A few years ago a book about Houston's SugarHill Recording Studios was entitled House of Hits, but more recently it's been closer to a House of Funk. George Clinton's Parlia ment-Funkadelic mothership has docked at the historic Produce Row studios in the neighborhood of a dozen times over the past year or two, as the intergalactic overlord of all things astrally funky has become a SugarHill regular, working on new material and retouching some of those vintage P-Funk grooves.
“Man, it was incredible,” says SugarHill Mastering Engineer Chris Longwood. “He would come in and just kind of get the vibe for the room, and then, you know, coffee with a bunch of sugar and milk in it, and then [be] incredibly on point. He would just call out these incredible calls; like, 'Let's hear it like this,' and it would sound incredible like that. When we were recording the vocals, I was like, 'Dang!'
“I learned so much about vocal production technique from watching him that I just kind of coasted through it,” adds Longwood, who worked on a few tracks from the latest Funkadelic album, last year's triple-LP First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, including a remake of the Four Tops classic “Bernadette.” “Overall it was a very surreal experience.”
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Although the SugarHill crew addressed Clinton as “Doctor Doctor Funkenstein” in the studio, Longwood says the 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee — in 1997, by Prince — was warm and gracious while working in Houston. He also showed them exactly how P-Funk got their signature sound long before the rise of sophisticated studio software.
“When he would first come in the studio, people of course wanted to meet him and shake his hand and all that,” says Longwood, who was introduced to Clinton by a friend of his. "He would take time to look them in the eye and not, 'Hey, nice to meet you, thanks, bye.' He would take the time to talk to everybody.
“Then he would tell me stories about how they would take drum loops and thread it around the tape machine, and hold it and pull the slack with the microphone stand, and have a couple-bar drum loop playing with the tape machine,” the engineer adds. “He was like, 'That was sampling. We were sampling before we knew what sampling was.'”
Another track on Shake the Gate, “Jolene,” features Geto Boys MC Scarface. For his part, Doctor Doctor Funkenstein has some very nice things to say about SugarHill as well.
“It was cool because it had the old building there and they had the analog stuff, and the digital stuff, so it was like being at home with the old-school stuff and the new-school stuff at the same time,” he says. “It was real good. The studio reminded me of back in Detroit. It had all the right equipment. But I mean, we had a good time in there. I'm planning on going back in there and doing some more stuff as soon as I can get back out there. We're working on the [new] Parliament album now.”
Clinton, who calls Longwood “the Ninjaneer,” says he's had a special connection to Houston for the past decade or so because his wife of some ten years, Carlon, is from here. Back in 2009, one of Clinton's P-Funk crew was also on the campaign staff of then-Houston mayoral candidate Peter Brown. Clinton's endorsement of Brown led to a very amusing item in the Houston Chronicle's “Houston Politics” blog, including the sentence “Think of what it would have been like for Jimi Hendrix to endorse Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential race while setting his guitar on fire.” (Huh?)
Today, “My daughter's in the group with us now,” Clinton says. “There's a whole lot of Houston connections in there now, the last ten years.”
Recently the P-Funk extended family has grown to include younger talents like Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. Clinton makes a cameo on “Wesley's Theory,” the opening track of Lamar's heavily acclaimed new LP, To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar returns the favor by appearing on the remix of “Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You,” the new single from Shake the Gate. Clinton says he thinks working with young cats like Lamar help him “start all over again.”
“You realize there's different ways to do stuff,” he explains. “And it always happens with the young kids. They get on your nerves, but they turn shit into what's going to be the next time through. I try to catch up with the good ones when they first start out, and if they're motivated, you can tell if they're gonna be the shit.”
For Lamar, Clinton says it was a couple of years ago when one of his grandchildren told him, “'Granddad, you gotta pay attention to this guy.'”
In hip-hop, Clinton is generally acknowledged as the most sampled artist outside James Brown, and one reason he has been rerecording some of his old classics like “Atomic Dog” (another number he worked on at SugarHill) is that for the past several years he has been engulfed in a bitter battle with some of his old record-company bosses and publishing houses like Bridgeport Music over the rights to some of his best-known hits. A passage on Clinton's Web site, flashlight2013.com, reads as follows:
You have to fight a lot of people for your music. You have to fight the copyright companies, like BMI. You have to fight the record companies because they really want to take it all. Right now, it's time for people to start getting their music backback [sic].
On the phone, though – he was fishing in Florida, one of his favorite pastimes since boyhood, Clinton says – he's a little more blunt about the whole situation. He's not afraid to admit he's worried that his recent memoir, Brothas Be Like, 'Yo George, 'Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?', might even be banned.
“There's a big organization [the music industry], and it's a bunch of crooks,” Clinton says. “They need a federal investigation.”
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For the moment, Clinton's book and Shake the Gate are available for sale among a number of other P-Funk goodies at georgeclinton.com, while the Mothership touches down in Houston again Saturday night at House of Blues. And however his court cases shake out, it's doubtful The Man will ever be able to silence Doctor Doctor Funkenstein's funk for good.
“If you like what you're doing, it's never a job in the first place,” Clinton says. “When I'm in the studio or onstage, that's like playtime to me.”
George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars perform Saturday night at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 8 p.m.