After years playing with George Clinton, Bootsy Collins is an immediately recognizable figure and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More importantly, he remains a musical pioneer, collaborating with artists as diverse as James Brown, Del McCoury, and Buckethead; an educator, founding his own Funk University in 2010; and a philanthropist, putting instruments in the hands of underprivileged children. His latest record, Funk Capital of the World, was released in April on Megaforce Records.
Prefix: This is a truly massive album. You must be very proud.
BC: I’m extremely proud. I wasn’t even thinking about how people were going to take this album, because I was shooting for something different for myself. Doing another party record wasn’t in the picture for me this time. I’ve done so many of those; I wanted this one to be something bigger and better. And then to have Mascot Records take a chance on me- you know what shape the record business is in now- I am not going to let this person down. I was thinking of that, and then also this is an opportunity to do what I truly want to do, from my heart. I thought about what I wanted to do with a record at this point in my life. I want to share where I came from and who inspired me, and where I got my funk.
Prefix: As I listened to this, I thought that it would make a great textbook for Funk University.
BC: Yeah, it’s that, and it’s all the stuff that I want to reach out and do now. I don’t want to separate people. I want to bring people together, and music is the great common cosmic denominator. That’s what it’s supposed to do, and I’m crazy enough and stupid enough to believe that I can this. For me, this is also a beginning. When I first broke, I wanted to become a star. That ain’t there for me no more. That doesn’t motivate me. What motivates me is seeing other people have a blast and get off on what they can do. Take for instance, a Dr. Cornell West and the Reverend Al Sharpton. These cats have ability that people don’t know about, and we need some words of wisdom. It ain’t no certain people need; we all need words. We’ve gotten so discouraged with our preachers and teachers and even our bankers. All these people that are supposed to be helping us- they ain’t helping us. I wanted to do a record that showed there is some hope for us. The music, as always, is uplifting, but I wanted to bring other people into the mix. I wanted to bring all these other musicians like Bela Fleck into the mix. I felt like we needed to go further than we’d gone before.
Prefix: How did you decide who you wanted to get involved with this record?
I didn’t look at the record as a whole. I looked at one song as being a whole composition. I put everything into that one song, and think about what it says, who it caters to, and who could make this song better than I could. In this album, it wasn’t really about me. I wanted to make that message very clear. I brought people in to expound on concepts that are important to me. I just gave them the concept, and they take took it and ran. I didn’t want a Bootsy record. I wanted a record that really stretched the boundaries and makes people think that maybe, since I did it within the genre of funk, they can do it within the hip-hop or rock, gospel music. I just stepped on the dance floor first. Everybody on this album are those who chose to come with me.
So how did you meet Bela Fleck?
I actually met him through Victor [Wooten]. He was a professor at Funk University, and I was playing on some of his stuff. I just asked him for Bela’s number one day when I had him in the studio, because I knew he would be perfect for two songs. I just wondered what would happen if I didn’t do guitar on a track and did banjo instead. Sure enough, he came to Cincinnati and did a gig at a college the night before I got him in the studio. He invited me out to watch him, and it was amazing. His whole backing band was comprised of African musicians, and I sat there thinking- this is exactly what I’m talking about. Watching that, I didn’t feel out of bounds with what I was doing on my record. It’s not that I haven’t seen that before, but for me to want him to play and him to invite me to this show and he’s got a whole band of Africans with instruments that they made. Okay? You ain’t hearing me. These cats made these instruments. Forget a real guitar or a real bass. These cats made all their instruments, and Bela Fleck is on stage having a blast. The audience was a little confused, but he knew what he was doing. He was saying that music is music, and that’s what I’m saying. Forget all the titles- let us come together and play. To see him up there on stage, knowing that the next day we were going to be doing the same thing on the album, it was a sign saying I was right on time. He came in the studio the next day and put down the tracks like he was feeling them. I used to have to kind of direct and arrange the songs, but with this album I wanted to be a little freer flowing.
Given your stature, do you think that people walk into your studio thinking that you have an idea of what you want?
