He has rivals for the title, but James Brown, the untutored, eccentric, and largely self-made singer and bandleader who died early on Christmas Day may well prevail as the most influential American musician in history. That’s quite a claim on behalf of a composer who left behind no manuscripts and never learned to read music, yet even a casual listen to the broad range of genres that have emerged worldwide since the 1970s reveals James Brown’s funk popping up virtually everywhere. From hip-hop to juju, from Afro beat to vintage disco, and from bubblegum to house and even techno, almost all of today’s pop sounds are at least a little reminiscent of James Brown — and usually more than a little if it’s any good.
How did Brown do it? Answering this question requires more than just understanding the man’s particular genius. There are two stories here: James Brown’s creative ascent on the one hand, and the rise of polyrhythms in popular music on the other. And like a classic James Brown funk bass line and its attendant riffs, the two are inextricably intertwined.
If Louis Armstrong taught the modern world how to sing, then James Brown taught it how to dance. It’s not that people today necessarily dance like James Brown — nice thought, but who could? — but rather that Brown invented an approach to composition that permanently altered the way people create, hear, and respond to popular music. Through foregrounding the interaction among several discrete musical phrases, rather than simply supporting the melody, his band changed the pop song forever. What once resembled a lyric poem or a vase — shapely objects containing and mostly resolving various aesthetic tensions — morphed under his direction into something more like a sudden thunderstorm or a big wave. At its best, on tracks such as “Sex Machine,” “Funky Drummer,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Hot Pants,” Brown’s music creates a total environment and leaves listeners and dancers feeling lost in the groove.
Brown dissolved traditional song forms into hypnotic, repetitive, and highly syncopated tracks, each with its own critical moment — “the bridge” or “break.” Nearly all of Brown’s most memorable exhortations, from “Get up!” and of course “Take it to the bridge!” to “Give the drummer some!” revolve around his responsibility as leader for igniting the beats that will make the break sizzle. These energetically charged alternate tempo sections of his songs — the so-called breaks, with their highly syncopated “break beats” — were designed to generate excitement, particularly on the dance floor. All contemporary dance music relies on some form of this compositional convention. From the tamest wedding band’s up-tempo breakdown to the most layered and intricate soundscapes of hip-hop, electronica, and house, this excitement of the bridge or break beat section is what moves the crowd.
While it is true that, from Irving Berlin to the Beatles, popular composers have traditionally used a “middle eight” section to generate release, for James Brown and his bands, “taking it to the bridge” became an act of existential heroism to which Brown continually called attention. “Maceo!” Brown would yell at his tenor saxophonist, “Get into it!” and Maceo Parker would explode into a wild, rhythmically intense break from the initial groove. The connection of these call-and-response rituals to African aesthetics and the black church could hardly be more explicit, yet today we take it for granted that there’s nothing strange about Hilary Duff asking the kids on TRL to “Make some noise!”
Brown had it rough growing up, and apparently he made it quite rough, for others and for himself, later on. Drugs and anger took their toll on his partnerships and marriages. In 1988, he was convicted in South Carolina of a variety of charges, including “carrying a deadly weapon at a public gathering” and was sentenced to prison. A famous black millionaire at 55, he served three years — the same amount of time he had done almost 40 years earlier as a 16-year-old pauper convicted in 1949 of breaking into a parked car.
Brown received the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement award in 2003 along with a group that included Carol Burnett, Mike Nichols, and Itzhak Perlman, but his real peers are the many innovative contemporary musicians who have sampled his music, and his most prestigious honors are the songs (and royalties) that have flowed from these activities. Hip-hop Web site the-breaks.com, which specializes in identifying the samples used on rap backing tracks, cites several thousand individual entries for songs that include James Brown material, at least five times as many as for the next most-sampled performer.
It would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance for the development of hip-hop of the LP-length vinyl James Brown compilations edited and produced for Polydor in the mid 1980s by British funk fanatic and music scholar Cliff White — incredible albums such as In the Jungle Groove and James Brown’s Funky People. Even before they became classic samples, tracks like “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and “I Know You Got Soul” circulated on cassette, traveling from boombox to boombox as aspiring MCs like LL Cool J, Rakim, and Q-tip used them to practice their early freestyles at the blockparties, schoolyards, and stairwells of New York City.
Brown had a famous routine involving a cape that he used to do at the end of just about every show. His handler would come onstage from the wings with the cape, help the apparently exhausted Brown up off his knees, and lead him toward the dressing room. Somewhere between the center and the side of the stage, Brown would throw off both the cape and his handler, returning to sing again, and, in apparent defiance of common sense and his own best interests, give the audience more than his everything. Had he lived, he would very likely have done the cape routine at least one more time, at B.B. King’s in New York, where he was booked at the time of his death to play a New Year’s Eve show. It is pleasing to think that somewhere in Hambone heaven, James Brown is even now shaking off an angel’s wings and struggling to return to his home, the stage at the center of the funky universe he so generously made.