Music

Father of Funk

The life--and afterlife--of James Brown

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In 1968 Amiri Baraka declared James Brown "our number one black poet." He wasn't the only writer who felt that way. Larry Neal, one of Baraka's confederates in the radical Black Arts Movement, later recalled that Brown was a hero to Neal's circle of literary intellectuals. "Suppose James Brown had consciousness. We used to have big arguments like that," he remembered. "It was like saying, 'Suppose James Brown read Fanon.'"

If Brown ever did read Frantz Fanon, the leftist author of The Wretched of the Earth, he kept quiet about it. But the singer, who died on Christmas Day, did have a place in the Black Power pantheon, one far more interesting and inspiring than anything Fanon ever wrote. He wasn't just an enormously popular musician whose influence can be heard everywhere from Africa to Nashville. At once rural and urban, iconoclastic and conservative, sacred and profane, both the man and his music evoked a radically transformed world while staying rooted in black American traditions.

Brown's earliest hits were recorded in the 1950s, as a style called Southern soul was starting to coalesce. This was a secular sound rooted in the music of the black church. You can divide it into two broad categories: slow and fast. On the slow side were the ballads, described by the British critic Barney Hoskyns as "a black gospel foreground, with all the vocal improvisation and intensity that implies, superimposed on a white country background." The up-tempo records were gritty, earthy, and sharply syncopated, with piercing, percussive horns. They felt a bit like the old jump blues of the '40s and a bit like another sort of church music-the kind where everybody stomps his feet and the Holy Ghost starts to manifest Itself in the pews.

Brown began as a balladeer; his first hit was "Please, Please, Please," a classic case of a song that would be gospel if only it mentioned God. But as the '60s wore on he was increasingly identified with the up-tempo side of soul. As every instrument in his ensemble, from the guitar to the human voice, became part of the rhythm section, Brown and his band created a whole new form of music, called funk. In tracks like "Cold Sweat" and "The Boss," the melodies faded, the increasingly complex rhythms moved to the foreground, and the songs grew longer, as the rhythms became a launching pad for rich improvisations rooted in jazz. The lyrics were ecstatic chants and screams; they carried echoes of both sex and sermons.

In the '60s and '70s Brown spoke out for black entrepreneurship and for strong black communities, for "the need for Afro-Americans to own things if we were ever going to have any real equality." Those views soon crept into his music. In 1968's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," Brown preached over a bare-boned rhythm: "I worked on a job with my feet and my hands/But all the work I did was for the other man/Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself/We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall and workin' for someone else." This was incendiary stuff, and it attracted black rebels even as white radio programmers backed away.

It was harder to imagine Brown reading Fanon four years later, when the musician called for the re-election of Richard Nixon. But the same year Brown sang "Say It Loud," the future president had called for "black power, in the best, the constructive sense of that often misapplied term….It's no longer enough that white-owned enterprises employ greater numbers of Negroes, whether as laborers or as middle-management personnel. This is needed, yes-but it has to be accompanied by an expansion of black ownership, of black capitalism."

That might sound like a plan to loosen the strings that held back black businesses, for slashing at the licensing laws and other restraints that kept ghetto enterprises underground. Instead the president announced an initiative that amounted to more goodies from the government: new contracts, new loans, new red tape. Nixon's black capitalism, like Nixon's white capitalism, had more to do with patronage than with free enterprise. The point wasn't black power; it was quelling unrest and buying votes.

Still, when Nixon aide Robert J. Brown visited a radio station owned by James Brown in 1971, the singer was drawn to what the White House's envoy had to say. And since Nixon was sure to win in a landslide anyway, Brown thought an endorsement might earn him some influence in the administration. "A situation like that puts somebody who's sort of a spokesman in a dilemma," he recalled in his 1986 memoir The Godfather of Soul, written with Bruce Tucker. "You can either try to get inside and have some influence, or you can stay outside and be pure and powerless."

His decision didn't go over well with his fans, and protests dogged his concerts for a while. In his memoir, Brown suggested the endorsement "cost me a lot of my black audience, just like 'Black and Proud' had cost me a lot of my white audience." Black power is a two-edged sword.

By the end of the '70s, Brown was struggling to stay relevant, adapting to trends rather than setting them; one album billed him as The Original Disco Man, which is a bit like Duke Ellington passing himself off as the father of smooth jazz. He charted occasionally in the '80s, but by then he was basically an oldies act.

Yet at the same time, he was something more. As his own creative energies started to slide, young producers started slicing, dicing, and remixing his records into new pieces of music. In the mash-up era, this happens to virtually every pop star, but James Brown has been sampled more than any other artist. He didn't just influence hip hop: He became a basic building block of the genre. Some rappers borrowed entire Brown songs, adding little to the mix but some uninspired rhymes. Others used little shards of his music to build larger groove collages. "The Payback" alone has been borrowed for at least 59 rap and R&B tracks. "Funky President," his 1974 shout-out to Gerald Ford, appears in at least 78.

In his 1985 novel Schismatrix, Bruce Sterling described people who didn't die-not officially, anyway-but "faded" instead, their corporeal existence replaced by a ghostly "programmed web of speeches, announcements, taped appearances, and random telephone calls." In the last three decades of his life, Brown certainly seemed to be fading. And now he's fully dead.

But his programmed web of rhythms and shouts is all around us. If you want to fuse his music to the words of Frantz Fanon-or Richard Nixon, or anyone else-it's there, just waiting to be deployed. James Brown didn't just leave us a great body of work. He left us the tools to make more music long after he's gone.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). A longer version of this story is online here.