Bootsy Collins on James Brown, George Clinton and the Power of the One

Dean Budnick on January 15, 2021
Bootsy Collins on James Brown, George Clinton and the Power of the One

photo credit: Bootzilla Records

“‘On the one’ is a musical term I learned from James Brown. He wanted me to play on the one, to emphasize that first beat of every measure,” Bootsy Collins recalls, tracing the origins of the concept that informs his new studio record, The Power of the One. The spellbinding bassist, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997, remains a dynamic creative force. The Power of The One features the flexible rhythms and technical flourishes that have long been Collins’ hallmark during a career that has extended beyond stints with James Brown and George Clinton to include stretches with Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Deee-Lite, Praxis and an array of additional projects. The ebullient new record features guest spots by Christian McBride, Branford Marsalis, George Benson, Larry Graham, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Béla Fleck, EmiSunshine, Victor Wooten, Uché and many others.

“I was a guitar player first,” Collins continues. “So when I started with James Brown, he told me to slow down and that I was playing too much. I didn’t understand what he meant, so he started explaining the one. He told me to play that first beat and emphasize that with the drummer. So I started doing that and he started loving it. Then when I left James Brown, I took that over to George Clinton, who made it a whole concept. Everything was on the one—everybody was emphasizing the one—even the vocals. So George took it to another degree.

“Eventually, out of all of those experiences, I realized that it’s much deeper than just a band being on the one. The power of the one is all of us collectively going in the same direction together. Everybody’s a part of the one, no matter what their beliefs are. The one is that light in everybody’s soul, no matter what they call it.

“The power of the one breaks down barriers,” he adds. “The goal is to bring everybody together, without the name calling. We’re all on one planet—spinning around in space—and we have to work and live together. That’s the power of the one.”

Beyond your innovations on the bass, I’m struck by the range of collaborators you’ve enlisted over the years, which certainly continues on the new record. Is that something you actively strive to achieve?

I’m so glad that is recognizable because it’s been like that ever since I first started out. I was surrounded by a lot of different musicians—even before I really started playing—because my brother Catfish was about eight years older than me. He always had different band members and musicians around, and they played jazz, rock, gospel, and everything you can name.

Then once I started with James Brown, I got kind of stuck with this thing: “Oh, he plays the funk.” That was cool because I love the funk, but I didn’t realize how powerful that was until I tried to do other things. So, from then until now, I’ve just been dipping and dabbing with different artists.

I didn’t really want to be a frontman. I just wanted to be in a band. It was so hard to get back to that after the whole Parliament-Funkadelic thing and the Bootsy’s Rubber Band thing—until I ran into Deee-Lite, which was very dee-lightful for me because I got a chance to just be in the band. I could play what I wanted to play. Then I ran into Bill Laswell, who is based out of New York, and he hooked me up with a whole lot of different artists to play with.

That’s when I started to realize that I wanted to come out of that box that I had been in since I first started playing. I’m glad I went through all of that because it taught me discipline. It taught me how to vibe and work with all kinds of different genres of music.

The thing is, I started at King Records before I even got with James Brown. King Records, in itself, was a melting pot of all kinds of genres of music. I got a chance to be around all of those cats when I was a young kid, 15-16 years old and they were stars—Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard, Arthur Prysock and all these different people. It was pretty amazing.

I wanted to get back to that but, once I hooked up with James Brown and then Parliament-Funkadelic, it was so hard to get back to just playing with different musicians in the same room— being able to just vibe. So I took all the time I could to make sure that it happened with this record.

In George Clinton’s memoir, he writes that, despite his best efforts, it took him many years to convince you to step into the role of a frontman. Can you recall that struggle?

Being a frontman was the furthest thing from my mind. I was a bass player and, back in the day, the bass was just getting recognized a little bit. If I had remained a guitar player, I probably wouldn’t have minded being the frontman, but it didn’t feel right to play bass while I was out there fronting the band. Plus, I didn’t want to be the leader of a band anyway. I just wanted to have a good time, get loaded and groove with it.

But George just kept at it until I gave in. We got this deal at Warner Brothers and he said, “You’ve got to front it.” So I was finally like, “OK, let’s go for it.” He had to talk me into it because, at that time, it was more about bands coming to the front rather than just playing behind singers. When we were playing with James Brown, we couldn’t wait to get through this so that we could become a band of our own and do what we really wanted to do, which was to get freaky—do the LSD thing and just have fun with it.

So all the time we were with James, we were always wondering, “When do we get a chance to just be ourselves?” When we got with George Clinton, that was the time to really be ourselves. We had the best of times on the mothership. I was reluctant to change anything but, eventually, George convinced me.

Even if that level of attention felt uncomfortable, I imagine that the creative control proved welcome.

What’s funny is that George knew I was doing all that stuff anyway, but I wanted to do it within the confines of the band. The way he saw it, though, was that the record company needed somebody to be the frontman. The way he put it to me was, “You’re a star already. So you can’t just be in the Funkadelic.” I didn’t want to do that because I’m the one that had to live with all the Funkadelic; I’m the one that had to sleep with all the Funkadelic.

It all ended up the right way though, and I appreciate that George pushed me. I’m glad I went through all of that, but at the same time—at the end of the day—all I really wanted was to be in a band. That’s why, when I got with Deee-Lite, it was one of the best times that I ever had. And then with Laswell, I got a chance to work with other artists and musicians. Those days brought me back to King Records, where I was just in the band.

If I had to do it all over again, though, I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned so much from everything that I went through. It’s like a story that I was reading myself—a script that I would never throw away. It was a big wad of beautifulness. It was like I took a big slug of acid, went through all of that, and just came out on the other end and with the power of the one.

