George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell Talk 'Finding The Funk' - and Getting Paid for It - at SXSW Panel

Dan Rys

Parliament-Funkadelic ringleader George Clinton discusses funk music during SXSW.

What began -- on paper, at least -- as a discussion on the documentary "Finding the Funk" by producers Nelson George and Arthur Baker (who moderated the conversation) quickly ran off the rails and became as much an exploration on the beginnings and future of the genre as it was an hour-long storytelling session, with Parliament-Funkadelic chieftain George Clinton trading war stories back and forth with P-Funk cohorts and collaborators Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins. The trio -- responsible for such classic funk staples as "Flash Light," "Mothership Connection" and "Funkentelechy," among many more -- kicked back and forth memories of acid-aided studio sessions, backstage antics on the road, and the philosophy of funk music alongside additional panelists Lumar Leblanc (drummer in the Soul Rebels Brass Band) and Sly Stone's daughter Novena Carmel.

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Much of the banter was a love-fest, with the three old friends eager to share the credit for pioneering the genre. "Mr. Clinton had an enormous vocal range," said Worrell at one point when talking about what made P-Funk so influential. "I went to see him at a grammar school in Plainsville, NJ when I could sneak out the house, and the range... he had the pure, beautiful, clear falsetto." Clinton similarly paid compliments back to those who worked in his bands along the way: "With Bootsy, I was able to do everything I wanted to do with a doo-wop group... Bernie could hear a car accident and remember every sound from it, and make anything musical."

But they also delved into the writing, recording, and engineering process behind creating an entirely new genre from scratch -- which, of course, was not really from scratch at all, but was rooted in much of the music at the time, specifically Motown and the Beatles. "Sgt. Pepper -- we liked it so much, we recorded the entire album in 1967, but never put it out," said Clinton. "But that turned us around -- that and Sly's music -- that you could be funk and pop at the same time. We had all of it. Eddie Hazel could play psychedelic, we were a Motown group; we just put it all together. And then Bootsy came along and all he added -- all we had to add -- was the emphasis on the one. You could add that to the ABC's, and it would be funk in two seconds. And from then on, everything we did was funky for real, no matter how pop we tried to be."

Clinton's mixing and production skills also led to unintended innovations in the genre; he recorded "Maggot Brain" with a full band before eventually editing it down to just two guitars in a stark atmosphere; tracked between 50-60 voices on "Knee Deep" over four minutes, eventually looping it and editing out and adding in different takes to create the 15-minute behemoth that it became; and fought hard to push forward in the mix Worrell's inspired bassline in "Flash Light." "They said the bass was too loud," he recalled. "I wanted them to flinch!"

Dan Rys
Parliament-Funkadelic cohorts Bootsy Collins (left) and Bernie Worrell discuss the role of funk music at SXSW.

In the true spirit of P-Funk, the discussion also slipped into marked irreverence and oddball moments; Clinton told of Bootsy making fun of him for years for never being very successful with women ("Women were afraid of me," he laughed. "Until I bought a spaceship."), while Worrell momentarily forgot Tina Turner's name and instead referred to her as "the Sagittarius who moved to Europe." But they also took the discussion seriously when talking about the state of the genre currently, as well as the popularity of their music in samples in the hip-hop world. "I think their version of [funk is alive]; every generation will have their own angle of the dangle, as Mr. Clinton would say," laughed Collins. "And I think it's good, because that way it'll always keep things fresh and you come up with new stuff."

"Mystikal... Chuck D., Rakim, Eminem. That stuff is as funky as you can get," said Clinton. "And that's the way they perceive it, and that keeps the funk alive."

Clinton himself got into hip-hop through Afrika Bambaataa, who he said brought him records by Rakim and KRS-One before they even came out. "I heard people just talking over music, but we did that over "Mothership Connection" [in 1975]," he said. "But they took it one step further and recorded it for the club. I didn't know what to think of that, but then De La Soul brought us a check for $100,000."

That check, he said, helped open his eyes to the reality that many artists who were being sampled in hip-hop -- and even artists doing the sampling -- were getting exploited by record labels, leading to the battle for his copyrights that he is currently undertaking in the courts. "My brain didn't click that we were supposed to get paid for this," he said of artists sampling P-Funk. "I'm glad they're doing it, because they're keeping us alive. That didn't come about for years later, which is what we're doing right now, fighting for our copyrights; the record company took money from [artists], but didn't give any of it to us. They don't give the money to the people who have it coming."

Eventually, Collins -- while being asked about how he got into the music that eventually defined an era -- was able to distill the essence of the movement. "Each and every person has to find their own funk," he said. "Funk to me is making something out of nothing. We didn't have nothing, so we did what we did with what we had."