May 24, 2010— -- "The state of funk today is kind of funked up."
Such a dire musical proclamation comes from no less a groove guru than William Earl Collins. Better known as Bootsy, the trailblazing bassist for James Brown in the early '70s and then George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic through 1980, Collins fears for the future of the music he helped pioneer.
The problem? Young people today, he lamented, just don't know their history.
"If you say anything about those old musicians to youngsters today, most of them don't have a clue," Collins said. "All they know is who their favorite bass player or guitarist is now. They have no idea how to connect those dots, where this style or this music comes from."
So, as one of the universe's foremost funkmasters, Collins has decided to do something about it. Starting July 1, aspiring funkateers can enroll at Funk University, an online bass guitar school he is co-creating and curating with actor-entrepreneur Cory Danziger.
Collins himself will spread the gospel of groove through exclusive lectures on funk and the bass. Guest professors will include a who's who of bassology: John B. Williams, Flea, Les Claypool and Victor Wooten will lead their own classes. Funk U. students will also be provided with online lessons and periodic staff reviews of student performances. In time, he said, the curriculum will expand to include other instruments and styles.
"It's about music," Collins, 58, said. "Because I play bass, we have to start there. Because I'm known for funk, we have to start with that. But it's really about the whole adventure of music. We want to embrace everything that has something to do with music and creating."
When discussing Funk U., Collins dropped his comic funk exuberance (there was no talk of "Casper, the holy ghost," no paeons to the almighty downstroke, baby baba) and came across more as an earnest, elder statesman of the Mothership.
It was not always thus.
In 1970, when he was 19, Collins' band, the Pacemakers, was tapped to back James Brown after the Godfather's own group split in a payment dispute. In the 11 months that followed, Collins laid down vampy, propulsive bass lines for such classic tracks as "(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," "Soul Power" and "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing."
Where James Brown Meets George Clinton
But the brash young Collins chafed under Brown's notoriously rigid leadership. "James Brown was not only a great teacher, but a father figure: I got more than just a lesson in music. I got discipline," recalled Collins, who grew up fatherless in Cincinnati.
"He took it so serious, I was like, 'Let me get a break from this mug, I mean, good Lord.'"
In 1972, Collins was recruited along with guitarist brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins by George Clinton to join the Parliament-Funkadelic juggernaut. Clinton, the ringmaster of a sprawling funk freakshow, couldn't have been more of a different leader from Brown, Collins said.
"He was more, 'Bring whatever you got to the party and let's get down,' which gave me an opportunity to open up and let everything out that I had inside," Collins said.
The combined effect of the two musical schools gave birth to the Collins who would gain fame in his own right as a mad-hatted bandleader, a high priest of P-Funk, with its rock influences.
"I think I needed both," he said. "You need the discipline and you also need to know that you can experiment and you can open up and let your creative juices flow.
"I wanted to take those two things and bring them to this funk school."
Of course, there are a few lessons that Collins -- a former connoisseur of more illicit fare who once tricked members of Brown's band into taking LSD -- will be sidestepping.
"That is not part of the curriculum at all," he said, laughing. "But at the same time, we do not hide from what I went through. As long as you're honest with yourself, the youth especially respect it more.
"It was a deep time and somehow I made it through and I had fun with it and I don't regret none of it."
At its most powerful, Collins' playing drives a song. His bass is often laden in effects; echo, distortion, a spacey "envelope" filter that makes it sound like a wet slap. But the style of playing is unmistakably human.
Listen to Brown's "Sex Machine" and, what seems like a lifetime later, Parliament's "Mothership Connection." Collins' bass simultaneously anchors and assaults both songs.
Under Brown's tutelage, Collins learned to hit the listener on the bar's first beat, disorienting traditional R&B audiences who had become accustomed to hearing a song accented on the second beat. Collins inhabits that first beat. He lives on the one.
Bootzilla: Rhinestone Rock Star Monster of a Doll
Until the school officially launches, Collins, who still lives in Cincinnati, will be in the studio and sending out periodic updates via Twitter (sample: "Musicians -- Prof. Collins is launching the world's first Funk University").
Classes will run $34.99 a month, $189.99 for a six-month semester and $349.99 for a full year. Unfortunately, the funk-curious will be unable to sample individual lectures. Response has been positive so far, says an F.U. rep, but the university is not releasing any numbers yet.
But even Bootzilla himself is unsure what kind of professor he'll make, and one suspects there is a funky essence that can be taught in no classroom.
"I never looked at myself as a teacher," he admitted. "I am a good book. All people have to do is read me."