Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins Shares His Multi-Layered Definition of Funk, Remembers the 'Magic' of Bernie Worrell

"When you start recording, it's like making love: it's good, you don't want to stop, it keeps getting good and you can't stop until you have to."

There are few people, if any, who can simultaneously discuss the current plight of the planet; their upcoming album, World Wide Funk; and the 2017 animated film Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, all in a coherent, rational way. But this isn't just anyone making the connection: it's the intergalactic master of wiggle himself, Bootsy Collins, and he's dead serious -- or, at least, as serious as Bootsy ever seems to be.

"Did you see Captain Underpants? That movie is awesome, I done seen it twice," says the 65-year-old bass icon, sitting in the Billboard offices this month with his trademark star sunglasses and scorpion rings adorning the fingers of both hands. "Poo Poo Man -- all that stuff is real: the dude was trying to take the laughter out of the [main characters'] brains. To me, that's what's happening [in the world]. It's making it where ain't nothin' funny no more, ain't no groove, nobody's having fun. So what I feel like I can do is try to put some fun into it."

It's that lack of fun, that lack of groove -- that lack of funk -- that Bootsy has been fighting against ever since he first picked up a guitar as a kid in Cincinnati, Ohio, back in the early 1960s, trying to find a way to let his older brother, Catfish, let him play in his band. It's what he fought against as a teenage wunderkind in James Brown's backing band The J.B.'s in the early 1970s, slapping his stamp onto records like "Sex Machine" and "Super Bad" and helping to reimagine the Godfather of Soul's legendary revue. And it was the driving force behind his star-making stint as a pillar of George Clinton's sprawling, ambitious Parliament-Funkadelic outfit through the 1970s, where he formed a formidable co-writing partnership with Clinton and Moog master Bernie Worrell that saw them fighting off Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk with a Flash Light and the Bop Gun and helping guide the initiated straight toward the Mothership.

Since 1976, Bootsy has been continuing that fight as a bandleader, too, both under his own name and as the glittering face of Bootsy's Rubber Band, where his discography stretches to nearly two dozen albums over the past 40 years. But World Wide Funk, out Oct. 27 via Mascot Records, is his first release since 2011's Tha Funk Capital Of the World, and arrives at a time when Bootzilla felt it was needed most.

"I had to get the urge and inspiration to do [the album], because there's a lot that goes into it," he says about the six-year gap, his longest between albums since the early 1980s. "To me, it's bigger than just music now; it's not only the music you have to think about, it's like, what are you trying to say?"

The politics of P-Funk, as they were, have always been somewhat masked in misdirection and goofy theatricality, but for those who knew to look beneath the groove they were just as biting and scathing as any in their generation. They also, more often than not, focus on the same battles that are waging in U.S. and global politics today: environmentalism, equality, feminism, black rights. In 1971, Funkadelic was chanting for freedom on "Wars of Armageddon"; 1975's "Chocolate City" saw Parliament outlining a black cabinet headed by president Muhammad Ali and vice president James Brown; by 1978, the collective had flipped the pledge of allegiance into one pledging Groovallegiance to the Funk, the United Funk of Funkadelica, uniting as One Nation Under a Groove. It was protest music fed to the world under the guise of pop and R&B, subversive but fun, with a nasty underbelly that was gritty and real and relentlessly vibrant. Bootsy's own material tended to be more on the visceral side, but he is no less cognizant of his music's role in the fight.

"I think right now leadership is the thing that we need, pure leadership that has nothing to do with nothing but making sure that we all pull together," he says. "We don't have to wait on tragedies and all this crazy stuff to come together, we should be working together anyway. Just like on this record: it takes you out of this crazy reality that we're going through right now. I want to do my part to help us realize that it's up to each person to do our part to make some kind of statement, some kind of record, some kind of movement to pull everybody together. I wanted to be one of the first on the dance floor."

