"I'm one step away from being a starving artist."
Life as one of the most sampled artists in music history is far from luxurious, funk legend Bootsy Collins tells Charles Thomson.
Thur 26th Sept 2013, Yellow Advertiser
I’m on the phone to one of my favourite musicians of all time. Bootsy Collins, famed for his pioneering ‘space bass’ sound, has worked with some of the greatest artists in history.
Cutting his music industry teeth playing bass for James Brown, he migrated to George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic before forging a successful solo career (two US R&B number one albums, a Grammy award and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) and becoming one of the most sought after guest stars in the hip-hop industry.
His contribution to Deee-Lite’s ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ is one of the most instantly recognisable bass riffs of the last 50 years and hip-hoppers’ obsession with his back catalogue has made him one of the most sampled artists in the world.
Despite all this, Bootsy is telling me how he wants to come to London next year on a tour, but right now he can’t afford it.
He is outlining his vision for a humanitarian jaunt around the world, to begin later this year and continue into 2014. The project, dubbed ‘#iGiveAFunk’, is a product of Bootsy’s growing passion for philanthropy. While music remains a priority, nowadays you are more likely to find the 62-year-old musician dishing out dinners in one of Cincinnati’s soup kitchens than you are to find him on stage.
“It’s the thing that excites me most,” he tells me. “It excites me more than even music. There was a time when I could never say nothing like that, but it helps me now. It motivates me now to even do music. To see somebody smile just because I showed up and maybe shook their hand or smiled at them – I could come up with all kind of songs just by seeing that in one person.”
The ‘iGiveAFunk’ project will combine Bootsy’s passions for music and humanitarianism. He will record a community-oriented album and then take it on the road, delivering his positive message to the masses. He hopes to visit Europe in Spring 2014, including a stop in London.
However, he says he needs his fans’ help to raise the funds.
Bootsy has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 towards the project.
Having received little media coverage (a visit to a football match in mid-September generated more headlines than his enormous humanitarian vision), at the time of our interview he has only a third of his fundraising time limit left - but has achieved less than a quarter of his target. If he does not hit the target, he will lose all of his donations. But he remains convinced that his fans will come through for him.
“My team came up with the idea,” he says. “I was really involved more so with the community and doing the different things that I do in community service. They brought the idea to me that the way to get this exposed would be to maybe do something like a Kickstarter to get it out to the public and go on an actual tour. That would be much better than just doing it in my own city.”
Bootsy is one of several famous faces to have launched Kickstarter campaigns in recent months. Scrubs star Zach Braff raised over $3million towards a new movie, while Spike Lee raised over $1.3million.
“Spike Lee and some others have come in for some criticism,” I tell Bootsy. “People saying, ‘Oh you’re already famous, you’ve already got a load of money, what do you need Kickstarter for?’”
A short, high-pitched noise emanates from my cellphone speaker: “Haaah!”
It is a sharp burst of incredulous laughter.
“That’s funny,” he says. “I’m just a musician out here. Not actually a starving musician, but I’m just a musician that wants to do big things – but I don’t have that kind of capital. We ain’t getting no Rolling Stones paper. We ain’t getting no Paul McCartney paper. We ain’t getting no Elton John paper. I mean, we don’t even come up on the Richter scale. It’s ludicrous to even think of us on that scale.
"To be able to pay bills? Okay. We’re about there. But other than that, I’m just like the rest of all these mothers: One step away from being a starving artist.”
“I think people will be surprised to hear that,” I tell him. One of my favourite live DVDs is Bootsy playing to tens of thousands of people in the Netherlands. His tours are consistently well-attended.
“Yea, well [people] need to know,” he replies. “They need to know looks are deceiving. They need to know the real deal. It’s hard to take a big band out on the road and pay them. Not only pay them, but pay taxes. You know you’ve got to pay taxes in every place you go? There’s so many things that people don’t know.”
“That’s why you see so many artists being brought down. Everybody thinks there’s so much money in this entertainment world – which there is – but if you don’t know what you’re doing, they come in and take everything. That’s why everybody that you know of, in the end of it, they get everything taken. Everything.”
He emits another short burst of exasperated laughter.
“So it’s ludicrous to even think that myself, George or any of us got big paper. You know, Elton, Mick – them the boys. That’s the kind of paper I would love to have, but I will settle for what I got as long as I can get out there and command and demand for the community. That’s my goal. Hopefully, a paper trail will show up – and if it don’t, I will continue to do what I’m doing.”
What if the Kickstarter falls short, I ask. Bootsy sounds almost wounded by the mere suggestion.
“You know, I don’t even want to think about that,” he says, slowly. “If I thought about that, it’s like... it would be total disaster. No motivation or nothing. I don’t even want to think about that. I think if we get it out there and people really feel how real this is, I think we’re on the way. I can’t think no other way.”
