 1970s. You played arenas everywhere.
We took it to Europe, all over the place.
It's amazing that music that was so adventurous and crazy could also be so popular.
Yeah. And it's getting more popular now. ... Funk is the DNA for hip-hop. And techno, and pretty much all the R&B stuff. You have people who were into it in college, and now their grandkids are into Kendrick Lamar or Flying Lotus. I just did a record with them.
Did you make money and blow it? Or not make money?
I made money, but I always tried to put it into the group. We had 40 or 50 people that traveled all the time. I was always trying to put it into the next album, the next show. I never look back, 'cause you always find out everybody stealin' and robbin' from you. I'd rather clean up later. Get the Mothership off the ground and into outer space, and then clean up later when you're older.
How about when hip-hop started sampling you?
No, I didn't get paid then, either. But that's what we're doing now. Copyright termination is coming up. I'm getting a second bite of the apple. One Nation Under a Groove, Atomic Dogg, Electric Spanking of War Babies, I got all that back. I own those now.
Do you have regrets?
Not really. I could have taken some advice when I was young. But what I had to go through got me to where I am now. I like doing what I'm doing, and I pretty much did it on my own terms.
Must one start by freeing one's mind? Can you do it the other way around?
I think you have to free your mind first. If you follow your body, it's going to get you into trouble. It's going to relate to all good-feeling things. And that ain't necessarily the best thing for you. You got to take care of the mind first. Otherwise, you're going to be twerkin' your way through life.