Film / TVMusic

nelson george talks ‘tales from the tour bus’

November 15, 2018
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For nearly four decades, Nelson George has been a curator of the creative Black American experience — as an author (The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Hip-Hop America), a film and television producer (Finding the Funk, Good Hair), a screenwriter (The Get Down, Life Support) and a documentary filmmaker (Brooklyn Boheme, A Ballerina’s Tale). His latest project is as a consulting producer on the second season of Cinemax’s Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus. The animated comedy series developed by the creator of Beavis & Butt-Head and King of the Hill spent its first season on the tawdry stories from the world of country music; but season two (which launched on November 2nd) is the Funk Edition, featuring anecdotes about the likes of James Brown, George Clinton, Betty Davis, Morris Day, and even a special two-part Rick James episode. Long ago, Parliament-Funkadelic sang that “funk is its own reward,” but Tales from the Tour Bus comes full of edifying factoids and minutiae straight from the corroborated accounts of ex-bandmates and the subjects themselves. In-between his busy schedule, AFROPUNK caught up with George to discuss his involvement with the funky Tales.

How did you first get involved with Tales from the Tour Bus?

I went to see a screening of The Defiant Ones, which is Allen Hughes’s doc [about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine], and in the lobby I ran into a guy named Kary Antholis, who runs Cinemax. Back when I was doing a lot of work with HBO, he was an executive on the film side. I worked with him on Everyday People and when I directed Life Support with Queen Latifah. So we had a relationship. [He said,] “Come over to the office, I want to show you something.” So I go over and he shows me a couple of Tales from the Tour Bus, the first season. I loved it. I said, “Listen, if you guys ever do anything funk or R&B, let me know.”

And then I get a call back, literally like the next week, I think. “You know, we’re really seriously thinking of a season two, to do either hip-hop or funk. Can you make a list of names of possible subjects?” And so I sent them back some old school people, a list of some funk people, and he said, “We’re gonna do funk, so let’s figure out what stories to do.” It happened really quickly. Suddenly I was involved.

And it became very clear that I needed to be the person reaching out. So I had conversations with Archie Ivy, who worked with George Clinton. And then Bootsy Collins and his wife. With James Brown, it was more dealing with rounding up [road manager] Alan Leeds and some of the other people who worked with him. Some people didn’t wanna do it, like Maceo Parker. I guess he’s tired of telling James Brown stories. We found a really important person: Bobby Byrd’s wife, Vicki Anderson, who had sung as background. She was really important because she doesn’t like Brown. [laughs] So she brought a whole other level of critique.

Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic on “Tales From the Tour Bus”

Which show was the most interesting and why?

The Betty Davis was a really interesting one. We were trying to figure out, “should we do LaBelle? should we do Chaka Khan?” Betty’s story was so great because it covers her as a muse and then as her own artist. So she’s got a really cool arc. She went from behind-the-scenes influence to her own voice. And then she becomes a recluse. Somebody in the U.K. did a doc on her. The beauty of the [animated] format is that we didn’t need to have her on camera. So we were really able to depict her as she looked at the time. Which was crazy, she was fly. [laughs] So that worked out.

One of the things that they told me when they first started was, “It’s easier when they’re dead.” That’s why the Rick James [episode] is so good. We had to do two parts on Rick James because all his band members wanted to talk about him. I guess someone will do a big Rick documentary, but I think this is probably the first extensive look back through our gaze and getting all the band members together. And Rick’s story: he was a draft dodger, Neil Young is in the fuckin’ episode, Prince is in the episode, it’s crazy.

Rick James on “Tales From the Tour Bus”

The great thing about this show that’s interesting is that there’s the person’s personal story, but when you go on the road, you’re always running into people. That whole other thread makes it different. When we did Finding the Funk, it was, “He made this record and…blah blah.” This is more like, “So what happened when you went to town and the sheriff chased you with a shotgun?” [laughter] And I guess I owe that to Mike Judge, who’s a very interesting guy, because he does all this funny shit but he’s very humble and shy. He doesn’t say a lot. But when you hear that voice, you hear Hank [Hill]’s voice come out, it’s kinda weird coming out of an actual person. And they have a tremendous animation team. So I got a chance to be on something that was already running but also bring something to it.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly Stone are absent. Were there reasons why they couldn’t be done?

The thing about Earth, Wind & Fire is… They were on the list, but they were very disciplined, Maurice White was a vegetarian, they did yoga all the time. They were my favorite band, but they weren’t like crazy outlaws. And I know Verdine [White], I asked Verdine. They ran a tight ship. So you can’t really put their backstage stories next to even Morris Day and the Time.

And Sly, it came down to the music publishing deal. We were able to make a deal with every one of those companies and get a rate that we could afford. ’Cause we’re basically bringing people’s catalog back. Morris Day and the Time, you’re gonna hear it all again. Bootsy’s music, you hear it all. I feel really bad about it, because Sly should’ve been in the show — he’s got more than enough stories.

Who would you have spotlighted if hip-hop was the focus instead of funk?

I would love to do Whodini. I’d love to do Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on the road. Kool Moe Dee has great stories. LL Cool J. These guys all toured together, [for example] the Dope Jam Tour. There’s a great story about… How does this one go? LL has been on stage. And so Rakim gets on the elevator, and Rakim apparently has a razorblade in his mouth. And he’s like, “Yeah? You got something to say?” And he’s flicking it in his mouth. And apparently LL had nothing to say. [laughter] So there are stories like that that I know are true from multiple sources. Jam Master Jay was the enforcer for [Run-DMC] when people got out of line. So all those great things, those nuances, that you can do on the road. And because everyone toured together, there’s all these little interactions that happened.

The Funk Edition of Tales From the Tour Bus plays on Cinemax, every Friday night through the end of the year.