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Editor's note: This story contains some explicit language.
The connection between Killer Mike and George Clinton might not seem immediately obvious. One is a 42-year-old Atlanta rapper who, alongside El-P in Run the Jewels, sells out shows across the country without the boost of radio play. The other, now 75, founded the pioneering groups Parliament and Funkadelic in the '60s and presided over a funk empire whose onstage manifestations included dozens of musicians and a spaceship that descended from the rafters.
But Clinton's psychedelic funk has influenced generations of rappers, including Killer Mike. After Clinton moved to Atlanta in the early '90s, he became a mentor to the hip-hop production collective Organized Noize, which nurtured Outkast — which, in turn, discovered Killer Mike. And there's one more connection: They both have owned barbershops — and say that's given them the financial freedom to take musical risks.
Killer Mike's barbershop, The SWAG (Shave Wash And Groom) Shop, is currently up and running in Atlanta. "What I tried to build here was a place where people were free to talk as they wanna do — none of the social ills of the day," he says. "And you could just come look good. A lot of time when you're poor and you ain't got but 15, 20 bucks in your pocket — if you can't change your shoes, you can change your look with a haircut."
For his part, Clinton owned and operated the Silk Palace, a barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., for 10 years beginning in 1960 — before Parliament, before the Mothership. He was also the head of a struggling doo-wop group and staffed the shop with his bandmates.
We met up with the two musicians in The SWAG Shop, where Killer Mike interviewed Clinton about the transformation his career underwent, about mentoring younger musicians — and, of course, about barbering. Hear an edited version of their conversation at the audio link, watch the video above and read on for an extended transcript.
Killer Mike: How did you get into the barbershop business and why does it mean anything?
George Clinton: Well, first of all, when we was 15 years old, we would start singing Frankie Lymon, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." Turned everybody out. Everybody got a 'do. Everybody had the waves.
What's a 'do?
You know, the waves, um –
Like you relax your hair then you wave it?
Well, it wasn't called relaxer, it was processed.
Oh, you processed it, OK.
It burned like hell. ... When it first got commercially acceptable, that's when we used to do hair like Sugar Ray Robinson, Nat King Cole. I know you ain't too young to remember them.
I know that, bro. Lookin' slick.
You've seen the pictures with the waves — that's what we did. Temptations, all of that. So you get your hair done – it only lasts about half an hour if you start dancing.
'Cause you start sweating.
If you make some love it's over. You go swimming, it's over. ... So we had to end up doing each other's hair. So one of the guys in the group learned to do it real good. He got a job at the shop and before we knew it, all of us was in the shop doing each other's hair. In the meantime, we figured, well, this is a way to make some money while we run to New York to the Brill Building for auditions.
So how old are you?
17 by this time.
You 17 years old, already running back and forth from New York?
19, I owned the shop. 17, I was working in the shop, and the older guy that owned it died, and so nobody knew what to do. I had the most customers, so I just rented the chairs out to them and they ran the shop. My customers would wait for me if I had to go do an audition. They was cool enough to say "I'll come back and let you finish me."
So you doo-wopping, you doing hair, you running the shop, you hitting auditions?
Back and forth to New York. And then Motown came about. I left the shop to the rest of the fellas while I went to Detroit and was writing songs and working out there.
So at this time you guys waved up. Everybody I'm sure dressing, suited up, and you guys are more like a Temptations.
Then we went crazy later on.
We got a hit record called "I Wanna Testify." But just before we got it ... I come across a million and two hundred thousand dollars.
1.2 million dollars?
In counterfeit $20s. Somebody came to the shop — two little white boys running. I don't know where they got it from, but they was scared as hell. I collected about 1,800 dollars from the hood — up and down the street, the stores — gave it to them and they gave us the box of money. We used to sit in there with the coffee, dipping each bill through the coffee and pasting it on the wall at night.
What's that do?
It turns it — 'cause it's brand-new. It looks like it's green and white.
Oh, so the coffee gives it a stain...