I had to break that down. Word has gotten around of how I work in the studio, and that I always kind of have an idea of how I want it to go. I did have the track set up, but I didn’t want to influence how he played on the track. If you hearing some wild country stuff, then play that. Don’t be thinking about what I want. I had to squash that in the very beginning so he knew he could be free. That’s what music and expression is all about- being free form. It’s like we have a big table, and all the musicians are bringing a dish. I wanted what Bela Fleck brought to the table. You can’t buy that kind of love, that kind of freedom, that kind of expression. That ain’t for sale. I don’t take that lightly. Anything and everything I can do for any of these cats, I’m there. It ain’t about the money. It’s about being there. It’s about love. There were no pockets of resistance, no “talk to my manager,” none of that.
None of that. Throughout the whole album. Everybody wanted to do this as bad or badder than I did.
That has to make you feel good as a human being.
Make me feel good? For me, that was unheard of. On all these other records that I’ve done it was always record companies trying to get people to do this and do that. I don’t want to do a record like that. I want people to come because they want to come. I think it has partly to do with the fact that when they call, I come. I’ve worked with Samuel L. Jackson on various projects. I’ve worked with Ice Cube and Chuck D. The thing you don’t know is that these guys, Dr. West and the Reverend Sharpton, have skills. People don’t know that Samuel L. Jackson can sing on a record.
I don’t know. He’s a pretty talented guy. It’s kind of surprising he hasn’t made a record already.
But who’s going to buy it? When you look at it, it’s like, on the screen- cool. But really?
Some record company would have put it out, but it probably would have been just a vanity project.
I kind of looked at it that way. I ain’t into it for who would buy it. I’m into it because I want to be creative and get the message out.
Obviously you were happy with how things turned out, but what would have happened if you got Samuel L. Jackson in the studio and it just wasn’t happening?
He probably wouldn’t have made the cut, and he would have understood. I think it’s about being real, and I would have called him and told him. It was going so perfectly, that I didn’t have any doubts. I knew that the people that I approached had it in them. Listen to Dr. West speak. All you have to do is put some music under that. I knew he would deliver. Same thing with Samuel- I knew that he remembered things. I knew that Al Sharpton had the James Brown thing. I mean, damn, who could do it better than him? Making the record was never a question.
The album starts off with an invocation by Dr. West. How did you hook up with him?
It was at awards shows over the years. We stumbled into each other and met, and he would tell me about how much he loved the music, and he would tell me about what we did. He was so intellectual about it, and I never paid any attention to that, you know? He was so deep and so down to earth that I was always told him we should work together. We kept saying that, and then two years ago I started working with Raheem DeVaughn and I asked, because we were talking about Dr. West for one reason or another, if he had a contact for him, because I wanted him on the record. And Raheem says that he has his home number, and I’m like “Wow.” I said, “Call him up. I want to talk him.” So he answered the phone, and I just “Dr. West,” and he’s like “Bootsy? Bootsy Collins?” So we went through that whole thing about how I had this song and I needed to get him into the studio. And he said, “Well when you need me, brother?” I told him as soon as possible, and to check his schedule and to call me back. By that weekend, he was in Cincinnati. I took him down to the restaurant, and then I had an appointment that day- I had to speak to the employees of Macy’s. So I call and tell them that I’m going to come, but that I have a special guest. I didn’t tell them who it was. We went down there, and after I did my thing, I said, “Oh, and by the way, I got a young man here that I brought in as my special guest. I want him to have a few words.” Dr. Cornell West came on stage, and he KILLED them. The whole purpose was to pump the employees up, and he just brought down the house. After that we went to the studio, and we so hyped- he hadn’t even heard the track yet- he asks me what I wanted him to talk about. I told him that the idea was that we all have these smart phones, but we’re still making these dumb decisions. He says, “I got it. Turn the tape on.” I ask him if he doesn’t maybe want to go in the drum booth, but he says he’s going to do it right there. He stands up, and I’m right beside him running the board. He was right where you’re at, had the microphone standing up, and I’m on the board. He told me to turn the tape on. I pushed the button. What you hear on the album is what he spit. No writing nothing down, no “I think I want to talk about this and maybe throw in that. There wasn’t none of that. It was “Turn the tape on.” That was probably more exciting for me than it was for him. It took me back to when all we did was go in the studio and hit it. It wasn’t writing nothing down. It was what we were feeling – bang- that’s what’s happening. It took me back to that, seeing him do it like he did it. We got so evolved now- so dependent on our little tape recorders and our little books that we write everything down. To see a guy from my era stand up and do it like that, that knocked me out.
