A Q. & A. With Bootsy Collins, American Hero
by Stephen Reader
Bootsy Collins has one of the most impressive resumes in popular music, beginning his career as a bassist with the one-two punch of James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic. More than 40 years after being plucked from obscurity to back up the Godfather of Soul, his new album, The Funk Capitol of the World, seeks to put his life and funk in a historical perspective. Among other things, the death of his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins compelled him to craft a “musical biography” that would preserve the memory of the people who were most influential to Bootsy: everyone from Catfish to Al Sharpton to Jimi Hendrix and, of course, George Clinton. Bootsy was kind enough to conduct this interview over the phone from Culver City, California.
This record’s your first in five years, and the one before that was a Christmas album. What finally got you getting it done again?
I’d been recording a lot of this album for years. I’m so used to recording stuff that comes to me, not for any particular reason or album, but it felt like something was ready to jump off. I didn’t know who it was going to be with; I just needed it to be with someone who trusted me with what I wanted to do, someone who would allow me to go to Vegas on my record, to experiment and gamble and roll the dice, to allow me to have creative control to do what I want to do, play what I want to play. Mascot Records allowed me to do that, and when they agreed to let me do that, that’s when I started stockpiling the tracks and figuring out the concept of what I wanted this album to be about.
What was that concept?
It’s my musical biography. More about where I got my funk from, as opposed to me and my funk. Like, who inspired me, what did I grow up listening to. I give tribute to certain people who helped guide my whole life, not just musically, but in all areas. That’s what this record represents: the era I came up in, and also the voices that I used to hear when I was comin’ up. Real voices, people speakin’ real stuff. I had to go outside of the music world and artistry; I had to get people that just had voices, and they didn’t have to do with music. I wanted great music and the message to be strong; spreading hope like dope, you know? That, I think, is what we achieved, and it just feels good.
Tell me about those non-musical voices.
Well, Samuel L. Jackson, I was so fortunate to work with him a couple years ago. We’ve always talked about doing something together and we were working on this Tiger Woods commercial. I had done the music and I was talking through [Jackson’s] narration with him, and I was actually working on my record then so it was pretty easy to just ask him, well, how about I got this track and this idea, and he was interested so I set the studio up. Samuel came by one morning and we knocked it out. I turned the track on and he just started rapping. It was all about how did music affect him coming up, how it helped him get to the silver screen.
Dr. Cornel West, I wanted him to do this song called “Freedumb,” to which he said, “Well, what do you want me to talk about?” I said, this is the concept, we got all these smart phones and we’re still making all these dumb decisions. He said, “Hold that thought, where’s the microphone?” He jumped immediately up and said turn the tape on, didn’t write nothing down, it was all off the top of his head. That’s the way we used to do it: just walk in the studio and record like that. It was amazing
What was going on in your life that made you decide now was the time to do this biography?
I was losing so many of my friends, my family members, and I started realizing how easy it is for the whole program, the whole era, to get lost if I don’t step up and say something, and do something, put it down so future generations will know about the era I came up in. It’s important for us as Americans. It’s our history. We tend to kind of throw it all away, but I wanted to at least document it, where we came from.
Oh, you think you’re the only intelligence in this universe? We’re probably just like the ants, or not as good: we don’t know how smart they are ’cause we’re so busy talking about how smart we are.
When you were playing with P-Funk, who were you looking backwards at?
Well, we weren’t actually looking backwards. It was more like we were looking forward to going back. We were a part of that whole groovement. We were comin’ up out of the hippie, the acid, the whole LSD thing, and we thought, how do we make this whole thing cool for a brother? Because back in the day, the word “funk” wasn’t even cool. Being black wasn’t cool. We had to evolve into these things. It wasn’t lookin’ back; it was more like takin’ what we had and moving forward, making it cool and hip. There were certain things brothers wouldn’t do with chicks, or didn’t want you to know they did with chicks, that we made cool. Funk became a cool word, and it was cool to be funky, cool to be black. We were a part of making that cool happen.
Taking it forward into the future, this whole alien persona mothership connection, it seems like you connected that idea of being black with being from a completely different place.
