Pop Playground
James Brown



it's literally impossible to overestimate the influence of James Brown on the course of music in the 20th century. With his passing this past year on Christmas Day at the age of 73 (the same age Ray Charles was when he died), we've set the seal on more than just the accomplishments of one man. In a sense, we've ended an era, the era of the birth of legions of musical genres, subgenres, and innovations inspired directly or tangentially by "the hardest-working man in show business."

Everywhere James' iconic grunts and the JB's breakbeats uncoiled, a new set or subset of musical developments sprang into life, jumped back, got on the good foot—soul, funk, disco, hip-hop, house, post-Bop jazz, afrobeat, and the beat goes on. His impassioned wailings ushered in the era of gutbucket soul when even his heroes such as Ray Charles and Hank Ballard were content to play big-band leaders with a touch of gospel in their delivery. Of course, Kool Herc and Bambaataa's liberal use of groove-heavy JB tracks for their soundsystem parties laid the groundwork for hip-hop in the Bronx, but at the same time, the very same numbers were making the rounds in Manhattan as David Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Walter Gibbons and others gave birth to disco and the modern club scene. No James Brown, no rap is an oft-repeated axiom, but try these on for size—no James Brown, no dub; no James Brown, no Bitches Brew; no James Brown, no Fela Kuti.

For all the paradoxes of his personal life and the unrestrained jibber-jabber of his banter, James Brown brought to life a new possibility in popular music—that unadorned rhythm, elegant deployment of space and the focus of a group of musicians towards a single, strident pulse—"the One"—could be the most important thing of all. And for all that "Soul Brother No. 1" business, James Brown both live and in the studio centered his performances on the communal, not the individual. Though he was always the consummate showman, James' best bit might have been the disappearing act—whether deploying a stable of musicians and singers for another night of the "James Brown Revue" (the show of shows which was always much more than just a one man-stand) or simply stepping back and giving the drummer some.

And for what it's worth, the madness of James Brown's personal life, the drugs, violence, and unrestrained egotism of his backstage persona and his offstage antics, while not forgivable, are at least explicable in the shadow of his superhuman prowess and professionalism on the stage itself. Sure, he must have been a hellion at home. You try being married to an earthquake, making love to a hurricane. There are artists, performers, musicians, and stars. James Brown was all of the above and something more—a force of nature. His existence encompassed those territories, yet remains unconstrained by their borders. The use of the past tense is almost superfluous here—for like a snatch of Clyde Stubblefield's drums caught in a SP-1200, he'll be forever with us, looped somewhere out of reach, aching primally, groaning or squealing like no other human ever could.

So we won't say goodbye, James. We'll be hearing you—from every corner of the dancefloor, every time a beat catches us mesmerized, every time a spine-tingling wail rides a groove, every time somebody plays in the pocket, on the one and with the funk. Wherever you are, keep on sayin' it loud. We'll be listening.


By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2007-01-09
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