To do that, Bootsy slapped together a guest-filled collection of 15 tracks for World Wide Funk, ranging from old-school hip-hop icons (Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D) to veteran virtuoso instrumentalists (Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke, Buckethead, Dennis Chambers) to younger artists like 23-year-old singer/songwriter Kali Uchis, singer/multi-instrumentalist Alissia Benveniste and Snoop Dogg collaborator October London. Iggy Pop, Snoop, Danger Mouse, the late Clyde Stubblefield and DJ Quik make uncredited contributions -- Pop on the album intro: "Bootsy Collins was born a long, long time ago in a subterranean cavern full of shining dinosaurs deep below the Ohio River..." -- while Musiq Soulchild and guitarist Justin Johnson, who Bootsy met via Twitter, add flair and depth. All told it's an intense amalgamation of all things up-tempo groove, from sub-woofer-rattling burners like "Bass-Rigged-System" (which features four bass players and Bootsy on the Spacebass) to the sultry Kali Uchis-featuring "Worth My While" to the swinging West Coast hip-hop feel of "Ladies Nite" with MC Eiht and Blvck Seeds to the throwback vamp of "Come Back Bootsy" with Chambers and Eric Gales.

"I really have no concept of how many songs [we wrote]; when you start recording, it's like making love: it's good, you don't want to stop, it keeps getting good and you can't stop until you have to," Bootsy says, laughing, about pulling the album together. And the number of guests was an intentional move, one meant to both inject the record with new energy and to let Bootsy play conductor, orchestrating proceedings with a broader viewpoint. "I felt like, I'm not doing this record for me, I'm doing this record because there's a world wide funk drive going on. This is the platform for the young people around me with their fresh vibes."

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."

P-Funk turned Bootsy into an intergalactic superstar, and led directly to his solo career. But it also introduced him to Worrell, forging arguably the greatest writing partnership in funk music history. Alongside grand maestro Clinton and his lyrical wizardry, Bootsy and Bernie penned a murderer's row of iconic funk records over the years, including "Flash Light," "Give Up the Funk," "Chocolate City," "Mothership Connection" and "Dr. Funkenstein." Bootsy's wobbly, experimental bass style meshed well with Worrell's more cerebral and sophisticated approach in ways that turned sonic insanity into irresistible grooves, with Clinton's vocal chants linking each cosmic shift into the broader, overarching P-Funk universe.

Worrell died last June at the age of 72 after a long battle with cancer. But for World Wide Funk, Bootsy dug through stacks of tapes filled with jams the two recorded together, eventually unearthing one from 2002 that he used as the basis for "A Salute To Bernie" off the new LP. "I was the messed up mess; I didn't know how to read [music], I didn't know music theory, I didn't know none of that," Bootsy says. "The way me and Bernie worked was, whatever I put down, he made it sound like it was right. He'd listen, and whatever the adjustments was, he knew how to do it. The rawness and the classical, those two things coming together -- that's what me and Bernie were. George gave me the okay to be in the studio recording, Bernie gave me the okay to be like, 'Whatever you do, I'm with you.' That kind of stuff is amazing. That's magic."

That, to use another word, is funk, and on this new album Bootsy has it spilling out of himself in abundance. After nearly 50 years as a professional musician, he's still only 65 (he'll turn 66 a day before the album's release), and he has plans to get back out on the road next year. He's just as vital as he's ever been, just as quick with a smile, just as devilish with a turn of phrase or a bass lick, and just as much a force of positivity. His music, as with many of his funk brethren, has remained relevant through hip-hop, soul and dance samples; Childish Gambino's "Redbone," which reached No. 12 on the Hot 100 in August, is built atop a sample of "I'd Rather Be With You" from Bootsy's Rubber Band's 1976 debut LP Stretchin' Out.

Yet he denies, repeatedly, that he's ever thought about his legacy or his influence, only acknowledging his impact when it comes to his own son's musical aspirations. But all that life doesn't mean he won't let a little morbid humor slip into his mind every once in a while, even if he refuses dwell on it too much.

"I realized lately what I want on my tombstone," he says, slyly, with a smile curling his lips underneath the shimmer of his shades. "My wife don't even know this, but this is exactly what I want: 'He came. They saw. And we funked.' And that's the truth."