And we are. We considered ourselves space pimps. We were from outer space and we were proud of it. Oh, you think you’re the only intelligence in this universe? We’re probably just like the ants, or not as good: we don’t know how smart they are ’cause we’re so busy talking about how smart we are. If you have to continue to tell someone how smart you are, that’s kinda bein’ dumb. That’s where “Freedumb” comes in at. We’re making computers smarter than we are. We can’t keep up with them, when we are the best computers that has been made today.
I said that thing about Cornel West and Samuel L. Jackson and how they came in and didn’t write their lyrics. We’ve gotten to a place where it’s so comfortable to write stuff down and prerecord something, an idea of something. We get hooked on that and we lose our memory without recognizing it, taking the easy way out. It’s not wrong, it’s just a natural thing about us. That’s the way we were made. It goes to show me, when I saw [those guys] doing this, it was like, man, I used to do this and didn’t even think about it. Now, you have to write all this stuff down.
The way you talk about it, sounds like thinking is a lot less important to you than feeling.
Back in day, when I first started gettin’ going on playing bass and standin’ in front of an audience and singing, it was so natural for me that I never even thought about the fact that I’m playing bass and singing. I never thought about it.
Then I took off for about three years, when I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do next. Then I go back to the stage and find out that I could not play and sing. That bothered me. It was like, where did that go? I had to start thinking about, okay, how do I play and sing? The more I start thinking, the worse I got. But eventually I stopped thinking; one night I hit the stage and it automatically kicked in again.
Thinking has its great points, but it also is a curse, too. Being funky is things just happenin’ in the moment, in the now. You in the front seat of the Chevy with your old lady, or with your girl, or with his girls, and you’re just rappin’, and the next thing you know, you’re in the backseat getting’ down. That’s funk. That’s funk. You don’t want to pre-program, oh, let’s get together at 8 o’clock tonight and have some sex, baby. Funk don’t work like that. It knows the time, it’s never incorrect, it’s always on point, and you just have to trust and believe and don’t think about it. Even though I’ve been living this way consistently, sometimes it comes up that I throw my mind in there and really start thinking and throw things off. It’s just a human thing.
When did you take that three-year break?
1979, ‘80? That’s when I was just so out of proportion. I was so burnt out, I was tore up, man. I was a total mess between the drugs… Music wasn’t first in my life no more. I had to get high to step out the door. I was so paranoid and it became a drag. It was like, why am I here? Who am I? I was in a basement saying, wow, I gotta go upstairs and find myself. I didn’t know where I was at.
Then I just felt like I had to stop. My mother told me, if I ever got to the point where you don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re feeling, you have to stop, you have to stop everything. When I got to that point, I did.
And I was making all kinds of money, sellin’ out concerts, and everybody thought the LSD would kick back in and I was just goin’ berserk, but it wasn’t really that at all. I was just so sick and tired of me, and what I was going through, because I wasn’t feeling good about my music anymore, like my music wasn’t first anymore, and I knew it wasn’t first anymore because I had to take something to even face the world. It was not a good place, and I had to take off to try and help find myself.
A few things happened. I had a real bad motorcycle accident and the doctors told me I wasn’t going to be able to use my right arm ever again. I guess that scared me to the point that, you mean, I’m not gonna be able to play anymore? Yep, you’re not going to be able to move that arm. They had staples, nails, all this crap in my arm holding it up. So from that, after laying in that hospital bed and thinking about that, when I came out I was determined to throw my drugs away, not to ever go back to them again, and as long as I could play again that’s all I wanted to do, play and make love to the people.
But you didn’t have it at first?
I was so used to being Bootsy 27 hours a day that I didn’t know how to be William, that same guy who started at 15 years old over at King Records recording with everybody, all genres, jazz, country, R&B;, you name it. King Records did it all. That’s where I met James Brown, where my whole career really started. I had to get back to being that disciplined, accompaniment musician.
Bill Laswell, in 1983, directed me, in his own way, back to that person I needed to be. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be the target anymore. I didn’t want to be the star that I’d become. The Frankenstein monster that I’d created had turned on me. And when that mother turns on you, he goes for the throat. He really means to assassinate and get rid of you completely.
You don’t want to pre-program, oh, let’s get together at 8 o’clock tonight and have some sex, baby. Funk don’t work like that. It knows the time, it’s never incorrect, it’s always on point, and you just have to trust and believe and don’t think about it.
