Prince‘s funk came from a lot of sources, but one of the primary ones was George Clinton. The two became friends after meeting during the late ’70s, and Prince repaid the favor of any influence Clinton provided by signing Dr. Funkenstein to his Paisley Park Records label during the late ’90s and releasing The Cinderella Theory, a 12-track set that gave Clinton some mainstream attention after leaving Capitol Records three years earlier. Clinton also appeared on Prince’s 1990 companion album for the film Graffiti Bridge and appeared as himself in the film, and the two remained in touch until Prince’s shocking death last week. Clinton took a few minutes with Billboard to reminisce about his friend, protege and savior of sorts.
He came to a show we did, that would’ve been ’77, and he was looking like Bootsy, all Funkadelic, and Warners was telling him he was the new artist. The same [management] people who had Earth, Wind & Fire brought him to the show for us to check him out, and I just met him for a minute. But then a few years later, I was off of Capitol and I called and asked him what was up, and he said, “Come on!” It was that simple.
Y’know, Detroit, where we were at the time, is where he really got his foot on, ’cause we brought his stuff to [Detroit DJ the Electrifying] Mojo. That’s how he got so big on WGPR, with Mojo. We were already there, and we told Mojo, “You got to check this dude out.” Matter of fact, everybody on Prince’s team came pretty much from Detroit — the background singers, the roadies. Billy Sparks, the guy who owned First Ave in Purple Rain, he was selling flashlights for us at the time. When Prince first came out, we introduced him, and he and his crew — they were all working for Mojo back then — just went with [Prince].
When you come to the concept of a rock star, he is that. He’s the epitome of that. As an artist, I think it’s becoming more clear to everybody now just how much volume of work and stuff he’s done, all the stuff and how fast he was doing stuff and all the stuff that I know has never come out. Coming to grips with all that stuff he was doing and knowing how he worked and, wow, people are just now beginning to see what that was all about.
And he did it so good. When you look at his guitar playing, even on the stage with [Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood] and all them when they did the George Harrison song [during a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute, below], when you see him on stage with those people and they’re giving him props like he’s supposed to be getting, you realize, “Damn, this motherf—er is all that,” even though to me he kept the songs that he made very commercial and pop. Some might even say bubblegum but not really bubblegum, ’cause he was too clever of a writer. But they were hits, so many hits, that it seemed like he was just churning out bubblegum. But they weren’t. Those are stories and those are pieces of work that are gonna be around.
He was quiet in the studio. He just did his thing and he gave it to me and I did mine. I pretty much work that way too. I can work with everybody, but when it came time for me to put my part on there, he was never there, and when it came time, I’d put my part on it and give it to him and he’d send it back to me. That’s what he was talking about when he inducted us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — when he said, “You pee on it, send it back and I’ll pee on it.” That was our conversation: “We gonna do this…” He’d send me a tape. … And the very first tape he sent me was something called “Cookie Jar,” and we had had a song on the Parlet album called “Cookie Jar.” He sent it to me to do something on it, and before I got to the track, the engineer had put the song on backwards and erased half of it. I was so glad I wasn’t in the studio, ’cause I would’ve got blamed for it! But then after that I went out to Paisley [Park], and that’s when I started making The Cinderella Theory.
Then he took care of business in a way that I admired more than anything in the world, ’cause it took me late to get to that point to where I started paying attention like that. He did that from the moment he started. He took care of business so good, I was looking at him back then going, “Damn, I wish I could’ve done that.” I mean, he got rid of your ass if you weren’t doing it right.
I was about him the same way I’m about Kendrick Lamar now. You could see it coming. You could see he was Sly [Stone] for the new generation. This is so hard to process on my brain right now. That was just so left-field. I was not ready for anything like that. It’s just hard to speak of, man.
–As told to Gary Graff