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article imageReview: 7 life lessons from George Clinton's must-read autobiography Special

By David Silverberg     May 15, 2015 in Entertainment
Watch who you trust. Be different and weird. Find the funk in your life when everything gets too vanilla. Those are some of the life lessons I took away from the autobiography of funk legend and Parliament Funkadelic founder George Clinton.
What could a former junkie and funk musician teach you about living a worthwhile life? How could he help supercharge your career or business or overall happiness?
Thanks to George Clinton's autobiography Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? (written with Ben Greenman), many takeaways from the 73-year-old's book could inspire everyday people, whether you dig da funk or never even heard of Clinton.
For those in the dark, Clinton is the founder of several seminal bands in the 1960s and 1970s that altered the course of music forever: Parliament, Funkadelic, The P-Funk All-Star, to name a few. His most popular songs include Flashlight, Give Up the Funk, Mothership Connection, and Bop Gun. Also, Clinton's music is the most sampled for hip-hop stars, from Snoop Dogg to Ice Cube to Beastie Boys.
Below are seven important lessons I learned from Clinton's life that could rouse you to change your life for the better:

1. Invest in your passion

When Clinton was working as a barber in Newark in the early 60s, he was in love with music but had to pay the bills to support his family. Still, he was able to begin a pattern he would replicate throughout his life. As he wrote in the book: "I was doing real good with hair, making lots of money, but I was putting all that money directly back into records and music."
If you have a worthwhile career and a hobby you turn to in the evening, how are you going to fuel that passion? Learn from Clinton and invest some money into that activity you can see yourself doing, long after your day job fades to black. Some hobbies don't require cash to get them off the ground, but Clinton didn't want to make music his pastime. He was in it for the long haul, and used his barber career to let him transition to music without too much financial stress.

2. Be more than a band; be an idea, a way of life

When Clinton founded Funkadelic, he didn't want to just be another band riffing off doo-wop and blues and funk. Instead, he turned Funkadelic into an experience. Clinton saw the "growth of Funkadelic as an idea, or a way of life, or a cult or a comedy troupe, or however you want to see it." The live shows were a testament to that goal: spaceships hovered over stages, Clinton and his band mates performed in wild costumes, and the concerts were more like going to a circus-church than watching a retelling of an album's top cuts. He wanted to be "bigger than the Beatles at Shea, bigger than Tommy." After all, a Clinton concert was the equivalent of a touring Broadway show. Clinton wanted to make these evenings memorable; so if you work in the arts, how are you producing unique events your audience has never seen before?

3. Don't be afraid to be weird

On that note, Clinton carved a space for himself in the music scene by being a strange dude. Who else was creating a character for their live shows called Sir Nose, who played the role of a funk-hating straight-edge guy? Funkadelic and Parliament scared some people because they were outlandish and odd-looking, writing songs like "America Eats Its Young" and "Psychoalphadiscobetabiohumanyouloop." Plus, they were an anomaly back then: an all-black chart-topping band.
To stand out from a crowd, whether you work in music or in the startup community, you have to make your personality memorable, as much as you make your art unique. Clinton understood he was working in a crowded space of funk and (as of the 70s) disco bands, and he let his freak flag fly with no regrets.
George Clinton (left) with his P-Funk All-Star singer wearing a diaper
George Clinton (left) with his P-Funk All-Star singer wearing a diaper
Flickr photo via Creative Commons

4. Find inspiration everywhere

When Clinton wrote about his influences, he cited several musicians you wouldn't normally associate with funk music: Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles. As a lover of all musical genres, Clinton wanted to soak up inspiration everywhere, from hard rock to ballads to those wild guitar licks Hendrix could pull off so easily. He saw a "visionary quality" in Hendrix, especially in how the guitarist went overseas to Europe and came back a changed musician.
It's easy to stay in your circle and learn from mentors in your community. But look beyond your borders to absorb what others are doing, how talented people are reshaping the industry you respect so much. If Clinton only surrounded himself with records from James Brown, Sly Stone, etc, he wouldn't be the music icon he is today.

5. Conquer the demons controlling your life

For two decades, Clinton was addicted to heroin. He was self-aware of this devil chirping in his ear, and when he finally recognized how it dragged him down, he quit. Cold turkey. What motivated him? Due to his scheming managers, who were stealing money under his nose, "I knew I had to get off the pipe...When I was high, it was too easy for people to write me off as a ranter or rambler, a crackpot."
Many of us have those albatrosses weighing heavy around our neck. Maybe it's not as dire as drug addiction; but whatever it is, imagine how much clarity you'd enjoy once you shrug off those demons forever. Although it took years for Clinton to finally achieve that clarity, he at least knew how clouded his vision became while high. How can you make your mind and body healthier to improve your quality of living?

6. Be careful of who you trust

A large portion of Clinton's autobiography is devoted to the ugly side of fame: he has received very little compensation for the use of his hit songs, like "Flashlight" and "Bop Gun," because former managers and business partners allegedly stole the copyright of Clinton's albums. As one of his press releases notes: "Many of the legendary artists of the '60s, '70s and '80s were taken advantage of by managers, record labels and others and have not seen the financial compensation they deserved."
We have seen similar stories in sports and Hollywood. Success brings out the worst in people seeking to take advantage of talented stars. Clinton hopes to make others aware of those nefarious managers and partners, and this lesson could be applied to many industries without that kind of spotlight: in startup culture, VCs and investors could easily shut down your company if they see little profit trickling in. The wrong supply chain partner could sink your ship. Be wary of who you trust, and research everyone's background and credentials. Are they the right fit for what you're trying to do? Do you know every details of that agreement you just signed?

7. Know your limits

Early on, Clinton understood his limits as a musician. "I knew what I couldn't do. I couldn't play an instrument. I couldn't sing as well as some and I couldn't arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes." Instead of being a lead singer or the top guitarist, Clinton acted more as a conductor, quarterbacking the entire team of musicians to create a sound unlike anything heard before.
This lesson is obvious: Focus on what you do best and don't try to do everything at once. Stretching yourself thin can make you feel bloated, as much as a mixed metaphor as that is. If you're a fantastic writer, maybe you're not the best editor; know your strengths, but better still, identify your weaknesses. Perhaps those faults aren't worth improving. You only have so much mental energy. Instead, in the aforementioned example, work hard on being a better writer and fine-tune the craft so you can exercise that muscle daily.
As one of Clinton's tracks shouts in the chorus: "If it don't fit, don't force it."

8. Find the funk in your life

Don't take this literally; you don't have to love heavy bass and blaring trumpets to appreciate this truism. Clinton has always said funk is a way of living, a notion that touches on more than just musical taste. Funk is about foregoing the vanilla lifestyle. Have some chocolate and strawberry. Maybe some pineapple. It goes back to being different and weird, in finding that zest in life that makes your nerve endings sing.
"We were too black for white folks, and we were too white for black folks," Clinton says about the early days of Parliament. They didn't cater to anyone's expectations. They not only performed the funk, they lived it. And that's why Clinton is still doing what he loves today, no matter the challenges of being a senior citizen rocking a stage often reserved for musicians half his age.
More about george clinton, Funk, pfunk, parliament funkadelic, funkadelic
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