Yeah, yeah. You ball it up. And then we was plastering it on the walls — this is like from about 12 o'clock to about 5 in the morning, we'd do this every night. And state police ... finally came in there, locked up everybody in the neighborhood for heroin. That's what was going on then. But he liked us because I had so many kids we were training as musicians in the neighborhood. They thought we were cool for the 'hood. He told me, he said — he wouldn't even look at the money, the whole wall is full of $20s — he didn't even look up, he say, "You know, I like the fact that y'all take care of these kids and give them a place to hang," he said. "But if I knew anything about any funny money, I would get rid of it," he said, "'Cause they on to it." ...
I took the last $200,000 — we had been doing this for almost a year — last $200,000, we gave it away. And we got out of there and got a hit record in about a month-- "I Wanna Testify." And we left and went out on the road. I left the shop with the — I didn't even go back once in a while. The rest of the people, friends, they ran the shop until they got tired. And we went on the road as Parliament, and a year later we changed it to Parliament and Funkadelic. Took off the ties and shirts, put on sheets and diapers, and dropped some acid, and we was out of there.
We got a pretty good reputation because we give away Hot Wheels cars here for kids. You come in to get a cut, you get a free Hot Wheels car.
When cops roll up on me smoking weed next door they didn't lock me up — I guess that's why now!
When you doing something for the community, you know, people be paying attention to that. And I found out that helps your credibility later on in life. I mean to this day, we got a bunch of young kids out in front of us for a brand new show. Half of them my grandkids, but then there's a few others from Tallahassee, Florida. We got a brand new show, we got the old guys still playing The Funkadelics. But we got the front with hip-hop, metal, you know. I got one son, grandson that's into heavy metal, others that's into rap. My son is into rap — he was in Atlanta with me back in the days with Outkast and all the people.
Music and barbering have that similarity in that a lot of knowledge gets passed on. Like in 1992, '93, '91, you and Curtis Mayfield were here essentially running a mentorship school. You mentored Organized Noize, Dallas Austin, people like Jermaine Dupri. This Atlanta music scene wouldn't be here — but with barbering also, it seems to me a lot of the older barbers take the time to teach younger dudes. What's the philosophy of barbershops? What did you pull out of barbershops from a philosophical standpoint that's helped you in life?
The older guys in there always had information that you needed as a kid. You didn't necessarily want to hear it, but the way they presented it to you ... You know how you can look at the mirror here and see the barber head?
They would talk over your head like that. "Oh, our feelings are hurt today." You come in there mad about something, "Oh, our feelings are hurt today?" That make you feel small about the bullshit you're talking. So you get to learn all that in all the different variations of people arguing with each other. You see all these points of view, everybody got something to say. Some don't make sense. Some don't give a damn. There's always gonna be somebody who in there, no matter how philosophical — "What you talking about?" Somebody in there — " I don't give a fuck." Somebody's always gonna — "What it matter to me?" You gonna get every point of view in any situation. So if you got your ears open, you'll learn a lot in the barbershop, even though there's a lot of B.S. going on.
'62, so processed is still a thing, you guys are dapper, everybody else is still dapper. "Testify," even as a song, is a kind of clean, more Motown-type record. But at some point all that left.
Oh yeah, after "Testify" hit and I realized it took us 10 years from the first record we put out — '57 all the way up to '67 — to get a hit single, that was hard. And I realized that rock 'n' roll bands didn't put out singles. It was called underground, they put out albums. Jimi Hendrix--
And then toured them.
And toured with their albums. It wasn't 45s. And you didn't have to worry about having a hit single on the radio, because that's what was hard. You get three years of that if you hot, if you lucky. We got "Testify," we put out two more records after that and I said, "Trying to find a single is hard."
You got people to buy into the experience.
I just changed it all. I said "forget hit singles" and I did an album called Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow.
And we went straight psychedelic.
Weird, all the way to the point I saw Jimi got away with it.
What year was this you went weird?
This would have been '67, '68.
And how did you do it, how did you muster the courage to do it?
I already knew, because we were doing it on the stage. "Testify" went from a clean Motown song to straight psychedelic. Loud and feedback and people was loving it, because Motown was ending now. Now Cream and Led Zeppelins, Beatles, that was becoming the thing. I couldn't wait no longer for Motown to just — I just start changing right away. We copied the Temptations at first, but when we did...
