Throughout his career, Bootsy Collins has become an emblem of youthful exuberance, of pushing the envelope of self-expression, of being unabashedly yourself regardless of the restrictive norms or societal pressures of the world around him. Much of that can be traced back to his formative years in Ohio, days spent in English and math classes doodling stick figures with star glasses while he waited for his final class of the day: music, the one thing that made it all worth it. It's one of the reasons he and his wife Patti started the Bootsy Collins Foundation in 2011, which, in addition to outreach uplifting bullied schoolgirls and providing dental care to underprivileged communities, is dedicated to providing musical instruments to schools for students.
"The slogan is, 'Say it loud, an instrument for every child,'" he says. "The foundation is there to help schools be provided with instruments so the kids can take them home. And to help motivate, you gotta have music programs. Who would have thought those would have ever gone away? Why wouldn't you allow kids to do that?"
But that reputation he's cultivated is also one of the central tenets of the funk, a concept as difficult to define as it is easy to recognize, one that means many things to many people -- even one of its originators. "Funk, to me, is making something out of nothing," Bootsy explains, telling the story of how he got started as a bass player, after convincing his mother to buy him a $29 guitar that he strung up with four bass strings one night when his older brother couldn't find his band's bass player. But it's also something more than that. "Funk uses whatever it got," he continues. "And it don't have to be music, it could be anything -- funk is you and your girlfriend going through some of the deepest of times and somehow you pull out of it. It's like this time that the world is going through now; it looks like a bad situation -- which it is -- but the funk is gonna make it good. It's the bad side of it and the good side of it both combined. It takes two things to make The One, and they have to oppose each other. And that's The Big One. That's what funk is."
It's inarguable that some people are born with a stronger sense of the funk than others, and Bootsy is certainly one of them. But in his definition, it takes some strife and hardship to get to it, to emerge with it, to find it. It takes life lessons to appreciate it, to understand it and to be able to utilize it. For Bootsy, some of those first lessons came as a school kid struggling through academics; as a younger brother trying to fit in with his older brother's band with an improvised bass; as a wild-eyed teenager of the 1960s working for one of the most notoriously-strict bandleaders who ever danced across the planet.
"When I was with James, he had us wearing suits, our shoes had to be polished, and we was rebelling 'cause that was the acid days thing," Bootsy says. "It was like, 'Suits?' We seeing all kinds of colors and the streets are moving, and he's talkin' about suits -- how are we gonna keep suits together? And we supposed to have a tie on -- I don't even know how to tie a tie! ... But even going through that spell, I needed that, 'cause he was stern, like a father. I never had a father in the house, and he taught me that discipline. And all of that was good. But the clothes, the lectures, all of that stuff was piling up: 'Don't do this, you can't do that.'"
Bootsy and his brother only stuck it out in Brown's band for 11 months, before the pull of the unknown -- and the urge to listen to Jimi Hendrix while getting high on the tour bus -- eventually led him to Clinton. But Brown rooted him in The One, the guiding principle of his brand of soul-funk grooves, and P-Funk turned him loose. "George really allowed me to really find myself and do anything I wanted to do," he says. "That's what I needed. James taught me the discipline, A-B-C, and when I got with George, there was no end, there was no wall behind that sky: go for it. I was like, go for it? Wow. Nobody ever let me go for it."