“I just wanna testify,” sang George Clinton in 1967, on The Parliaments’ first hit single, ‘(I Wanna) Testify’. Forty-six years later, and he’s still pleading to bear witness – though this time, instead of declaring “the best love I ever had” on record, he’s taking to the courts to demand rights and royalties he believes are being withheld from him, and along the way is uncovering a spider’s web of deceit and dishonesty.
Clash has come to meet George at Metropolis Studios in west London, where, over the course of a few wet February days, he’s been conducting workshops designed to deconstruct the funk. From an intimate band performance, to a studio multi-track breakdown, and live-to-vinyl recording with young producers and musicians, it’s been a revelatory experience for all concerned, and a unique insight into the creative mind behind the Mothership.
We’re thrilled to meet the lysergic genius who, along with James Brown and Sly Stone, pioneered that dirty bastard offshoot of soul we call funk; the psychedelic wizard who masterminded Parliament and Funkadelic, and coined the term P-Funk to define the very genre he conceived; the bear-like bandleader that wrote ‘One Nation Under A Groove’, ‘Cosmic Slop’ and ‘Atomic Dog’, and laid himself open to sampling by anyone who required a deep groove, including Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and, more recently, Earl Sweatshirt. But, things go distinctly pear-shaped barely 20 seconds into our conversation.
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George Clinton, ‘Atomic Dog’, from the 1982 album ‘Computer Games’
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A question about George’s first forays into the business as The Parliaments, a doo-wop group in New Jersey, is our opening gambit. But just as George’s memory begins to happily regress, we are rudely interrupted by his manager, who storms into our serene studio set-up brandishing a laptop, and asks Clash to excuse ourselves.
After several awkward minutes of shuffling around in the next room, trying politely not to hear the raised voices, we return to our interrogation seat. George is visibly irate. The conversation, he tells us, was with his lawyer, who was calling from a US court to update his client on the latest developments in one of many active suits George is involved in. Exploding with frustration and intent on being heard, this topic dominates the majority of our interview time, as George goes on to explain the reasons behind his wrath. And it gets complicated…
“If I could start all over, but with what I know now…” George sighs, shaking his head. “It’s hard to say that to a kid who wants to sing and wants to play instruments – you’re so hyped to go do it that shit don’t usually matter. You have no thoughts about it. You know people are crooked – you hear that all the time – but you don’t [think you’re gonna get screwed].”
He’s entangled in battles to retain the publishing rights to his own songs, to prosecute the lawyers who stole them off him, to uncover monies due from sampling royalties, and to extricate himself from a conspirational network that plagues his every turn. It’s no wonder he needs to let off some steam.
“Today, they try to take everything: your image, your road [touring income], your intellectual properties… They want it all!” he rails. “But they can’t own it no more because of this copyright recapture law that’s in Congress now.”
The law of which he speaks is actually the Copyright Act of 1976, which began to take effect in 2011, and is intended to allow artists to reclaim copyrights that may have been licensed elsewhere after 35 years. Authors have a five-year window in which to file termination notices – Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and The Eagles have all done so – and is also applicable posthumously to heirs of the author. As long as the work was not “made for hire”, i.e. created for a paid commission, the right of termination cannot be waived.
Clinton was successful in retrieving ownership of four Funkadelic album masters – ‘Hardcore Jollies’ (1976), ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ (1978), ‘Uncle Jam Wants You’ (1979), and ‘The Electric Spanking Of War Babies’ (1981) – but then faced another nightmare when the lawyer he entrusted to protect them and collect royalties from subsequently signed the rights over to himself.
George, then in the throes of a debilitating crack habit, which he’s since beaten, was initially unaware of the deception. “That was his job to do, to protect those!” he says. “He took advantage of [my drug habit]. But that does not matter: they’re still mine, and he still did what he did. [That call I just took] was him asking me would I drop the malpractice case, because I’m suing him for that. He’s trying to get all the money I got from everywhere, every source. I paid him a million dollars – he went to court one time for me. Never did shit. But I made sure that I stopped [smoking crack] just so that I would have the energy for the big fight.”
The “big fight” involves not only getting the rest of his music back, but also ensuring that everybody involved with writing for and with George gets what’s owed to them, and guaranteeing all future earnings. The trouble lies with the fact that the labels George is chasing have formed a complex coalition with the same lawyers representing his former publishers and, ultimately, an association to some of the judges hearing the cases.
“They’re actually compiling these fronts of defense!” George exclaims. “Every time we get ready to fight somebody and look up, it’s one of the two lawyers that’s defending them! So it’s actually a big conspiracy. My label is called The C Kunspyruhzy, because I see conspiracy. I’ve been saying that for 10 years now. In all these court cases that’s what I’ve been saying: I see conspiracy. That’s the only thing I can do, because before, I was on crack, so I knew I couldn’t make any sense high. So I made an effort for that reason alone – I mean, I needed to. I was sick, I wasn’t paying attention, and my body was wearing out because I’m 72. But I knew if I could change my habits there I would catch ’em off guard. And I think I did.”