So first you slick, hair's in a wave, you suited and booted. And then at some point, hairstyle and clothing changed.
Cut my hair — I had dicks and moons cut in my head.
When was this?
That was '69.
So in seven years you done went from a smooth player to dicks and moons in your hair.
Diapers, sheets, the whole band went crazy. and people started thinking — damn Temptations started copying us. That's when they did Psychedelic Shack--
Oh, they started doing the suits with the studs and the jumpsuit.
Yeah, flower suits and flower things. We changed all of them: Motown, Stevie, Marvin Gaye, all of them went to rhinestones, you know when Boots [Bootsy Collins] and I did that, we changed them to copying us. We knew we had something. So and then we did the album Chocolate City, that's when we came back to Parliament from Funkadelling. We went back to Parliament.
George Clinton: As you grow older, you learn to appreciate all the artistry. I'm actually on my way back to the blues, you know, that my mothers and fathers liked. You know, Elmore James and Lightnin' Hopkins. I was appreciating them when Jimi came — Jimi Hendrix — because I knew that's what he was playing. But when we did Maggot Brain, we knew that we could do rock 'n' roll and blues, doo-wop.
When hip-hop came along I just looked it — OK, this reminds me of when we were young and we were singing "bom bom bom bom bom bom" and my mother said, "What the hell are you talking 'bout?" So when I heard somebody go [blows raspberries] it didn't bother me. It's that music that makes grown-ups say, "What are you talking about?" Whenever you hear that, that's the new music. So whenever I hear any new music that get on my nerves, I love it.
Killer Mike: That's the new thing. I tell all the rappers that be coming up to me. They be wanting me to be mad. "Mike, what you be thinking about these young boys coming out Atlanta?" I like it.
[sings part of Rich Homie Quan's "Flex (Ooh Ooh Ooh)"]
Atlanta been on a roll for a while now. But big thanks though to you and Curtis. Had it not been for what you guys — we give a lot of credit to LaFace as a label. They took a chance on Outkast. We give a lot of credit to So So Def, Jermaine [Dupri] and them. But you guys were here mentoring these guys on the ground and really started this run that Atlanta still enjoys.
I said a long time ago, whenever they get on to hip-hop, they not gonna let go. Because this is one of those places where chants — whether it's in schools, football teams and basketball teams — the South has always been the greatest at that. Dancing and, you know, all that bouncing. Like I said, when they get on to it, forget New York and forget LA. They gonna have the rawest sense, and it's still going on.
Me and my friend have arguments — I argue that the greatest record Dre ever did was Efil4zaggin. My friend argues that the greatest record that Dre ever did was [The] Chronic. And I tell him one reason I disqualify Chronic — he said why — I said 'cause it's a George Clinton record. ... But with Efil4zaggin he took the influence and he went dark. ... It's like you guys gave a talk on funk or a school on funk and these guys took it literally...
And made new funk.
My man! That's exactly what they did.
Talk about Outkast, "Synthesizer."
Yeah, when I did that with them it was like a brand new version. A lot of people identified them with us — the look. But the music, they had their own version of what that music had done to them. They didn't do ... basically the sound. Like you said when Dre, Cube and all of them, they still do. Matter of fact, Cube did my record after I did record it.
And that's a good thing. I'm not mad.
They didn't remix it 'cause they do it better than we do, as far as that old-school version of it. They did the record and redid it for me. Once I seen that happened, I realized you can take it and copy the sound, like More Bounce to the Ounce. We did that on Roger [Troutman]. They took that sound, you know what I'm saying, and made a lot of records out of it. And it sounds like us, you know, but they did their own version of it. But it's still like you say, they came close to us than most of 'em ... Here, Andre went a whole 'nother way with it.
Yeah, man, it's been an amazing thing to watch on all three fronts, because I like all variations. I like the New York style of funk, the California style of funk, but the South I never felt like — and Atlanta particularly — got the credit for taking their lessons and progressing on it.
