George Clinton is a futurist.
The 75-year-old founded legendary funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic in the early 1970s, but his gaze was already situated on the far future. Raised on a steady diet of Buck Rogers and Star Trek, the group’s pioneering groovy sound was accompanied by a sci-fi mythology concerning funky aliens. It was wild, unconventional, and irresistible. By Clinton’s own admission in his autobiography, he wasn’t the best musician around, but he was the visionary. When he closed his eyes, he saw outer space in celluloid.
By putting blackness and ideas of high technology together, Clinton set down a cornerstone for what would later be coined “afrofuturism”—an idea mainly centered around the concept that the future can and will be black. But that’s not all that Clinton has contributed to the world beyond the P-Funk universe. A quote often attributed to Derrick May, the father of Detroit techno, is that techno sounds like “George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator.”
Clinton himself has evolved to fit into the world he helped create. Now, he dabbles in electronic music and makes appearances in Ibiza clubland. These days, his look is more Motown than P-Funk as he’s taken to wearing sharp suits and tilted fedoras. He was also a staff songwriter at the legendary Motown record label in the 60s, by the way, in case you weren’t already convinced that George Clinton is a man out of time, for all times.
He’s also a fan of Motherboard. His wife, Carlon, told us. So, we called Clinton up in Texas to talk to him about—what else?—the future.
George Clinton: I’ll tell you what. Back in 1968, [2001: A Space Odyssey] came out, and Fantasia—the Disney one—I saw both of them in Boston and I was tripping on a tab of acid for the first time. That implanted in my mind, just watching 2001, “I’m gonna be here when that get here.” I’m thinking, when the guy is talking to his wife on Facetime or Skype, “I’m gonna be here when that happens.”
I stopped paying attention to that, though, and then I did the mothership and all the music that I’ve done. And then to be here today, and to see it—all the Facetime, the iPhones, and social media… The future is here now. So I’m thinking about the next future. Multiply it by a million times, in a shorter period of time.
To me, we’re ready for another 10 percent. They say we only use 10 percent of our brainpower, and if we don’t get another 10 percent allocation, we’re going to be in trouble from just boredom, from just being bored by running into the same problems socially, and just trying to live as a biological being. We’re going to need that 10 percent of brainpower just to keep up with technology, and our spiritual and social sides. Machines are going to take over really quick if we don’t figure out how to get along with each other.
I just have fun thinking about all the contingencies and what’s going on. You know it’s time for something to happen or we’ll be bored as hell.
You’ve spoken about your love of sci-fi like Star Trek and Buck Rogers. What do you like about science fiction and can it speak to today’s issues instead of just predicting the future?
I was born in ‘41, right as when they were just beginning to mess with atomic energy. And in ‘47, the Roswell thing happened. I was born into a period where we got hardwired into sci-fi.
I’m learning that ain’t nothing impossible. Whatever goes up doesn’t have to come back down, and nothing surprises me. OK, we can store information in the cloud now. I’m not surprised by any of it, but I like thinking about the possibilities.
“I never dance with the dark side. I know it’s there somewhere, but it has to find me. I ain’t lookin’ for it”
What’s your favourite sci-fi right now?
It would definitely be The Matrix.
Oh, that’s a classic.
It starts going into some theories. But Star Trek did so many of them, the contingencies—social situations we had on the planet, they just did it in outer space. And it had some weird biological entities, the holodeck, mini-gods… It’s just so much to think about. And then I’d have to say Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve seen a lot of his things, and a lot of it would seem normal now.
On the note of The Matrix, some people like Elon Musk think we might be living in a computer simulation right now. Do you buy it?
It’s like another version of the idea that we’re toys that the gods play with. I said it a long time ago: we are a biological speculation. We’re sitting here vibrating, and we don’t know what we’re vibrating about. The animal instinct in me makes me want to live when it’s time to die. Yes, I could see us being a simulation, because we’re doing it now, we’re simulating things, like when we simulate going to the moon.
What is reality? They’re going to make virtual reality so good that we’re not going to be able to tell the difference. And then, what is reality? Same thing’s happening with DNA, and all the information there—between DNA and a computer, ain’t no telling what we can do.
Recently, you’ve been interested in electronic music. Some people see tension or competition between analog and digital. Do you?
My whole thing is always merging anything that exists—merging them with each other because they’re all real. And in doing so, we’ve merged generations of families. Grandparents, kids, whole families come see our shows. We have a band but we use digital backdrops on some of our songs. We respect and understand that that’s the sound of the kids today.