Recruiting a team of trusted investigators, George has mapped out an FBI-style RICO chart – connecting the dots of all the offending adversaries – and promises to spill the beans in his forthcoming autobiography. He holds particular contempt for his former publishers, Bridgeport Music, who – aside from the fact that it’s claimed they won his publishing illegally – have concealed payments they received as the result of suing artists that sampled Funkadelic’s music.
“One of the people who worked for Bridgeport, [name redacted], they did a lot of their slimy shit against everybody, but the company didn’t take care of them, so they turned state’s evidence on them,” George reveals. “So I went to Switzerland, where they live, and got their deposition. [Name redacted] told us everything this guy did, and I’m putting that in the book. And then the other lawyers that they’ve paid along the way – judges, lawyers…
“So much has happened over the years with samples of those songs, that it’s the same judges and lawyers, and they just got happy on getting paid that they got sloppy as hell. Now, they still may be powerful enough in Congress and all that, because they lobby like hell, that they can override everything we got, but it’s gonna be in that book forever.”
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Funkadelic, ‘One Nation Under A Groove’, from the 1978 album of the same title
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Their accused fraudulence extends to those closely associated with George, as he exposes letters uncovered wherein Bridgeport request of BMI the names of anyone he works with, so that they can pursue their money, too. These allegations are not new – Bridgeport has gained a reputation as “sample trolls”, zealously prosecuting those who’ve recycled passages from Clinton’s music – and there are thousands. They filed a lawsuit with Jay Z in 2006 for sampling Funkadelic’s ‘The Witch’ on his track ‘Justify My Thug’, though the results were not publicised.
One victory we do know of, however, was against the Notorious B.I.G. estate and sales of his ‘Ready To Die’ album, which contained illegal samples. They were awarded $4 million in damages. Clinton saw none of it. Then they challenged Lil Wayne.
“I called Lil Wayne when Bridgeport sued him and said, ‘You call me up as a witness and they’ll drop the charges,’” George recalls. “They never called me back. They hurried up and settled the case quietly. The artists think that’s just the best thing to do: ‘Don’t get involved’.”
Most recently, Bridgeport tackled Robin Thicke for ‘Blurred Lines’, claiming it infringed on the music of Marvin Gaye and Clinton. “I called Robin Thicke’s lawyer – he never got back – but I went on TMZ and told them it ain’t my song,” he says. “It don’t sound like me. I don’t think it’s copyrighted – you don’t copyright basslines. You can, but I doubt if Marvin Gaye and them copyrighted the bassline.”
“They’ve been doing this for 15, 20 years now, and nobody in our group that wrote any of the songs gets anything,” he continues.
“Now, I don’t holler race most time, but this guy made a statement like, ‘They don’t need it. They’re drug addicts. They’re black.’ He goes there with it! He goes there and says this on record. Know what I’m saying? So I just went on TMZ and said, ‘It ain’t mine.’ I haven’t heard any more about it. Whenever I get involved in anybody’s case they usually drop the charges, because they can’t afford to let me get in court. When I sue them, they make sure that they pay off my lawyer or a judge.
“In one place, they couldn’t pay me, and he just gave me the masters in 30 minutes. That’s when I got those four masters back. But then, the lawyer that I had, he got bought out. And now I’m up here fighting him. And he’s been working with the same lawyer that represents Capitol and Universal, which has got me f*cked up on the settlement. It was just a stick-up. My lawyer helped them do it.”
This enduring plight will be made public as George launches his own reality TV show, The Clintons, following his progress, and the involvement of his family in continuing the cause.
“I’m teaching my family to do the same thing,” he grins, promising a long-term plan should another company acquire the rights and deny his heirs their legacy when he dies. “I tell them: ‘When I go, you’ll have learned enough about the history and the lawyers of this shit that when those other songs become available for you to get ’em back to you, you’ll know what you have to do.’”
A website has been created to document the history and progress of George’s legal disputes. Flashlight2013.com also serves as an information hub for musicians hoping to reclaim copyrights. As more people learn of these injustices – especially once the TV show airs and his book is published – George is confident the American people will lobby Congress for a review of copyright suppression. The struggle may be tough, but he’ll never stop fighting.
“Hell, that ain’t never been an option,” he says, before our interview finally changes course to discuss the rest of his life in music – check that out in issue 93 of Clash magazine. “Quitting and retiring and all that shit? No. To me, without humps there’d be no getting over. To me, at 72-years-old, it gave me a reason to live.”
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Words: Simon Harper