George Clinton And Killer Mike: Talking (Barber) Shop One founded a funk empire, the other sells out shows as half of Run the Jewels — and both have owned barbershops. They sit down together to discuss music, mentorship and the philosophy of barbering.
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George Clinton And Killer Mike: Talking (Barber) Shop

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George Clinton And Killer Mike: Talking (Barber) Shop

George Clinton And Killer Mike: Talking (Barber) Shop

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And today, we're going to hear a conversation between two musicians who have this unusual connection. Killer Mike is a 42-year-old-rapper with a group called Run The Jewels. They sell out shows across the country even without radio play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN")

KILLER MIKE: (Rapping) I hope. I hope with the highest of hopes that I never have to go back to the trap and my days of dealing with dope.

GREENE: George Clinton, now 75 years old, founded the pioneering groups Parliament and Funkadelic in the late '60s. Their psychedelic funk influenced generations of rappers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WANT THE FUNK")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) We want the funk. Give up the funk.

GREENE: And now here's where we get to the unexpected connection. They both have owned barbershops. And they say that gave them the financial freedom to take musical risks. So we decided to bring them together in Atlanta inside Killer Mike's barbershop and just let them talk. And you can hear how excited Killer Mike was to interview one of his heroes.

KILLER MIKE: How you doing, first of all?

GEORGE CLINTON: How you doing, man?

KILLER MIKE: OK (laughter).

CLINTON: Good to be here.

KILLER MIKE: I know who you are. You're George Clinton. You royalty in my house.

CLINTON: I know you, too.

GREENE: Royalty because throughout the 1970s, George Clinton was presiding over a funk empire. He packed arenas with shows that featured dozens of musicians and also a spaceship that descended from the rafters. That spaceship, by the way, is currently in the Smithsonian.

But before all that, George Clinton was a barber. He owned a shop in Plainfield, N.J., for 10 years beginning in 1960. He was also the head of a struggling doo-wop group. And he staffed the shop with his bandmates. This story is about how that transformation happened. And we'll let Killer Mike take it from here.

KILLER MIKE: You owned a barbershop called the Silk Palace. How did you get into it?

CLINTON: I was about 19 years old when I got to own the barbershop.

KILLER MIKE: Gotcha.

CLINTON: Worked in there from like '58.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: We would start singing, turn everybody out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Every time I see you.

CLINTON: Everybody got a do.

KILLER MIKE: What's a do? Like, you relax your hairdo, your wave...

CLINTON: Well, it wasn't called relaxing. It was processed.

KILLER MIKE: Oh, you processed it, OK (laughter).

CLINTON: Burnt as - it burnt like hell.

KILLER MIKE: OK.

CLINTON: That's when we used to do hair like Sugar Ray Robinson, Nat King Cole.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah.

CLINTON: You seen the pictures with the waves.

KILLER MIKE: Looking slick, yeah, yeah.

CLINTON: That's what we did. So you get your hair done, it only lasts about half an hour if you start dancing.

KILLER MIKE: 'Cause you start sweating.

CLINTON: If you get some - make some love, it's over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) You know you make me want to ride (ph).

KILLER MIKE: So you're doo-wopping. You're doing hair. You're hitting auditions.

CLINTON: Back and forth to New York. And then Motown, I left the shop to the rest of the fellas. I was writing songs and working out there.

KILLER MIKE: So all of the shop gave you freedom?

CLINTON: Gave me freedom to leave whenever I wanted to. And everybody wanted to see me make it...

KILLER MIKE: Yeah.

CLINTON: ...'Cause we used to rehearse in the shop.

KILLER MIKE: And at this time, it's Parliament.

CLINTON: The Parliaments.

KILLER MIKE: It's The Parliaments.

CLINTON: With a S.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WAS MY GIRL")

FUNKADELIC: (Singing) If the girl displayed a smile that always drove the fellas wild, that was my girl.

GREENE: It was about this time when George Clinton caught a lucky break. Some guys came into the barbershop with $1.2 million dollars in counterfeit bills. They sold Clinton the fake money for less than 2,000 bucks.

KILLER MIKE: What did having a million dollars in counterfeit money allow you to do?

CLINTON: I started using strings and horns. And I don't pay the musicians and tell them. You know, it's counterfeit. But instead of giving you the 200 or 150 for the session, I gave them a thousand dollars. I'm telling them, you know, you got to...