On stage, we mix an electronic song into a blues song or a Motown song or a James Brown-sounding song. We’ve been able to do that because I respect all eras and we’ve been involved in all those eras. And, you know, if you’ve got a booty to dance, you’re gonna shake it.
It’s like some people think low-tech is good, and high-tech is automatically bad somehow, or vice versa.
They do that back and forth. But when you do both, and mix them, like Parliament-Funkadelic—Parliament was soft, and Funkadelic was hardcore. But you participate in both and respect them. We can do both and acknowledge both of them. They both have reasons for being, and it’s just different styles of the same thing.
We called Funkadelic “loud Motown,” and I call electronic “loud disco” or “loud hip hop.” It doesn’t matter. If people are enjoying themselves, and you get past that disrespect because whatever style it is—you know, hip hop didn’t like rap because you had to have a sample for it to be a real hip hop record. It’s just fun to me, because no matter which one, I’m a part of it.
I want to get back to some of the futuristic technology you mentioned earlier that you’re interested in. I always see this tension between new technologies serving corporate interests versus the public…
The first thing anybody does with new technology is figure out how to make some money on it, or how to get some pussy. When the internet came out, the biggest thing on it was porn. It’s the driving force of everything, it’s in our DNA probably for and against our will.
You’ve got to walk a real straight line to balance the temptation to progress faster, or play god, whatever you want to call it. This has all been written for us, and we just need to learn how to dance. To me, as we learn, we can regress—we can blow ourselves up and start over and learn that shit again—but people have done it before. We’re not the first civilization to do this. A lot of these things that we see and we don’t know how they built them, they didn’t build that shit, unless they knew how to build it with some ooga boogatechnology, some witchcraft or something. Or, it might just be that nanotechnology and shit’s been here before.
Anything that happens has already been programmed. Some people get a hint or a notion in their minds every now and then and they might invent it and it might not. This’ll sound crazy, but I think everything’s on a biological tape somewhere.
Including your own art and music, that’s preprogrammed?
Well, I know that I don’t know nothin’ about what I do. I know that it works. I don’t know how it works, because I know it ain’t supposed to, but it works. I don’t know what it is that I am doing—it works, and to me, that’s the funk. I do the best I can, and I won’t tell anybody that I know what I’m doing. People are watching me and they think that I don’t know what the fuck that I’m doing, because I can see it on their face, because it’s not conventional. I’m searching ‘til it sounds like what I want it to sound like, but I have no idea.
“It’s a dangerous place to be right now, with that much power but we’re still human beings”
Is there a technology that you’re really excited about?
I think there’s a quantum leap coming from somewhere. Nanotechnology, anything in that realm, a quantum leap is coming that’s going to wipe out all the shit that we even think. We thought that the world was flat. With so many of our notions, we’re gonna say, “Oops, that was stupid.” That’s going to happen any day.
People with money are going to be doing it before everybody else, but all of that Blade Runner shit, that stuff’s getting ready to happen for real.
Do you see a dark side to any of this?
I never dance with the dark side. I know it’s there somewhere, but it has to find me. I ain’t lookin’ for it.
You don’t think about the negatives of new technologies, though?
No. I know that you have to do your best and have good intentions, because most of the time if you have bad intentions, that’s what gets you in the first place. If you try to take advantage of your reward because it gives you an edge over somebody, you’re asking for some trouble. You know, if you don’t like the effect, don’t produce the cause.
Do you think the world that we have now has lived up to the expectations that you had all those years ago when you watched 2001 in a theatre?
You know, I saw too many variations of that shit on Star Trek so that I couldn’t tell which was cooler! They gave you some real way-out choices. I do know that we’re in a fucked up place right now, with all the information that we get from the internet and how it controls our lives, and we’ve still got these animal instincts—you know, you piss me off, I get you back, all that shit.
It’s a dangerous place to be right now, with that much power but we’re still human beings. This is all the evolution we’ve got, but we’ve got to get up out of here with that kind of shit if we’ve got people who can get this close to fucking it up, you know what I’m saying? It’s too easy to take it somewhere else. It’s bad enough thinking about an asteroid hitting us at some point in time, but then you realize we can do that shit to ourselves right here. No asteroids needed.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Always. I know something’s going to exist. It might not be what we wanted, but if it exists then you have a chance. But damn, I don’t want to start all over again neither. I just hope we can do better.