I didn’t know I loved James Brown so much. I never had a personal musical relationship with him the way I did with someone like Kurt Cobain. But when I learned of his death, I was unexpectedly moved. I soon realized that Brown is directly or indirectly responsible for every type of music I love: jungle and drum’n’bass, breakbeat, house, Detroit techno—not to mention his undeniable influence on hip-hop and r&b, of course. I don’t believe in God, but if there were one, I think he might be like James Brown—everywhere, all at once.
So a few friends and I joined several thousand people in saying goodbye to the Godfather of Soul at the Apollo in late December. We didn’t make it in. One friend had been waiting for three hours and only managed to move from 128th to 125th Street. We had to say goodbye with a mere wave to the marquee as they cut off the line. After all, Brown had places to be, people to meet. Even in death, he was booked.
With much help from Roots promoter Robbi, some of New York’s finest DJs, producers, and music lovers shared their favorite James Brown musical moments.
Cosmo Baker, DJ, the Rub: James is the cornerstone of all of this. He is the genesis of everything that all of us do. Seriously, the world of music without James is like humanity without the discovery of fire. He is going to be missed, but I’m not sad. We are all so privileged to have had him on this earth.
Kenny Dope, producer-DJ, Masters at Work: My favorite James Brown cut is “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.”
Louie Vega, DJ-producer, Masters at Work: James Brown has influenced me just as my other heroes have—Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Tito Puente, Creed Taylor, Willie Colón, and Héctor Lavoe, to name a few. His music will always be in my crates of vinyl. He is the master!
DB, DJ, Breakbeat Science: The world of drum’n’bass and jungle would have been really crap without James Brown and his drummer.
Ralph McDaniels, Video Music Box and Hot 97: He gave me soul in all aspects of my delivery and presentation in the music. My favorite James Brown cut is “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Justin Strauss, producer: When I started my first DJ job at the Mudd Club in the midst of punk and new wave, all you had to do was put on a James Brown record and the place would go nuts.
Kevin Graves, DJ, Rocit Records: It was so poignant watching Eddie Murphy‘s performance (loosely based on James Brown) in
Dreamgirls on Christmas Day, the day we lost him. The audience seemed to get it too, as there was not a dry eye in the theater.
DJ Joro Boro, the Bulgarian Bar: By secularizing (tele-)evangelist aesthetics, he created not just a style of music, but a style of star.
Sacha Jenkins, editor, Ego Trip: James Brown. Wow. If it weren’t for his grunts, groans, pelvic swivels, passion-pouring-from-bended-knee crooning, and backing band dope enough to make sisters (as in nuns) shake their bottoms, there would be no hip-hop. His lyrics were saying something at a time when things desperately needed to be said and said loud. In other words, “Shake your ass!” but “watch yourself!”
DJ Disciple: Doing the James Brown split in the late ’60s determined how cool you were, especially if you didn’t split your pants. My brother Larry would take home all of the contest trophies for the best James Brown dances, and I would follow in his footsteps. My fave James Brown tune: “Cold Sweat.” This was like a ‘hood record from back in the day. You played this and the black men flexed like they heard a Jay-Z record of its time.
Kris Chen, A&R, XL Records: About seven years ago at Centro-Fly, Derrick May played this very intense set of techno. At 3:30 in the morning, as the crowd had dwindled to about 75 very tired people, May began pitching a record down slower and slower until he cut in the opening scream of James Brown’s “The Payback” and let the song roll. Suddenly everyone came back to life. It was hot, nasty, sweaty, and electrifying. I’d always liked his music, but suddenly I realized, “I love James Brown.”
Jayne County: Well, back in the ’60s when I first heard “Please, Please, Please,” I thought it made all the other black soul singers sound white! Then I went to see him live at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium in 1965 and was blown away. I think the place held 1,500 people, and I was one of the 10 white people there! I was so glad!
“Big Black” Matt Goias, Fannypack: No event or person has ever made me prouder to be black than Mr. James Brown. You paid the cost to be the boss! Say it loud, Godfather.
(Note: Though Matt is not actually black, he is clearly proud.)
Danny Tenaglia: James Brown made me a dancer. I was barely 10 years old and we would dance to James’s music as children. “Get on the Good Foot” definitely was one of those songs that changed my life and made me one of the funkiest li’l white boys to come out of Brooklyn, New York, that I know of today.
Maurice Bernstein, co-founder, Giant Step: When Giant Step first started in 1990 as the Groove Academy, its m.o. was to give a stage to the artists who were being heavily sampled in hip-hop. James was actually in jail at the time, but I managed to work with alumni such as
Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley, Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, Richard “Kush” Griffiths, Martha High, and Marva Whitney. Spending time with these guys gave me a real insight into the man, the myth, and the legend that was James Brown.
Randy Jones, the cowboy from the Village People: During the Village People era, we got to meet once again. It was the “Living in America” project. My pal Dan Hartman was writing a song for one of the Rocky movies, and he was preparing to do the demo. So Dan called me to his studio and asked if I’d help him with the demo for “Living in America.” He wanted it to sound like a Village People song—the big layered male-chorus sound. So I did it, and James loved it and was hysterical in the studio. They kept most of the sound we recorded, and I went back and added more. If you close your eyes and listen to it, you can think of it as a Village People song with James Brown singing lead!
Danny Krivit, DJ, 718 Sessions: By 1971, I was already a vinyl junkie and a 14-year-old amateur DJ when I first met the Godfather of Soul at my neighbor’s office. (That’s Jerry Schoenbaum, vice president of Polydor Records.) Jerry said, “James, I would like you to meet a big supporter and DJ, Danny Krivit.” James replied, “Outta sight! Let’s hook him up with my latest jams.” He handed me advance promo LPs of “Get on the Good Foot” and (Lyn Collins‘s) “Think.” I was in awe. These were white-label promos, personally handed to me by the man himself, months before their street release. I felt my professional career as a DJ had started at that very moment.
Tom Silverman, founder, Tommy Boy Records: Atlanta-based promo man Bob Patton
tells the story of Mr. Brown’s private jet losing power in both engines on the way to a gig and plummeting thousands of feet. Patton sat across from Mr. Brown, each looking into the other’s eyes as the jet plunged possibly to their deaths. After 10,000 feet of free fall, the engines kicked in again. Mr. Brown said to Patton, “I guess it wasn’t my time.” As if there was no one else on the plane.
James Brown, R.I.P.