Dr. West’s song addresses the younger generation, as does a lot of the album. How is this record going to find its way into the hands of the younger generation?
I see this whole record as an invitation. I actually want these younger guys to hear and say they can do better. I feel like they can do it if they apply themselves; all this album serves as is a direction for them. I putting out that this where I came from, and you can do the same. This is what George Clinton did for me. This cat said that I was cool and let me in the studio to do my thing. This cat believed in me when the world didn’t believe in me. He said he didn’t even have to be there- just to go in there and do my thing. This is incredible to me. But now I have to go in there and prove to him and to myself that I got it. All of that hard work and practice with James Brown comes into play, because there ain’t any talking now; you got to get down. That kind of positive pressure is good; it made me go places I wouldn’t ordinarily go. I look at this record as a challenge. Even if I get two or three people to be challenged, that’s what I’m talking about.
Most of the artists (Ice Cube, Chuck D, Snoop Dogg) featured on the album are already established. Do you envision any artist in the younger generation that you want to hear this record?
I don’t really keep on top on top of the music scene today, but I see some that will go back just because of who I am. A lot of the artists that sample us know more about me than I do. They don’t just take the song because it sounds good; they studied it. Over the years I found this out. I didn’t know these young cats were studying what I did. They actually suggested that I should go back and listen to it. I’d never listened to my own stuff; once it’s out there, it’s out there. I was always waiting for the universe to send me the next song. I’ve always felt more like a receiver and a transmitter. If I focus on what I’ve done before, I won’t receive what I’m supposed to be doing. Ever since I was with James Brown, that’s how I operated. Before James Brown, I was listening to everything. I was absorbing Miles Davis, Howling Wolf, Santana, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, Little Richard, Liberace- you name it. When I got with James, I focused in on that. Then I got with George and there wasn’t any need to listen to anything else. Then in the Eighties, I hooked up with Bill Laswell, and he opened me up to music from India, from Africa-all over the place. And these people wanted to work with me-and that challenged me. That’s what I was saying about this album; if you keep doing the same thing all the time, you’ll be tired of it. I remember Jimi Hendrix said in one of his interviews that he was sick and tired of playing the same old songs. He wanted to play some new stuff, but people wouldn’t let him. He felt like he was stifled.
How did you get the Hendrix stuff for this record?
I did the box set for the documentary, and they allowed me to be the voice of Jimi Hendrix. I got a chance to read all his personal letters and his songs. I was like, this can’t be happening. Jimi Hendrix was one of the guys on my wall. I had him on a black light on my wall, smoking weed and doing LSD. He was it for me, and to be his voice still doesn’t quite register. It’s done. I’ve heard it and I’ve watched it, but I still can’t believe I got the opportunity. From that, though, I was able to bring my tribute to the estate and ask to use some of his vocals. That would make it official. If I just did a tribute song without his presence, that wouldn’t be enough. I asked them, and it was like I said, no pockets of resistance. They sent his stuff over and said to pick what I wanted.
I also wanted to ask about the Bobby Womack song, which features your brother. That has to be heavy.
