It’s Bootsy, baby

How the funkiest bass player in the world got his groove

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

William “Bootsy” Collins, bassist extraordinaire and rhythmic savant, has done it all. He played regimented, tightly wound funk with Godfather of Funk James Brown. He played with George Clinton and his merry band of Funkadelic freaks. He broke out on his own. He made beats with the rap superstars of the early ’90s. He got addicted to drugs. He got sober. Now, at the age of 59, Bootsy finds himself reflecting on his life and the forces that drove him to where he is today. His latest album, The Funk Capital of the World, reveals the man who once shouted to his rotund, comely backup singers to “Sing it, pretty-fat!” being introspective and thoughtful.

“I think it’s time to point people to where I got my funk from,” Bootsy tells me, on the phone from his hometown of Cincinnati. “I wanted to leave an imprint on this album of who inspired me. Something people could connect the dots with.”

Indeed, within the album’s 16 tracks are tributes to Brown, Bootsy’s late brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, the late Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Garry Shider and Jimi Hendrix.

“I just wanted to point back,” Bootsy says.

“A lot of people in the black world don’t know about Jimi Hendrix like in the white world. So for me to bring up Jimi Hendrix to let people know that he was one of my main inspirations, for a lot of black people, that was kind of surprising.”

I twist my mind around that funky brainteaser — why, especially during his prime and just after his death in 1970, was Jimi Hendrix less relevant to the black community than he was to the white one?

“We are a people that is not as evolved as far as what’s going on in the overall world of things. If you remember one time, we weren’t allowed to read,” Bootsy says with a chuckle. “So you know, all those things play into us being behind a lot of current events, you know. Especially back in that time. It was not popular for blacks to be freaky. It was not popular for a black guy to — I call it ‘eat mouth,’ you know. I guess you know what that is, right?”

No, I don’t.

“Eat—.” Some static blocks out the second word. Maybe he means eating acid? I’ve heard how Bootsy quit James Brown’s band after being falsely accused of tripping one too many times, but I’m not sure if the drug was as popular with Bootsy’s crew as it was with the hippie movement. I ask him to clarify, stopping just short of asking him to spell out the elusive concept for me like he would to a 2-year-old. He does so anyway.

“No, no, no,” he says, carefully enunciating each syllable. “VA-GI-NA.”

Oh. Now I get it.

“I ain’t just telling you this stuff, you know! It just wasn’t popular for a black man to eat mouth,” Bootsy continues. “All of this tells you that that’s another reason why Jimi Hendrix wasn’t popular. He was doing things that a black man wouldn’t want to identify with back in that time. He was wearing clothes that black men wouldn’t dare wear. … I don’t care how incredible his music was, blacks would not identify with him because he was wearing the wrong stuff. He was hangin’ with the freaks as far as they was concerned. That’s where I think our generation came in. A few of us came in as blacks and wanted to explore what Jimi was into. I think I was one of them. And eating mouth wasn’t that deep for me.”

A 19-year-old Bootsy brought his distinctly pro-cunnilingus, pro-freak perspective into the James Brown band in 1970, and it’s not surprising that the prodigious young bass player and the straight-laced Brown eventually clashed. But Bootsy stuck around just long enough to glean some important concepts from the Godfather of Funk.

Bootsy, who grew up without a dad in the poor part of Cincinnati, saw Brown as a father figure, and at first he welcomed the rigorous structure. But inevitably, he tired of Brown’s incessant demands, and by 1972, he had become a fixture in the P-Funk crew.

He credits experiencing both the old-school structure and the hippie freak-fest with showing him how to balance his life.

“To have experienced both sides is like total bliss. Because on the one side with James Brown, I needed that discipline. I needed to be structured. I needed that foundation,” Bootsy says. “Coming up in a home without a father, I needed that structure; I needed that presence of telling me exactly what I needed to do. [Eventually], it got to the point where I felt like I didn’t want to be told anymore. I just wanted to freak out, you know.”

He stresses how playing with George Clinton got his priorities straight.

“So George allowed me to freak out, eat mouth — and play music,” he says. “What’s bigger than that, man? Come on!”

Brown might have taught Bootsy structure and discipline, but it was Clinton who gave Bootsy the creative space he needed to become the bass player he is today. Bootsy is no technical virtuoso, but he has more rhythm than a metronome factory and is quite possibly, with respects to Larry Graham, the funkiest bass player to ever walk the earth. A fellow musician once said it best: “Bootsy could hit a rock with a stick from the ground and it’d be funky.” That might be the best way to describe Bootsy’s minimalist style, where he never lets too many notes get in the way of the groove.

“That’s pretty funky!” Bootsy agrees, laughing.

What’s his secret to maintaining such a funky groove for so long?

“I’m going to tell you a little secret,” Bootsy says. “It might have something to do with early eating mouth. It might have something to do with that. I’m not sure. I’m not saying for young people to go out at, like, 6 or 7 years old and eat mouth. I’m just saying that I think eating mouth might have had a little something to do with that.”

You heard it here first, straight from the mouth of Bootsy: Oral sex begets musical muse. Who could have guessed such a common human experience would have inspired such a marvelous body of work?

“Yeah, eating mouth had a lot to do with the start-up of my whole career, because my brother played guitar, and he had a lot of chicks following him around,” Bootsy reflects. “And so at 9 years old, I wanted a lot of chicks following me around. I don’t know what for, but it looked cool to me. So early on, I got the idea that if I learned how to play guitar, maybe I could have some chicks following me! And once they started following me, I started sniffing that mouth, and then I was eating the mouth.”