There are so many magnificent guests on the new record. Did you write material with specific performers in mind?

I always thought: “Who would mess this up in a good way?” That’s always the way I look at it. I want to do something that everybody says can’t be done— something that is not traditional.

Before the COVID thing hit, Christian invited me to a couple of his gigs that were close to where I live in Cincinnati. I went to both of those shows and talked to him about doing the album and how I wanted him to come over to the studio. So sure enough, after he did his show in Lexington, he drove up to Cincinnati and brought his upright bass. Then we spent a whole day in the studio and just started jamming out on four or five different songs that I wanted him to be on. We were just jamming and vibing.

It’s the same thing with Branford. I hung out with him a few times at his gigs. And after that, he came to the studio with his drummer. We just jammed in the studio. But once the COVID thing hit, I started doing it another way, working with artists on the phone and online. And that was good too because our vibe was so high, and people were so interested in doing something different. Then once it started, I couldn’t even stop it. It just kept rolling.

Along with all your original songs, Branford also appears on the one cover, a version of Sly & The Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” [stylized on the record as “WantMe2Stay”]. You also have Larry Graham on that one. Was it a challenge to land him given his history with Sly Stone?

We had the track and I was wondering, “How can I make this as authentic as possible?” So I thought of him because we’ve been friends for such a long time. There were certain bass players I wanted on this record and Larry was definitely one of them because we had done some shows together but we had never done anything on a record together. I had doubts about calling him because I knew him and Sly were on shaky terms when he left, so I didn’t know if he would do it or not. But someone convinced me to give it a try—“See what he says. All he can say is, ‘No.’”

So I called him, we talked for a while and he told me to send him the track because, by that point, we were in the COVID lockdown, so we couldn’t actually get together and do it. I sent him the track, and he called me back and said: “I’ll do it! I’ll hook it up.” He sent me the files three or four days later, I went down to the studio and I was like, “Oh, man, this is the bomb!”

You mentioned COVID-19. How much of the album had you completed before the pandemic and how did you move forward during the quarantine?

I was about 50 percent into the album when COVID hit, and it took me a hot minute to figure things out. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to finish the album. For instance, I had started “Stargate” but I was trying to figure out how to complete it. By that point, I had started talking with EmiSunshine and her parents about recording the week that she was coming up here to be in the [Cincinnati] Reds parade. The next day, she was going to do a gig over in Kentucky, right over the river from where I was at. I was going to come to the gig and then, the next day, she was going to come to the studio. We had it all planned out— it was a beautiful thing— and then COVID hit, the Reds parade was canceled and everybody was grounded.

So I had to say to myself, “How are we going to do this?” I got on the phone with her and decided to send her the music to see if she could write some stuff to it. While we were on the phone, I gave her a concept of what we were trying to do with the song, which is all of us coming together in unity. Now mind you, she was 15 years old—she’s 16 now—but she listened to the music and sent me these incredible lyrics. She just came through like a winner and that’s when I realized, “OK, well, I guess this is the way I’m going to have to finish this record.” So the online back and forth all started with EmiSunshine. That’s when it all began to flow and I couldn’t stop it for nothing.

You mentioned Bill Laswell earlier. The two of you have worked together on so many innovative projects. How did you meet?

Warner Brothers introduced me to him because they thought I was weird and they never understood what I was doing. They locked in because it started to happen—and people started buying it—but they really never understood the craziness. So they wanted to help me with the craziness by getting somebody that was kind of crazy and out there, too. And that was Bill Laswell.

We did about four demo tracks together in the very beginning. He reminded me of George, but the difference was that he was straight up business. He was working with all these different artists that I wanted to play with because I was so anxious to get back to being part of a band. It was right on time.

So when I hooked up with Bill Laswell, that gave me the opportunity to get with all these different artists he was working with and he loved to see how I would react to them. I guess it was challenging but it was so much fun. After playing with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, I had a chance to play with all these different people. He brought a whole different light into the room and I enjoyed it to the fullest.

Is there one particular song or session from the Laswell era that jumps out at you, perhaps as a precursor to this record?

Probably the most enjoyable moments were in the early ‘90s when we’d all be in the studio: Buckethead, Stevie Salas and Buddy Miles. Back then, we’d cut an entire album in one day, which was pretty much unheard of at that time. It was just so beautiful. When we recorded as Zillatron or Praxis, we were doing these things in one or two days and it was mind-blowing. We did those without a whole lot of problems, which was different for me at that time.

A lot of times in Funkadelic, when we’d go into the studio, someone might be experiencing sorrow or tragedy; although, we always tried to channel that energy into the track. For instance, Garry Shider, the guitarist, might come in feeling very sad about a relationship, something that happened. I would say, “Let’s turn the tape on and put some of that down.” And we ended up recording some of the most incredible stuff.

With Laswell, though, everything was upbeat. There was no sorrow and pain, everybody was just happy to be there. I’ve always tried to get back to that happy place. With this album here, I’m as close as probably I could get because things can be tough for musicians. People have no idea how much some musicians struggle, especially nowadays with the gigs being canceled. I know everyone’s going through it, but it can be hard for musicians to keep that certain spirit when all we have is the music and the gigs for our livelihood.

So things are kind of crazy right now but I had a happy time cutting this record with all of these people, and a lot of that stuff from the past led to this. I also think the tragedy is going to help us get to the next level. The hard part is getting through it but we didn’t come this far as a world to stop now. We’re all one nation under a groove and, hopefully, we can pull together and everybody can hit on the one. Let’s make it happen.