James Brown 1933-2006

jamesbrown.jpgHe 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

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

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.


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