I wasn’t having it. It was about being whatever it took to be to get back on the one, because I had lost it. I had to find my way back and I have to credit Bill Laswell for opening the door, for letting me get back in there and letting me work with all these different musicians who challenged and inspired me. Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, all these players and musicians. I got a chance to stretch out with them and vibe with them, and there was a certain element of Bootsy there, but it wasn’t me projecting it. It just felt so good getting back to music without being all drugged out, being coherent and able to laugh and have a good time and get out and touch people and connect. For me, that’s what it’s all about anyway. That’s where I came from.
So the first few times back on stage you’re not able to play and sing like you used to, and one night it just happens. Imagine that you’re explaining what that feels like to someone who’s never touched an instrument, who doesn’t have a musical bone in their body.
Wow… Let me think. Well, let me not think. What that feels like… Have you ever had sex?
[Pause] Are you asking me?
Yeah, have you ever had sex?
Yes. [Pause to consider whether this is the second lamest way to answer that question.]
Well, it’s kinda like havin’ sex in a non-standard way. Maybe a wild and crazy sex, you know? Like one minute you’re bangin it, the next minute you’re rubbin’ it, you’re trying to see if any smoke gonna come out of it. You oozin’ out your oozey, she’s oozin’ out her oozey. You lookin’ up at it. You lookin’ down at it. It’s all kind of things that the universe has to offer, and it’s all yours.
It’s like you just wallow in it. This is the moment. This is where everything was created from: between an ass and a peehole. It’s like, this is the grooviest part of living, this is where we all came from.
Then we ask, what is funk? That’s funk right there. Being born between an ass and a peehole.
Keep going with that: the universe, being receptive to it. How does one make sure they’re being open to what the universe has to offer?
First of all, you have to shut up. For a brother, that’s kind of a difficult task, to just shut up. Because we grew up on the streets and that’s part of your credibility, being able to rap your way in, rap your way out of things. This is a quality that you learn, so how do you throw that away and listen to the universe?
It took years. Years of experience going through things, failures, a little success here and there, rejection; all these things are my friend. In the beginning, I had no way of looking at these things as my friend, but all these things that I didn’t want and didn’t want to appear, kinda appeared from the universe and were here to help me, unbeknownst to me. I always thought they were against me and they were trying to destroy my life. But all the little tyrants that showed up to come and destroy my life actually helped me because I was persistent. I would not stop, I would not turn over to these little bullies, these taunts, “I’m gonna do this and that,” and my whole rap was, well, funk you.
When you say, “funk you,” that really means not, like, the other word; “funk you” really means, like, I hear what you sayin’, I understand, but I got a way that I gotta follow. When you come to me and you got a bill that needs to be paid and I can’t pay it I have to say, well, funk you right now, because you can’t get blood out of a turnip. You have to project that in a way that even the person might not even understand, but you have to continue to pursue your goal and how you feel.
I did that I accepted the love/hate thing that was going on. I accepted flying on airplanes again, which was the biggest fear I’ve ever had in my life. Once I accepted it and started doing it — see, it ain’t just about accepting, you really have to start doing and being those things you’re afraid of. Most of us are afraid of any little thing. It’s really about facing those things you’re scared of, facing that tyrant, facing that bully, facing those musical notes you have problems with, facing the teacher that you always have a problem out of and accepting them and listening to what they say because they are the authority figure. Not to say you’re going to do what they say do, but learn how to accept them for what they are and what they’re trying to teach, even if it don’t go with your program.
It took me a long time to learn that. I’m still learning. I don’t never want to learn it all because once you learn it all, you’re by yourself. You don’t never want to be caught playing with yourself.
Most of us now being taught to play with ourselves because you get a smartphone and you go in your room and you play with yourself. It’s automatic. The world is teaching us that; the world is teaching the kids that. It’s a good tool, a good device, but you don’t throw your feelings and conversations around the campfire away just because you have a smartphone. You don’t stop having group meetings and group orgies and group fun. You don’t stop being in bands and playing instruments because you can do it by yourself on your computer, because you don’t need nobody to make $3 billion, you can just sit at home and do it all by yourself. You don’t throw people off the roof because of that. It took a long time for me to learn that. If I can put a little bit of that out there by this record, that’s what I was really trying to do. Just put it down on record. Maybe a spot or two might rub off on somebody and it might connect the dots, then they’ll pick it up and carry it on. For me, if two or three people get it, that’s better than a thousand people buying the record who don’t really get it.
Photo credit: Michael Weintrob