THE GUY'S GOT CLASS
Three days after the Wilbur gig, Clinton sits on stage at Berklee College of Music among veteran mothership co-pilots. They're speaking to students in a black-music class — most of whom seem well-versed in the funk. The school invited the band to drop knowledge all week, but before they celebrate the music itself, questions prompt Clinton to explain his chic new look. He's decked out in a double-breasted periwinkle number with a patterned tie, matching handkerchief, and a jet black hat.
"Not long ago I dressed up for my granddaughter's graduation, and I realized that I hadn't had a suit on in 20 years," Clinton says. He then shares memories about rehearsing in the Plainfield, New Jersey, barber shop that he owned and operated in the early '60s, back when he kept his neighborhood looking fresh. "My job was to make people cool — I used to wear suits every day. I just wanted a switch, so lately I've been suited up."
Few performers flip switches like Clinton. In 1970, he led his first group, the Parliaments, away from safe R&B pastures and into the sonically scrambled Maggot Brain era. From there, he went on to produce a kaleidoscopic catalogue — as well as a colorful cast of characters — that would set the bar for everything unique and cool for decades. A Berklee student asks where he got so much funk: "I was born in an outhouse," Clinton responds. "That's the truth — I almost got wiped out."
Despite aiming "Give Up the Funk" at Bowie, Clinton is unrestrained these days in bestowing begrudging props on British invaders. "They wanted to be funky," he says about the Beatles and their ilk. "We showed them just how funky we could be. We knew how to be poor. We could do that. That's when we started taking bedsheets out of the Holiday Inn and wearing them as diapers onstage."
The impromptu Pampers, Clinton says, originated around the time of his now-legendary set at Boston's Sugar Shack in 1972. That show remains clear in the memory of John Kellogg, the iconic entertainment attorney who serves as an assistant chair of the music business/management department at Berklee. Introducing Clinton to students on Wednesday, he gushed about his own induction to the P-Funk family. Kellogg booked the band as a student at Syracuse University, and was invited to join the caravan to Boston, where he accompanied Funkadelic to the '72 Sugar Shack gig.
The Kellogg-hosted event focuses on P-Funk's business dealings, specifically Clinton's history of getting screwed out of sample royalties — a byproduct of legal loopholes and the enduring scumbaggery of Rasputin-like record exec Armen Boladian, who years ago secured rights to Clinton's lucrative publishing through less-than-honest means. Despite that, Kellog explains that a number of Clinton's hits legally revert to his ownership next year. And Funkadelic made plenty of money over the years — in their commercial prime, they scored the kind of big-budget contracts that evaded most black acts from their era.
"At one point everybody in the band got a vehicle," Clinton says to the musicians before him. "We had 28 of them, and mine was a spaceship. . . . If I could do it again, I'd do it the same way. As an artist, you'll do whatever it takes to get famous. Things might happen along the way, but you can always clean that up later. Nothing should stop you from taking that first shot."