Funk Pioneer George Clinton Reflects on Newark Days

Before ushering in a crucial chapter of funk’s history, the founder of Parliament and Funkadelic did hair at Newark's star-studded Supreme barbershop.

George Clinton, 80, is a visual artist, bandleader, producer and funk pioneer. Courtesy of NJPAC/William Thoren

George Clinton, funk pioneer, wasn’t born in New Jersey and doesn’t live here now, but his musical trajectory started in Newark in the late 1950s, when he was straightening hair and giving perms at Supreme, then the barbershop to the stars.

Parliament and Funkadelic, the bands he went on to conceive, are hardly barbershop quartets, of course: Clinton’s signature cockatoo hairdo and the mothership he brought onstage to transport audiences to another dimension ushered in what is arguably the most important chapter in funk’s history. Clinton is slated to perform at NJPAC on March 18. He recently spoke to New Jersey Monthly by phone.

Where are you at the moment?
I’m in California. I’m just out here to go to Snoop Dogg’s 50th birthday party.

Are you through with Covid precautions?
No, but the pandemic thing energized me. While it had us all under lockdown, I got in the art room. For the last year, I’ve been churning out paintings. They’re funky paintings. They get me into a groove, just like music.

Your show at NJPAC is one of a handful you’ve put on since 2020. Have you missed touring?
Yes, I’ve definitely missed it, but it worked out good for me. …I was getting ready to retire in 2019—we were on my retirement tour—but I never got to finish it. Now that we’ve been down for a minute, I’ve got the yearning to get back out on the road.

Tell me about your formative years in New Jersey.
I lived at the Stella Wright housing projects in Newark. First, I worked at a Hula-Hoop factory right on Badger Avenue. We sent those Hula-Hoops all over the world. Then I started doing hair. Before I worked at the Silk Palace salon in Plainfield, I was at the barbershop Supreme on Belmont Avenue in Newark. That was in the ’50s, when all the big stars like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke used to come through Newark to get their hair done. You’d see Cadillacs triple-parked in front of Supreme. From ’59 to ’66 or ’67, I caught the number 29 bus every morning from Newark to Plainfield to do hair at the Silk Palace.

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And that’s where Parliament-Funkadelic started?
Yeah, the band was all young kids out in Plainfield.

How has the band evolved?
It’s about 20 of us now. I would say over half of them are my kids and grandkids. They’re all in different directions. Some of them are into heavy metal, some of the girls are into R&B. Then you got three or four into the different eras of rap. My son Tracy wrote some of the stuff we play, and he’s old-school rap.

So the funk has expanded to include new sounds.
I’m always liking it when music changes. The older heads be thinking the younger ones ain’t doing it right, and the young ones think the old ones is too old-school. Having been through two generations of this stuff, I see everyone’s point of view. I always love the kids’ music. If it gets on your nerves, that’s a good sign that it’s what’s getting ready to happen next. That’ll be the new shit.

You spoke at the March on Washington in 2020. The country had been so divided. Will we ever be one nation under a groove again?
To me it seems like we’re in ’68 or ’69 again, with the Vietnam War and all that. We need peace and love right now. At the same time, we’re getting ready to jump the planet. You can feel it. All these people are jumping on spaceships, going on these joyrides.

You’re the creator of the famous Mothership [stage prop], which has been acquired by the Smithsonian. Seems like it’s only right that you, George Clinton, should head out on one of those intergalactic joyrides.
I’m ready. They let my man Kirk [William Shatner] go, and he’s older than me. Plus, I’ve been on the Concorde. It ain’t that much farther up.

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