It’s real heavy. It’s even heavier than people know, or that they will ever know. When we did that song, we actually did it for another record that I didn’t have creative control over, and the label didn’t accept the song because it was too old school and too R&B, and they wanted to make something that was commercial, and fit for the world, and radio would play you like crazy. They had their thing set, and thank God they didn’t accept the song, because that was the wrong album. This is the right album, because these are things that I felt from the heart. And the funny thing is that Bobby Womack did his singing stuff, and Catfish did his verse, the first one. I’d forgotten that he’d done it, since we recorded that song four or five years ago. I put it on the back burner, because we didn’t get to do it, but Cat is on there singing the hook and playing the guitars. He pretty much put that track together. I knew that this had to go on the album. You know he passed last year, so I wanted this to be on the record for him. I didn’t know that the label was going to like it enough to want it to be the first single. I was kind of surprised with that, but if I didn’t get anything else on this record, that had to be on there. I talked to Bobby last he week, and he was kind of in the same situation my brother was in, in the hospital fighting for his life. He didn’t sound good at all, but I went on Facebook and asked the people to hold him up. They held him up, and two days later he called me and was cracking jokes again. He had me on the floor. Bobby and Catfish were the funniest cats period. They could have made their living as comedians. They took their music serious, but everything else they laughed and joked about. We wanted him to come with us, but he was still about three weeks away from being back on his feet- the people still need to be lifting him up. It was just an honor to have him on the record with my brother, because they’re both from that same school. They’re eight years older than me, so I kind of grew up on them. They were playing music before I even thought about it. They are my anchors. I had to get them on this record.
This song seems pretty special to you.
It is. And it’s not just because of my brother and Bobby being on it. “Don’t Take My Funk Away” is about not taking away our talented youths. If the young people are out there just trying to survive, they’re missing out. They just go on “I Want To Be a Star Now” and win, and then don’t have to think about anything else. We’re destroying the creativity of our youth by saying to them that this is all they need to do. That’s not it, though. Those kids don’t know how to set up a gig; they can’t get themselves out there. When the system fails them, they don’t know what to do.
What about young guys wanting to do it all on the computer?
I understand all that. What I’m saying is don’t throw the original away. The way we did this record was to bring the two together. We telling them: “We did it this way, and so can you.” We’re trying to give them an option. The only problem is that the world isn’t giving you any options. It’s saying, “Buy this computer. It’s all you need. You don’t need Freddie. You don’t need Michael. You don’t need none of them cats. All you need to be is like all these other people.” But where is the creativity in that? The world says all you have to do is chop off the creativity, and everything is yours. It’s the paper god. We worship the paper god. That’s cool, but don’t throw yourself away to do it. I’m trying to bring a little awareness- tell these guys that we’re smart, but we’re dumb too. We’re not using our intelligence to help each other, and we’re doing this to our young people. They’re going to be the leaders of the planet, and we’re telling them all that is important is the money. How are they going to get outside that box? Right now, they only see one way out of that box, and that’s not a good thing. I’m sorry to come down right here at the end.
That’s okay. It’s real.
And that’s where this whole album is based. As deep as we just got, I didn’t want to say it like that, but there are things you have to hear. I don’t want to make up nobody’s mind. I don’t want to tell somebody, “Oh no, you shouldn’t do that,” because I know what happened when James Brown told me, “Oh no, you can’t do no drugs.”
You’re one of the few people in the world who can say that.
Yeah. It’s true. I want the young people to know that, because the tendency is to teach them that adults didn’t do no stupid stuff. And why? Now we were kind of overdone with it, but most parents are as guilty as anybody else and pretend to not be. I think kids, of all people, peep that. You can’t be lying like that to these mugs. These kids are so smart and up on that, you can’t even pretend. So I don’t even pretend. I did it, and I’d do it again if I was back in that same place. I came out of it, though, and a lot of cats don’t make it. I’m so proud that I was able to make it, that I had to give honor to cats that I came up with, and watched, and learned from. That to me is so major. If you’re not learning from who you’re around, you don’t need to be around them. At a certain point, I learned from them, and then I had to step away, so I didn’t get caught up in all of that. I didn’t blame anybody for it. I did it to myself. I had to ask myself, “How do I get clean?” Then I had to keep myself clean. I had to get myself strong. It’s just common sense. But we don’t have a lot of that right now.
Common ain’t common anymore.
I like that. You better write that one down: “Common ain’t common anymore.”