KILLER MIKE: Get it off yourself.

CLINTON: ...You got to get it off yourself.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah.

CLINTON: Last 200,000, we gave it away. So...

KILLER MIKE: (Laughter).

CLINTON: ...And we got out of that and got a hit record in about a month - "I Wanna Testify."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA TESTIFY")

THE PARLIAMENTS: (Singing) Friends, inquisitive friends are asking me what's come over me.

GREENE: George Clinton and his band wrote this song in the barbershop. And in 1967, it went to number three on the R&B charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA TESTIFY")

THE PARLIAMENTS: (Singing) And don't you know that I just want to testify what your love has done for me. Everybody sing.

GREENE: "I Wanna Testify" was straight soul music, really a product of its time. But the times were quickly changing.

CLINTON: It took us 10 years from the first record we put out to get a hit single.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: That was hard. And I realized that rock 'n' roll bands didn't put out singles.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah.

CLINTON: They put out albums. Jimmy Hendrix...

KILLER MIKE: And then toured them.

CLINTON: And toured with the album.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah, absolutely.

CLINTON: That had changed it all. I said forget a hit single.

KILLER MIKE: Absolutely.

CLINTON: And we went straight psychedelic, weird.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMMY, WHAT'S A FUNKADELIC?")

FUNKADELIC: By the way, my name is Funk. I am not of your world. Hold still, baby.

GREENE: And they changed their name from The Parliaments to Funkadelic, traded their suits in for these wild outfits. And they grew out their hair. George Clinton sported a mohawk.

CLINTON: The whole band went crazy. And people started thinking damn, Temptations started copying us.

KILLER MIKE: What happens with Silk Palace? At what point is it like, I'm too big to do this?

CLINTON: My partner in the shop, he stayed there running the barbershop for a long time. And then finally when Afros came out, that messed up the business.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC SONG, "MOMMY, WHAT'S A FUNKADELIC?")

CLINTON: Well, let me ask you a question.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir?

CLINTON: How did you get into it - barbering?

KILLER MIKE: Oh, man, I bought this place sight unseen. Man, I saw it on the Internet. I knew at that point in time I didn't want to totally depend on music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTHERN FRIED")

KILLER MIKE: (Rapping) Welcome to this country fried bonafide. And my flow is sweet as a potato pie.

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.

CLINTON: Well, some people used to just come to the barbershop when we were there just to hang.

KILLER MIKE: Absolutely. And it's - what it's done more than anything is keep me connected with the community, you know, in a real way.

CLINTON: Right.

KILLER MIKE: Mothers come here, their sons get haircuts. You know, little boys sweep the floor, they learn some responsibility. So I'm very happy to now own three.

CLINTON: You going to have a chain of barbershops?

KILLER MIKE: That's the goal.

CLINTON: I can dig that.

(SOUNDBITE OF KILLER MIKE SONG, "SOUTHERN FRIED")

KILLER MIKE: Music and barbering have that similarity in that a lot of knowledge gets passed on. What did you pull out of barbershops from a philosophical standpoint that's helped you in life?

CLINTON: The older guys in there always had information that you needed as a kid. You didn't necessarily want to hear it.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah. Yeah.

CLINTON: But the way they presented it to you, you know, you can look in the mirror there and see the barber here.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: They would talk over your head like that. You come in there mad...

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: ...About something, oh, our feelings are hurt today. They make you feel small about the [expletive] you talking.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah. Yeah (laughter).

CLINTON: You know, so you get to learn all that. I don't want to call it humbled but that's what it really is.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: My first thing in the morning to this day, my wife would tell you - my first thing to myself is I don't have to have things my way.

KILLER MIKE: Yes, sir.

CLINTON: Being happy takes off so much pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TESTIFY")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) Friends, inquisitive friends are asking me...

KILLER MIKE: We want to thank you for having come into The Shave Wash And Groom Shop today. And I hope it's not your last time here.

CLINTON: It won't be, man. Y'all did a good job on my head.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah, you looking good, man.

CLINTON: I mean, I'll be back, in other words.

KILLER MIKE: All right. I look forward...

CLINTON: (Unintelligible) I'm looking forward.

KILLER MIKE: Macaframalama (ph).

CLINTON: Macaframalama (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TESTIFY")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) Don't you know that I just want to testify.

GREENE: That's George Clinton and Killer Mike, who were hanging out at The SWAG Shop in Atlanta.

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