Paid the cost to be the boss
In a way, it’s more than a little absurd for me to sit here and my computer and eulogize James Brown. Brown was probably the most important musician whose lifetime intersected with mine at all, but he was about a decade past his creative and commercial peak by the time I was born in 1979. So all my direct memories of Brown are the late-period Brown, the guy who’d already allowed himself to become a sort of gaudy cartoon-character parody of his younger self: James Brown dancing with Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, James Brown dancing with Ernest “The Cat” Miller at WCW Superbrawl 2000, James Brown dancing with John Goodman in Blues Brothers 2000. I only saw James Brown perform live once, at a DC alt-rock radio-station Christmas concert four years ago, between Zwan and New Found Glory. I have no idea what he was doing on this bill, and I have no idea what the massively young and white crowd could’ve possibly made of him. Maybe he was being trotted out as an icon, and maybe he was being made the object of retro derison, and maybe it was a little of both. I’m not sure James Brown particularly cared either way. He didn’t have his usual backing band with him; instead, he had the DC ska band the Pietasters backing him. He only acknowledged his backing band once (“Huh! Pah-tasters!”), but the members of the band still carry photos of themselves with Brown in their wallets and show them to random strangers when they’re drinking in Baltimore bars. Brown was onstage with them for about ten minutes. He did “Sex Machine” and “I Feel Good” and maybe “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and then he collected his check and disappeared. And of course he was the best act on that particular bill, but what could that possibly mean? That he was better than the Vines?
In another way, though, it makes perfect sense that I’d be sitting at my computer and eulogizing James Brown, since all the popular music that’s been made in my lifetime has had to contend with his ghost in one way or another, either embracing it or self-consciously defying it. James Brown defined the ways in which popular music could use rhythm. In Brown’s arrangements, every element became a percussive instrument, including the rudimentary melody he’d use to hang everything else on. The horns became quick, violent stabs. The bass became a murmuring heartbeat. The guitar became an insistent, trebley scratch. Brown’s own voice became a darting rasp, drawing attention more to his tourettic, ticcy ad-libs than to whatever words he might’ve ostensibly been singing. And the drums, which were already percussive, became free to create worlds, but we’ll get to those in a minute. Brown’s idea that rhythm didn’t just drive the song but that it was the song became the central concept of disco and rap and techno and postpunk and Lungfish and almost every other genre I care about. A popular musician as pallid and rhythmless as James Blunt has to make the conscious decision to ignore Brown’s innovations and be as pallid and rhythmless as he is, whereas before Brown it was just about everyone’s default setting to be that pallid and rhythmless. Michael Jackson learned how to sing against the beat from James Brown. So did Prince, who also copped his libido-on-sleeve showmanship and enigmatic charisma. Bruce Springsteen learned how to fall to his knees in front of thousands. Axl Rose learned how to go from singing to shrieking and back again without blinking an eye. Maybe these guys knew where they were getting their tricks and maybe they didn’t, but it’s virtually impossible to count the number of threads running through the pop music of my life that go back to James Brown.
And then, of course, there’s rap, a form of music that owes its existence to Brown in more ways than I could ever possibly count. Brown talked rhythmically as much as he sang, which is basically what rappers do. And he developed an iconography that rappers draw on: the flashy, business-minded man of the people who came from nothing. His terse, jerky beats, falling all over each other in very specific ways, created rap’s musical template. And, under Brown’s direction, Clyde Stubblefield played the “Funky Drummer” drum break, the shambling, skeletal snare-shuffle that’s been sampled on more rap tracks than any other drum-break. My favorite James Brown sample in rap, though, comes from Nas’s “Get Down,” the first track on God’s Son. “Get Down” takes the lush, sweltering groove from Brown’s “The Boss,” a track from the Black Caesar soundtrack that Ice-T had already used on “You Played Yourself,” a track full enough that it sounds almost orchestral next to the barely-there thwack of the “Funky Drummer” sample. On the second verse, though, it switches to a sample of Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose,” a drum shuffle much closer to the “Funky Drummer” break, barely filled out by an itchy bass; the Jungle Brothers had already used that one for “Straight Out the Jungle.” And then it goes back to that lush lope from “The Boss.” All my CDs are back in New York, but I’m pretty sure Nas produced “Get Down,” and it works almost as a tutorial on how to use James Brown samples, on the different things they can do. So James Brown created an infinitely variable well of source material. Before the law cracked down on sampling, rap producers had the entire history of recorded music at their disposal, and they pulled from Brown’s catalogue more often than any other. Rap came from him just as much as it did from Kool Herc.
Of course, James Brown didn’t play the “Funky Drummer” break; Clyde Stubblefield did. But Brown deserves at least equal credit for any of the music that was played under his direction. As a bandleader, Brown’s techniques bordered on torture. He kept everyone on a short leash and demanded an absolute rigor in their crisp rhythmic punch, which is the main reason his songs sound as great as they do. He was famous as a dancer, but every onstage gesture was a direct signal to someone in his band, and he’d dock their pay and bitch them out visciously if they missed his cues. So Clyde Stubblefield is only part of the reason that a Clyde Stubblefield beat sounds the way it does. To me, that’s maybe the most interesting thing about Brown. He nurtured an image of himself as an animalistic walking id, but he created the impression of frantic abandon through militaristic precision. It was all a show, and he was in control the whole time.
Maybe Brown wasn’t quite so in control in 1988, when he led police on a PCP-fueled car chase back and forth across state lines and ended up spending three years in prison. But even that felt like a grand, tragic theatrical gesture, not all that far removed from the cape his sidemen would throw over his shoulders when he fell on his knees onstage. Brown’s charisma was large enough to keep the city of Boston from destroying itself on the night after Martin Luther King’s death, and it was large enough to teach both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton how to work a stage. Brown’s death of heart failure, overshadowed as it was by both Christmas Day and by the days-later death of Gerald Ford, feels like the least theatrical thing he ever did. But, then, Brown’s body will be on display in the Apollo Theatre tomorrow, which is a little more like it. That won’t be the end of his story, though. His ghost is going to reverberate in pop music until long after we’re all dead.