Music

George Clinton: The godfather of P-Funk's final visit to Japan

by William Archambeault

Contributing Writer

George Clinton has packed a lot of funk into his six-decade career.

In the 1970s, the American singer rose to fame with Parliament and Funkadelic, sister groups that established a musical dynasty known globally as P-Funk.

After numerous trips around the world, Clinton is now preparing to retire from touring. But, first, his band George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic is returning to Japan one last time to perform in Osaka and Tokyo in late April.

The upcoming Japan tour isn’t the only thing the 77-year-old is looking forward to, though. Soon after the band returns to America, it will receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in May.

“(I was) shocked, of course!,” says Clinton of the news. “I was getting ready to retire, then that happened!” He claims the award hasn’t made him reconsider his retirement from the road, although it has encouraged him to contemplate delaying it a few months.

Clinton was still a high school student when he began singing in the 1950s. He started by performing doo-wop tunes with like-minded teenagers in The Parliaments, a group that stayed together long after its members finished school. By the late ’60s, the group rebranded as sister bands Parliament and Funkadelic.

Sharing the same musicians, Parliament and Funkadelic became synonymous with the word “funk.” Parliament, which focused on tight harmony vocals, had big tunes like “Flash Light” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Funkadelic, which tended towards a heavier, rock-influenced sound, also had success with songs like “(Not Just) Knee Deep” and “One Nation Under A Groove.”

Since the ’80s, Clinton has continued to work with many of the same musicians as a solo artist and with sister group, the P-Funk All-stars. Now, he performs as George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Over the decades, the singer’s collaborators have also included Kendrick Lamar, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Clinton has been a frequent visitor to Japan. He estimates he has made 10 to 15 trips over the past 30 years. These include high profile appearances at Fuji Rock Festival in 2002 and Summer Sonic last August.

“That was fun!” he says about the recent Summer Sonic performance. As the Beach Stage headliner, Parliament-Funkadelic performed on a sandy beach to a massive gathering of jumping, screaming fans. During “Maggot Brain,” a Funkadelic song famed for its long guitar solo, fireworks shot off into the night sky. “You had to be there to see that,” says Clinton. “I hope we can find somebody who’s got a copy of that. That was beautiful!”

While last year’s Summer Sonic attendees were especially vocal and energetic, Clinton recalls that it took a while for his band’s Japanese fans to become that expressive.

“I thought they were very polite when we first went over there,” he says in reference to his 1989 Japan tour. “They would wait until the song was over and then applaud. Everyone was very neat and quiet before the show. That’s the way it was the first couple of times.

“But after that, they started acting like P-Funk fans do! They start screaming as soon as we come in and get started!”

Clinton lovingly calls his Japanese fanbase “natural funkateers.”

“(Funk is) definitely an international language … It’s not just international, it’s interplanetary,” the singer says. “You can speak different languages in funk.”

In 1990, Clinton took that sentiment literally. Along with famed P-Funk musicians Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker, he appeared on Japanese singer Toshinobu Kubota’s album “Bonga Wanga.” Reflecting on the experience, Clinton refers to Kubota as both “a pretty big rock star” and “a good singer.”

Almost 30 years after the collaboration, Kubota still holds P-Funk close to his heart. In advance of Clinton’s upcoming appearances, the singer detailed his love affair with the genre for Billboard Japan, describing Clinton as “one of the gods.”

When Clinton visited Tokyo in 2016, he experienced a different outpouring of love than he was accustomed to. The singer attended an art show at Shibuya’s NOS ORG comprising P-Funk-inspired works by American and Japanese artists. Some of Clinton’s own work featured as well. While he is no stranger to P-Funk-inspired art, he claims that event was the first time he ever saw an entire show of it.

“That was beautiful, to see all the different interpretations of P-Funk, the imagination that people get from listening to the music or seeing the album covers,” he says.

Born in 1941, one of Clinton’s earliest memories was the atomic bombings of Japan. Although Clinton was familiar with World War II at a young age, he didn’t fully comprehend the global perspective at the time.

The decades since have been a welcome education. “You live and learn all the history. You can say, ‘Wow that was a different contrast to what you knew or you were shown in the movies as a kid,'” he says of Japan. “It’s been a pleasure to grow up and see the beautiful cities and to meet all the beautiful people.”

When asked if he had global touring aspirations in his early days as a musician, he replies, “I didn’t even know there was a globe!”

Although his band’s current lineup no longer features some of the most famed living P-Funk musicians like Collins and Parker, the group’s live performances are still fiery affairs.

This is a result of the band’s current multi-generational makeup. Longtime veterans, such as guitarist Dewayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight and saxophonist Greg Thomas, have contributed to P-Funk since the late 1970s and continue to hold the groove down. Younger musicians, including Clinton’s own children and grandchildren, keep things fresh and energized with new musical perspectives.

While Clinton plans to stop touring soon, this won’t be an end to P-Funk’s legacy. He has given the band his blessing to continue traveling without him. While they continue to spread his music across the globe, Clinton plans to record more material and branch out into new animation projects.

When asked for a message to his Japanese fans ahead of his upcoming gigs, Clinton joyfully says: “Tell them to bring two booties because we’re going to rock all night long! We’re going to party twice as hard as we used to do! We’re going in hard this time!”

George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic performs at Billboard Live Osaka on April 27 and Billboard Live Tokyo on April 29 and 30. For more information, visit www.georgeclinton.com.

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