#SummerofJB I: J.B’s antitdote to ’70s Malaise

President Jimmy Carter gave a speech in 1979, which many felt doomed his Presidency, which has popularly been known as the “malaise speech” ever since, which is interesting because he never mentioned the word “malaise” once in the speech. The speech was based on a book called “The Culture of Narcissism : American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” by Christopher Lasch. The book theorized that phenomenon such as Americans apetite for things such as oral sex proved that Americans had been babied during the ’50s and ’60s, and really, for the whole 20th century, leading to a people now incapable of making the types of sacrafices that made the country great. Carter translated this into a speech about how America had lost the can do, optimistic spirit it used in World War II and its aftermath to become the most powerful industrial nation the world had yet seen. I think this speech in particular is one reason my parents and other people I grew up around always said President Carter was too honest for politics. All of this was done in an effort to get Americans to consume less oil, as it was becoming clear America’s dependence on OPEC oil combined with the Muslim countries new fundamentalism would spell the end of the United States ability to dictate to other countries. This speech was seen as one of the primary reasons Carter got thumped by Ronald Wilson Reagen in the 1980 election, or at least, the attitude contained within. Carter was asking the United States to do something it was not ready to do, to limit itself in order to remain self sufficient and powerful. The counter message coming from Ronald Reagen was that this was fundamentally un American. Accepting limits in American life, mainly the power to consume, would be like surrendering to Germany and Japan in 1941. Reagen brought a Cowboy optimism that was the exact opposite of President Carter in style, and truthfully, more in line with the American spirit.

The Godfather of Soul James Brown, ever hip to cultural currents, gave his “Malaise Speech” four years before President Carter gave his, in 1974. Inflation and gas supply were still a problem then, but added on top of that, one of the biggest crisis of leadership America has yet faced, the Watergate scandal, had replaced Richard Nixon, who J.B endorsed in 1972, with Gerald Ford, who the Godfather found to be a total drag, as did the rest of the country. The difference between J.B’s indictment of American malaise and President Carter’s is that the Godfather laced his with one of his phattest grooves, one that has stood the test of time in funk and hip hop.

The ’70s are largely seen today as a decade of breezy fun, disco, cocaine, free sex, good rock, funk and soul music, and a kind of continutation or day party for the party that started in the late ’60s. It was that, but it also was a decade where American political consensus had been rocked by the protests of Civil Rights, Womens Rights, Black Power, Immigrant and Indian Rights, and finally Gay Rights. At the same time there was little consensus at home, the end of Colonialism and the Third World Revolution raised the prices on commodoties. America was very much an old dad trying to deal with the younger generations. Gas prices and prices on all kinds of products went up.

Amazingly, the Godfather of Soul James Brown, was toward the end of one of the best periods of his career in 1974. The Funk that had been introduced with “Cold Sweat” in 1967 and been supercharged by Bootsy and Phelps Collins in 1970 had become fully mature by 1974. J.B had an incredible run of early ’70s hits, including “Get on the Good Foot”, “Hot Pants”, “Sex Machine”, “Soul Power”, “Get up, Get Into It, Get Involved”, “King Heroin”, “Super Bad”, and many others.

But even with that amazing string of hits, there were problems. For one, J.B’s 1968 Black pride anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, seemed to doom him on the pop charts, as he did not crack the top ten of those charts until 1986’s “Living in America”, even while dropping generation defining funk songs that hit #1 R&B. Mr. Brown’s son, Teddy, died in a car crash, and the mom & pop record label he dominated, King Records in Cincinati, got bought out by a German company, Polygram. Yes, Mr. Brown was in the situation many American workers were, going from working for Americans to working for a large multinational conglomerate, and he came to feel they didn’t understand him or his music. Also, there were tax problems. And to top it off, he was taking hits in the black community for endorsing a man they viewed as their clear enemy, Richard M Nixion, in 1972.

Brown, a Gold Glove boxer in his youth, would never in his life go down without swinging though. 1973-74 feature some of his biggest and best known hits, from Fred Wesley and The J.B’s family reunion classic “Doin It to Death”, to “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, to “The Payback.” But on “Funky President” he addresses the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

The “Funky President” of the song is President Gerald Ford, a transitional figure who is mainly known in pop culture for falling off airplanes, which was potrayed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Brown mentioned that he thought Ford was a good man, but every time he spoke people seemed to get depressed. Ford would only serve out the end of Nixons term before losing to Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Brown’s “Funky President” deals with what a drag the country was becoming, but it proposes super heavy funk as a motivator and togetherness as the antidote. The track itself is funky, but different for James Brown, when you listen to the funk of “Superbad” or “Get on the Good Foot” or “Soul Power.” Maybe the reason for this is because Brown uses studio musicians instead of his J.B’s on the track. The sound of the track is also different, being recorded at Sound Ideas studio in New York City. James Brown was known for recording in various places whenever the mood hit him rather than holing up in one studio as many other great acts do. The sound on “Funky President” is clean and well seperated, and I want to go out on a limb and say I think it utilizes heavy overdubbing as well, which was not the general wasoy Brown recorded. Brown preffered to get everybody in the room together and cut the song from top to bottom live with minimal fixing of mistakes. It’s almost as if the political plea of “Funky President” demanded a clean, apple pie All American funk sound so the message wouldn’t be lost.

