Sitting backstage with Yahoo Music at Coachella’s Heineken House this past Saturday, Parliament-Funkadelic icon George Clinton is in a reflective, mellow mood — not just because he’s winding down from playing a two-hour set for a capacity crowd, but because thoughts of his old friend and collaborator, Prince, are unavoidable at this time of year. Not only is Prince’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” at Coachella 2008 still widely considered to be one of the festival’s all-time greatest moments, but the one-year anniversary of Prince’s shocking death is right around the corner, on April 21.
“I just don’t even think about that, from when [Prince’s death] happened, ’cause I can’t process it, still,” Clinton says, shaking his head, before insistently adding: “He didn’t do no drugs. No. He was always cool. He didn’t do that s***.”
Clinton refrains from speculating about the circumstances surrounding Prince’s death (just two days after this interview, more distressing details about Prince’s secret opioid addiction will emerge). Instead, he’s focused on his upcoming performance at this week’s multiday “Celebration” tribute at Minneapolis’s Paisley Park compound — at which he’ll likely reprise his cover of “Erotic City” from the 1994 comedy flick PCU — and his happy memories of working with the late legend.
“My fondest memories of Prince was him calling me in the middle of the night when I’m somewhere getting high,” laughs Clinton, who quit drugs himself several years ago after decades of abuse, and whose next release (with Parliament) will ironically be a pharmaceutical-themed concept album of sorts titled Medicaid Fraud Dog. “He’d say, ‘Come on, I need someone to talk to,’ and I’m like, “Oh s***, why are you calling me now?’ He’d stay up all night, just running my mouth because I like to talk a lot.”
Clinton and Prince’s friendship began in the late ’70s, when Clinton championed the young Prince’s music, and a little more than a decade later, Prince — now a multiplatinum superstar — returned the favor by signing Clinton to his Paisley Park record label and casting him in the movie Graffiti Bridge. “Once I left Capitol after ‘Atomic Dog’ and all that, I needed a label. I just called him and said, ‘I got a track I peed on and I’m gonna send to you; you pee on it and send it back!’ And that’s the way it went,” Clinton chuckles. “I signed up to the label, and the first album was [the 1989 comeback effort] The Cinderella Theory. He didn’t work too much on that one, but for the second one, I told him, ‘Don’t be so nice.’ He was always trying to be respectful [and not change the music too much]. I said, ‘No, put some of that s*** on there.’ So he played a lot on my  Hey, Man, Smell My Finger album.
“Graffiti Bridge was the best,” Clinton continues. “He had fun doing that s***. Him and Morris Day was funny with each other in real life — just the way they act in the movie, that’s pretty much like how they were anyway. [The Time’s guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] was even funnier. They was crackin’ with each other about who’s the shortest; they’re tiny, and they cracked on each other all the time about that. It was a fun family, all of them.”
Another, more serious way in which Prince and Clinton bonded was by sharing hardship tales of their respective music-business battles. In the ’90s, Prince famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, scrawled the word “SLAVE” on his face to protest his contract with Warner Bros., and waged a battle for artistic control that dominated the rest of his career. Meanwhile, Clinton was dealing with his own legal issues (he has filed multiple lawsuits against Bridgeport Music Inc., which owns the rights to about 170 of his compositions; the company says he signed over his rights to the music in 1982/’83, but he says his signature was forged). Clinton says he was eager to advise Prince about avoiding such career mistakes.
“I think I got him into that ‘SLAVE’ thing,” Clinton muses. “I know I did. I was always talking about the record companies, how bad they was. He got it. He did his act real good with that. He had all this copyrights back. I had preached to him. I didn’t do it at first, and it took me a long time to get it together, but he got it really quick. He did it so much better than me!”
As for his own legal fight, Clinton says, “I’m still fighting it; all the legal stuff I went through, it’s unbelievable. From the copyright office, to the publisher, to [the labels], all of them conspired together… They’ll do anything not to let that story get out, so I’ve been fighting. Now I’m gonna do a documentary on it — but I’ve got to keep [the film’s details] secret for a minute.”
Clinton is nothing if not a fighter. For instance, just last year, he was very vocal in his support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton (no relation), and he still holds nothing back when speaking about his disdain for Donald Trump. “I was active [in Hillary’s campaign], even more so than with Obama. I mean, I voted for [Obama], but with her, I was running my mouth. But I was kind of late. I should have started earlier,” he says of Hillary’s loss. “I try not to preach, but this needs people to pay attention — and vote the next time. People got to vote. I know they was mad at the system and all that s***, but you can’t be that mad! Fool, get in there. You ain’t got that kind of luxury. You can’t get that kind of mad. You’ve got to vote.”
As for Trump’s presidency, Clinton says, “That’s some scary s***. He’s on some scary s***, f***ing with North Korea. He’s a clown, too. You got two clowns in there, and ain’t no telling what could happen. And whether there’s North Korea or not, [Trump is] gonna get us in trouble. Everybody needs to speak out on that s***. But he’s gonna get impeached, and all these rest of them are going to jail. They got so much s*** on them, it’s just dribbling out little by little, but it’s gonna blow up in a minute.”
Interestingly, in his later years Prince was notorious for shunning technology — fighting to keep his live music (even his above-mentioned “Creep” Coachella cover) off YouTube and Vine, banning cellphone recording at his shows, and refusing to put his music on streaming services. But 75-year-old Clinton, who credits his popularity with audiences of all ages (including Coachella’s millennial-skewing Heineken House crowd) to his decade-spanning collaborations with everyone from Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, says he embraces new technology — whether it’s making music with Pro Tools, being available on Spotify, or joining Twitter and Instagram.
“I’m for whatever it takes to make the music. You have to get used to it, but that whole digital world is how they make records now,” he shrugs. “You get old quick if you don’t! The easiest way to get old is to not [accept] something new… You know how when the car came along, the horse and buggy had to go? It’s like that. I’ve seen this s*** before, so it wasn’t hard to get in line. You may not like it, but you gotta figure out how to do it. I’m texting and social media-ing my ass off.”