Eternally optimistic, Bootsy has already been rehearsing his new band for three weeks.
“That’s brave,” I tell him.
“Yea, well, you never know where the rocks are. You just gotta keep walking. We’re walking like it’s gonna happen. It’s better to be prepared than not.”
Surely Bootsy – a heavily sampled artist whose riffs have formed the basis of many a hip-hop hit – must have a lot of royalties coming in?
“That’s the only reason we’re able to have this conversation,” he tells me. “Only reason. I didn’t start back up touring until 2011. It was basically the sampling that kept me alive.”
I attended the 2011 tour. Bootsy performed to a large crowd at the Indigo2, inside London's O2 complex. So how did he fund that tour?
“Oh, we scuffled like a mug,” he says. “We lost money. That’s why we had to re-think and re-look at this. I kind of funded that myself. When you do that, if you lose – you lose.”
Bootsy’s last album – ‘Funk Capital of the World’ – was made thanks to Netherlands label Mascot Records helping to fund production costs, he says.
“Thank God for them because they allowed me to do it the way I wanted to do it,” he gushes. “Usually most companies – big companies – don’t want you. They want you to be like whoever else is hot at the time, and I could never be that.”
Has that always been a problem, I ask?
“Always,” he laughs. “Always wrestling with record companies. We were with Warner Bros [in the 70s]. They didn’t really believe in the funk but we were selling records with Parliament so that kind of convinced them to take a chance on these crazy, whacked-out brothers. They took a chance on me and it kind of blew up – and they had to catch up because they wasn’t ready for it.”
For the new record Bootsy is preparing to take listeners back in time, lining up collaborations with the likes of Gladys Knight and O’Jays singer Eddie Levert.
“I’m talking to some of the people that are from the era right before me,” he explains, “because that art form just don’t exist anymore.”
“What art form?” I ask.
“The way it was done,” he enthuses. “That soul. That real soul singing. Like, right next to gospel singing. I mean from the gut, that you really feel. These people really knew how to take a microphone and intuit by the way they handled it. That’s a dying form. These people just did it naturally. They didn’t learn how to do it. It was just a natural occurrence.”
He posits: “You learn things from not having things. Funk is making something out of nothing. When you’re used to not having amplifiers, you do the best you can with garbage cans. That’s what funk is. That’s where rap came from, with the DJs, with the sampling – making something out of a little piece of nothing and creating a lot of business. You know, they made more money than we did.”
“Does that annoy you slightly?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he replies. “Actually, I’m not mad about anything. I’m just glad, really, that they kept the funk alive and that we are able to have a second chance to go at it and show people the real deal.”
Later in the conversation Bootsy revisits the subject of sampling, offering a dimmer view of the practice. When I ask him if there are any new artists he’d like to collaborate with, he says there aren’t – but that he loves to see young artists ‘doing the real deal’.
“Playing real music and really getting down,” he elaborates. “Whatever they’re doing, as long as they’re really into it, that excites me and that keeps the music alive. It’s not like anybody could do that. It’s something they have to dedicate themselves to. It takes practice, it takes hours, it takes time. You can’t just throw it in a machine and, ‘Bam, I got an instant hit’.”
Bootsy launches into an imagined conversation with a young artist.
“You a smash,” he tells himself, “you made a lot of dollars with that. So what did you do?”
“Oh,” replies his imagined young musician, “I took that sample there and I just put this little saying over it and then the next thing you know, people loved it.”
He becomes Bootsy again: “You know, that’s one way of becoming rich, but what happened to the art form? That, to me, is what I’m concerned about. The actual art itself. The creative part.”
He backtracks a little.
“Well, I wouldn’t use the word concern. I would just like to do my part to keep it alive and make sure people connect the dots to it. Especially here in America, everybody wants to get rid of history and do something new, which is great – but that’s just like throwing the baby out with the bath water. If we don’t hold onto our history, we don’t have nothing to look forward to. So it is my duty to make them smell the booty and to keep the funk alive.”
In fact, as part of his #iGiveAFunk tour, Bootsy will arrange for kids in every city he visits to be given free musical instruments. His management will urge gig-goers to bring along their old instruments. Bootsy will then pay to have them refurbished and distributed to local school children.
Wrapping up our interview, I return to Bootsy’s comments about the importance of preserving history. On that subject, has he ever considered a book about his career?
“I’ve been approached maybe 1,000 times,” he says, “but it never really struck me to do that yet. I don’t know... Everybody seems to be writing books, but I don’t like to be doing what everybody’s doing. I don’t know – maybe that’s stupid. Maybe that’s why I don’t have as much money as say Mick or any of the rest of them. I’m just not feeling that. I have to feel it.”
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