They still doing it. They don't need the credit. They still doing it. And I mean when I hear the "ooh ooh ooh ooh."
Soon as I heard it, I said that's a hit record.
People come down on the kids here now, but to me what they're doing is playing with their vocals like a Roger Troutman, like from Funkadelic. And they just having fun.
Doing they own and they know, whether it's consciously or not, when they getting on somebody's nerves they must have the right thing.
Could I share something with you? My mom had did a wonderful job of giving me two great dads, I had a biological and non-biological dad. When my non-biological dad met me I was just a brat. I was literally just a little asshole kid.
He straightened you out, though?
Yeah. He was a collector of toys, which I collect now. He's a collector of comic books, which I collect now, and he's a collector of records. And in particular, he had a full Parliament and Funkadelic record collection, and I destroyed it. He let me think I was a DJ and scratch. He let me play.
You was in the crates?
Yeah. I am a better human being because of my dad and his exposing me to music. Both of my dads are great men. But my love of music and art — he really pushed me to be creative and to have an imagination very young. ... And even now just hearing your support of your grandchildren and the band members' children.
And they take care of me now. Because they up on the stage now, they jumping around and people like "damn, Parliament Funkadelic, they still doing it?" These kids up here jumping around. I tell you — and what got me into doing that, you know, Chance the Rapper [collaborators Kids These Days], they open up for us. Here in Atlanta and in North Carolina for a lot of shows. And when we got out they just come out on stage with us, and they be jumping around, I said, "Wow I need somebody like this in the show for real," because they lit us up just jumping around. So when I went back to Tallahassee I got my grandkids, all y'all coming out.
So that's a part of how you stay relevant?
Because in your 50s you in Atlanta with Curtis hanging out, now in your 70s you running around with your own grandchildren. ... So your real secret in terms of relevance sounds like just being open to work with young people.
Oh, always. Soon as I hear old musicians say, "That ain't shit," I'm going to find out what it is.
Give old rappers some advice, man, because they be complaining.
Pay attention to them kids, don't let your feelings be hurt because they taking your place. They supposed to. But if you wanna stay around with them, you ain't got to copy 'em. Just get the ones that's real young, too young to even be copying yet, because you know they gonna be the next thing. I mean, Eminem was 14. His producer Mark Bass was working with me. He brought him around me, said "Who is that?" I said, "You pay attention to this kid, keep him by your side." It took him two years before they got Slim Shady. But that boy wasn't but 17?
I always try to find the kids that's getting on your nerves — because your instinct let you know they pushing you out the way, you getting old. And you don't let that bother you, have fun! You ain't got to hang out with them, but you can work with them.
George Clinton: Well, let me ask you a question. How did you get into barbering?
Killer Mike: Aw man, I bought this place sight unseen. I saw it on the internet and I always wanted to own one, because I never really been good at working for nobody. ... I walked in the room and told my wife I just bought a barbershop. And I remember she didn't talk to me for two weeks.
But it's done well for us. And what it's done more than anything is keep me connected to the community in a real way. Mothers come here, they sons get haircuts. They get a free Hot Wheels. You know, little boys sweep the floor and learn some responsibility. You know, old men learn to pass on good habits to young men here, so I'm very happy to now own three. We own this one, we own one downtown, and we're opening one in the historic West End.
You gonna have a chain of barbershops?
That's the goal.
How does owning the shop affect your music?
Well, I'm like Ice Cube. I'm a student of Ice Cube and Scarface, which means the stuff I rap about is not radio-friendly, and it's very opinionated and it's very much from the perspective of a black man in America, and our opinion ain't always popular when we have a political opinion.
Oh yeah, that's why they told me he was crazy. On my way here they told me, "He crazy. He gonna get off on them politics and he gonna go off."
Exactly. The thing this shop has allowed me to do, and my other shops, is to make a base salary that takes care of my wife and children. Now I can say whatever I wanna say. Because you can not buy my records and you can not like me, but sooner or later, kids gonna need a haircut.
And they parents respect me. We gonna come in here and get you a haircut and we gonna keep pushing.
Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.