Interestingly enough,my own deep water dive into the waters of James Brown’s music came relatively late in the game. I’d heard his two huge pop hits “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” again and again,and of course my very first exposure to his music with the song “Living In America” in the mid 1980’s. I continued to hear how important he was to the music that was so encouraging my emotional growth process during adolescence So I ordered his famous CD boxed set Star Time from the BMG record club I used to belong to at the time. The musical progression he made,from soul/doo-wop balladry to his historic innovation of funk was compelling. And it made me want to sing and dance to almost every song instantly. But it wasn’t over a decade later that that I had an experience that bought the music of James Brown completely into focus for me.
I was spending the weekend with my ex boyfriend a few years ago. He lived in a very small Maine farming town with a roommate. We all got into a conversation about soul music somehow. We all agreed that Ray Charles and Otis Redding were enormously important figures who pushed the progression of the music forward. When the name James Brown came up my ex said right out that while he totally understood Ray Charles’ special qualities,he could not see what was so musically important about James Brown. I was not angry as,honestly,this was something I knew to be a fairly commonly held viewpoint. Especially among rock ‘n roll fans. I didn’t answer at the time but my own inner monologue provided the answer I will finally verbalize here in writing. And that answer is that Ray Charles changed the face of music forever,and so did James Brown.
My friend Henrique,a native of Oakland,California,and myself have both had many highly philosophical conversations about James Brown. Talking about his influence as a performer,on the culture around him,etc. He was primarily known for his magisterial publicity,describing himself often as a wonder of the world and ascribing many names to himself-such as Mr. Dynamite,The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,The Godfather and his far lesser known moniker The King Of Soul. For what seems like such an obvious display of egoism,these often self imposed names are in fact very accurate descriptions of James’ talents. James Brown invented the genre of funk music. If one really thinks hard,how many musical artists actually bought so many influences together to innovate an entire musical genre almost single handedly?
One thing that I’ve noticed about James Brown is that his music sometimes scares people. Not in a frightening way,but in the sense of it being almost too expansive and sonically intense to bare aurally. One thing I learned about James Brown’s rhythmic innovations in funk was how heavily it was linked to an Afrocentric musical consciousness. James was noted for spending a good degree of his time on the road,recording music in different studios as he traveled from gig to gig. In New York,site of the famous Apollo Theater where James was in fact a major mainstay,a new form of latin music called boogaloo was becoming popular. It was a mixture of jazz, Caribbean and salsa music that emphasized “breaks”,small 2-3 second length breaks in the music usually after a refrain.
This also coincided with the popularity of a music that the African’s called Highlife,a completely 20th century variety of African pop music played by up and coming artists such as Fela Ransom Kuti. In both cases,the music was gaining popularity the NYC area. And James Brown was listening in. As his own music began to emphasize more uptempo material,he began to make music that blended horn based American danceable soul with these breaks and Afro-latin inspired percussive rhythms. This meant bringing the bass player,usually someone in the back round playing the changes,upfront because it was the most drum like instrument of the rhythm section. With songs like “Out Of Sight” and “Let Yourself Go”,both very heavily inspired by the Highlife/Boogaloo music he was absorbed in,James unleashed this influence in his music completely with his 1967 funk breakthrough “Cold Sweat”.
During this same time the civil rights movement,largely seeking racial equality,was giving way to a vocal need for a more self-sufficient cultural attitude within the black community. Being both a proud capitalist and reaching into a deep Afrocentric aesthetic through his new found musical interests,the lyrics of James Brown songs came to champion what was called the Black Power movement. Some of his most captivating funk pieces such as “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door,I’ll Get It Myself)” and of course “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)” reflected this spirit completely. While his ascendancy as a popular performer diminished due to his cultural assertions,he was now innovating not only the music of funk but the message of strength,social consciousness and pride that remained part of it’s very essence in the decade to come.
Now I’ve never heard of anyone who has remotely doubted the acumen and almost inhumanely energetic quality of James’ talents as a performer. Though on one website I was on he was voted one of the Top 5 most annoying singers of all time. As with most qualities about James’ music,this aspect of it revolved around rhythm. The core of James’ musical innovations were rhythmic. His faster than light dance moves,often seeming to defy the laws of gravity itself,and the way he moved his body were deeply intertwined with his conducting the rhythm and horn section in his bands. And his singing was no different. After the mid 1960’s,he seldom attempted to croon a song. His voice emoted with shrieking bursts of sound like a horn. Which made him,like Billy Holiday before him,someone who vocally had the quality of an instrumentalist as opposed to a singer.
For a man who spent more than half his life living in this high paced mode of performing,his influence on contemporary artists tend to come in the form of a filter. That is,the talent of an innovator capturing the public’s imagination through their immediate creative descendants Many talents of the past couple of decades-from the new jack swing groups of the early 90’s to individuals such as Justin Timberlake and Usher are all completely influence by James Brown dancing ability-largely through the filters of Michael Jackson and Prince,both immediate musical and performing disciples of James himself. It is however the enormously talented Janelle Monae,from her use of musical breaks and quick footed dance moves,who proudly wears her direct influence of James Brown-right down to her enormous pompadour hairstyle and her stylish attire,on her sleeve and is inspired by the source rather than the filter.
One could also say that James Brown’s talents were based on his dancing ability. Dave Chappelle proved this point when he coined the controversial racial divisions in popular American dancing-showcasing how a group of causation office workers responded to the guitar playing of John Mayer versus how the black and latin patrons of an urban barber shop responded to the drumming of The Roots’ Questlove. The office workers danced as if they were pushing themselves from some unseen inner struggle to be free. The patrons of the barber shop were looser in their dancing by the level of self control in their dance moves. Any assumed racial divisions aside a performer of any racial back round could discover an important lesson in dancing from James’ take on it. And that’s that freedom from dancing from how one controls the movement of their own bodies,rather than as Paul Simon stated in his song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”,from the “struggle to be free”.
Fact is just about everything admirable in today’s oft questioned popular music scene-from dancing,performing and (if even applicable) instrumental technique has a sometimes under-spoken link to the innovations of James Brown during the late 60’s and early 70’s. The only sad fact about this is that James Brown is gone now,and this is his legacy. So many people under the age of 25 easily know the name of Michael Jackson,Prince and Usher-due largely to their sales figure and enormous media saturation. But James Brown’s name and influence is,at best,probably less than a quarter known by the same group of people as it would be for those ages 30 and older. This leads to the perception perhaps of James Brown as a historical figure-whose music and performing style more or less passed away with him. The happy part of this is the internet,along with an upcoming theatrical biopic on James Brown,seem to be fast educating the newer generation of Americans that,whether we know it or not that,though his music an performing innovations, “The Godfather” will continue to live on.
Here are some examples of James’ musical and performance talents I talked about in this article.
Out Of Sight (1964)
Let Yourself Go (1967)-An instrumental version so the point I made about it’s African influence is better illustrated
Cold Sweat (1967)
I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothin’ (Open Up The Door,I’ll Get It Myself)-Live On The Mike Douglass Show (1969)
Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud) (1969)
James Brown and Michael Jackson in 1983 during “Thrillermania”. Shows you were MJ’s talents truly came from!