CHICAGO — It’d be audacious coming from just anybody else, but William “Bootsy” Collins named his new album “The Funk Capital of the World” (Mascot) knowing full well he could back up the claim. Everyone from Snoop Dogg and Chuck D to Bobby Womack and his old mentor George Clinton stop in for a cameo, and actor Samuel Jackson nearly steals the show with a terrific rap about his young life as one of the boys in the ‘hood. The foundation for it all is Bootsy’s rubbery, still-futuristic bass playing, and no matter what the style — jazz, psychedelia, bedroom ballads — the groove is always there.
“It wasn’t about black, white, green grass, bluegrass, it was all just music to me,” says Collins. “All music had a certain effect on me and I appreciated all of it. Funk is on the ‘one’ and music is all one, not to be separated. It doesn’t need a name. The key question is, ‘How does it make you feel?’”
Growing up in Cincinnati in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Collins learned to play guitar because that was the instrument of his older brother, Phelps “Catfish” Collins. Bootsy’s idol was Lonnie Mack, who specialized in blues-based instrumentals. Not exactly a funk progenitor, Mack was a hero to Collins because he was “a guy who played with his heart and soul. I finally got a chance to meet him 10 years ago and I just wanted him to know that I felt what he was doing. I didn’t need to label it.”
Collins became a bass player by default.
“I finally talked my mother into getting me a $29 guitar,” Collins recalls. “There was no father in the house, so I wanted to be like my brother. I learned as much as I could on guitar. He was playing a gig over the weekend and his regular bass player couldn’t make it. So I’m over in the corner saying, ‘I’m here, I can do this.’ Catfish says, ‘You don’t know how to play, you don’t even have a bass.’ No problem! Funk is where you don’t have nothing, and you make something out of nothing. Yes, I didn’t have a bass, so I made my guitar into a bass. My brother gave me four bass strings, I restrung the guitar, and ‘ta-dah!’ I’m ready to go. We went down to the gig, and the people loved it. We started the Pacemakers, and I played with him from that day on.”
The Pacemakers became the talk of the fertile Cincinnati R&B scene, home of James Brown’s King Records. But the band had to prove its mettle before meeting Brown himself, first working on countless studio sessions for other artists and then accompanying Hank Ballard on tour. Finally Brown called the Pacemakers in 1970 to become his backing band, rechristening them the JB’s.
They helped Brown cut classic singles such as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Super Bad,” but left a year later to join forces with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, which put a science-fiction spin on funk.
“There was a revolution going on, riots in the street, the war, Jimi Hendrix singing, “‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky,’” Collins says. “You had bands that wanted to be freaky and we were one of those bands. Hendrix was my hero — the only artist whose poster I had hung up in my room. To this day, he goes with me wherever I go. So this conflict, it wasn’t about just me and James Brown, the whole order of things was turning. Even though I had all the respect in the world for James Brown, the push for independence and wanting to be free, to express ourselves on stage and dress differently was too great. We were supposed to be in suits, shoes, well-groomed, and we wanted to do the wild thing. And we knew we couldn’t do the wild thing with James Brown.
“George Clinton was the complete opposite. To run into that kind of magic twice, I don’t take it lightly. James Brown was ‘A-B-C,’ it goes like this. It was his way or the highway. George was like, ‘Whatever you can bring to the party, bring it.’ I would never have rode in the car with James Brown with three chicks in the back seat, getting high. Anything and everything was possible with George. That was one extreme to the other. You need both in your life — the key is to combine the two.”
Collins passes along some of his hard-won life lessons on “The Funk Capital of the World,” with typical humor.
“You say you got a smart phone / But you’re still making dumb decisions?” he cackles on “Freedumb.”
“We got young Einsteins coming up and closing off their creative process because of money,” Collins says. “It’s cool to have freedom, but don’t do free and dumb. That’s worse. The mind set is so important for a youngster. My brother was eight years older. I wanted to be like him, and he didn’t want me hanging around, the young knucklehead kid that I was. But his rejection empowered me, made me practice harder instead of throwing the guitar away. That got me ready for disappointments that came later, the rejections that came later. James Brown didn’t like us right away either. The focus for me was not doing everything I could to play with James Brown, but learning to play this instrument the best I can. All that negative stuff was cool for me, it was like medicine. It was fuel.
“We have so much more information now, you would think we’d be better people, but it’s working backwards. That’s kind of scary. To experience being lost is much better. That’s what I would throw in the mix. It’s alright to get lost. We’re throwing so much perfection in the game with our computers and smart phones, it’s not cool to make a mistake, our self-esteem goes down and we never like to hear the word ‘no.’ But our lives were mistake after mistake, and through that we learned how to succeed.”