The band was made up of well known studio musicians such as David Sanborn, Joe Farrell, Joe Beck, and Gordon Edwards. Very interestingly, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis is also on the track, which is interesting because he was James Browns arranger during the early period of J.B’s funk in the late ’60s and hadn’t worked with Mr. Brown for some timewhen “Funky President” was recorded. The drummer, who must be noted, is Allan Schwarzberg, a white Jewish guy, and not one of J.B’s regular drummers. That’s signifigant because “Funky President”‘s drum pattern is one of the most sampled in hip hop, and it didn’t even come from one of Brown’s regular drummers, like Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, or Melvin Parker. Conga Player Johnny Griggs is the only player from J.B’s regular band listed.

The music itself is unique for J.B’s heavy funk period. It’s very clear, clean, in control, yet heavy. It seems tailor made for doing the classic ’70s dances. The sound is also very studio centric as opposed to Brown’s famous live sound. The song begins with a super heavy, phat drumbeat from Allan Schwarzberg. The drum beat starts with a snare drum fill that would be a favorite of hip hop samplers such as the Legendary Marley Marl. The drum part is really just a super funky 8th note pattern, very well recorded and prominent in the mix. The combo of the drums, the wah wah guitar, and J.B saying “Funky”, is the jelly the hip hop samplers would go crazy over in the ’80s, but we must remember, the original hip hop D.J’s , Kool Herc, Afrika Baambaata and Grandmaster Flash were playing this joint when it came out as well. The bass line is very simple and funky, leaving space for the drums, the incessant and almost sequence like guitar riff, and a very involved horn chart that serves as J.B’s back up singers. The song also has very funky breaks that allow Brown to really emote.

J.B describes the litany of problems facing America in the 1970s He says the “Stock Market is going up, the jobs going down.” That phenomenon the Godfather mentioned is one that affects America even today. Basically, whats good for the capitalist class who run business and own stock, is not always good for working folks. “Productivity”, which could mean cutting jobs, increasing hours, cutting benefits, etc, is good for a company’s stock, but usually not the working man. That can be seen in the recovery from the 2008 “Great Recession”, as the stock market has rebounded fully while jobs have not.

J.B speaks of taxes going up. Browns tax problems have been well documented, and the saddest thing about them is he thought the political work he’d done would save him from the I.R.S, but generally it didn’t. Brown uses blues like lyrics to describe how tight things were, saying “I changed from a glass/now I drink from a paper cup, getting bad.”

But this is no blues. This song is a funky song of motivation. At the heart of the song lies James Brown’s advice for Black America in particular, and it’s one he consistently advocated and practiced in his own life. The Godfather tells us:

“Lets get together, get some land/Raise our food like the man/Save our money like the mob/Put up the factory on the job.”

The Godfathers economic plan is one that had been espoused by Booker T Washington, Marcus Garvey and The Honorable Elijah Muhammed for years. In the America of 1974, with rising commodity prices, gas shortages and coming off the Vietnam War, James Brown advocated self sufficiency for Black people in particular. Just four years after this song in 1978, the Civil Rights Movement would come to an official historical en with the Bakke decision. J.B, being a man with his ear to the street as well as experiencing the pinch in his own life, knew the outlook was bleak for both America and Black people in particular. The program he advocated in particular would have been a great boon to the black community going through the 1970s into the 1980s, with Republican Governments hell bent on rolling back Civil Rights gains as well as a country with a lessened ability to dictate terms to foreign countries.

But Brown went for that ass in delivering this message. Strangely, right after this political rap, J.B goes back to talking about sex. He talks about praising the Lord, and then says “Get sexy, sexy, get funky and dance.” Love me baby, Love me nice/Don’t make it once/but can you make it twice/I like it.” Then he goes right from that to his encouragement, telling people to “Turn on their funk motors.” Its almost as if the religious faith and the sex are the things Brown is proposing as the spiritual and physical fuel people need to get up offa that thang and face the challenges of the times. He ends this verse with encouragement, telling folks “Hey , give yourself a chance to come through/tell yourself I can do what you can do.”

The phat, well recorded Allan Schwarzberg James Brown drumbeat would go on to become a staple in Hip Hop. In the early ’80s the Sugarhill house band would actually recreate the beat with live musicians for people like Spoonie Gee to rap over. In the sample heavy late ’80s, Marley Marl would sample other drums and use them to play the pattern Schwarzberg played on classic cuts such as “Eric B. is President.” J.B would go on to have other hits, but 1974 would be his last year as a consistent hitmaker, with “Funky President” getting all the way up to #4 on the R&B charts. He’d have other monsters like “Bodyheat” and “Get Up Offa That Thang” a few years later, but “Funky President” stands tall in the Brown ouvere for it’s funky beat laid down with studio musicians and the funky political stump speech that got people out of their malaise rather than bathed them in it, with the true “Funky President”, James Brown himself accomplishing something Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagen could not!

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1 Comment

Filed under Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Music Matters, Politrix, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

One response to “#SummerofJB I: J.B’s antitdote to ’70s Malaise

  1. I always loved “Funky President” musically. I see it as part of James’ transition from the JB’s band sound into his studio musician period. Very telling dichotomy considering the malaise he spoke of and that President Carter later referenced. I wonder how JB would’ve dealt with Obama’s concepts today had he been alive. Something worth thinking about.

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