Last friday was a holiday. Most people still went to work, I don’t know how many barbecued, and I don’t think too many gifts were given. But one thing I know for sure, is that all over this earth, funky music was played somewhere. The vibrations of that music were much more meaningful on that day because it was the 80th birthday of the Godfather of Soul James Brown.
Back in the early ’90s, when I was in the fifth grade or so and first developed my own appreciation of James Brown, I remember we were given an assignment to write on a notable black person for black history month. The assignment was given to us by Ms. Greene, who was not my teacher, but taught fifth grade at John Marshall Elementary alongside Mr. Williams, my teacher. Mr. Williams primary strength was math, while Ms. Greene’s was English, so they swapped classes according to their specialty. Ms.Greene had us compile a long list of Black American achievers to do reports on. I remember it striking me that she would not allow me to nominate James Brown’s name on the list.
This was the first time in my life I got some pushback from a older black person with regards to James Brown. Ms. Greene was somewhere in her 30s, and most likely a feminist of some variety, so that may have had something to do with it. Of course, this was around the time Mr. Brown was undergoing trials and tribulations regarding drug abuse and other things. But there were other people on the list as well. I’m not sure, but it may have been way back then that I devoted myself to reminding people of the impact and importance of James Brown.
It may sound crazy, but I don’t think James Brown is appreciated enough. There are many reasons for this, and many of them are probably quite valid. I see JB as one of those patriarchial figures who’s contribution was so elemental, so basic, to popular music and culture, it’s easy to overlook at times. The beat of music, something brought to American pop through African rhythms, refined in blues, soul, jazz, R&B, gospel, funk and hip hop, on to foreign genres such as reggae and Afro-beat, Salsa and other world musics of African descent, found one it’s greatest modern scientists in James Brown. Towards the end of James Brown’s life I heard him complaining about the state of music and he said the problem with it was, “everybody was only playing one note.” On “They Don’t Want Music” with the Black Eyed Peas, James Brown said, “They don’t want music/they don’t know how to use it/all they want/is BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.” Which is hilarious because Mr. Brown was the biggest proponent of the “boom” in American popular music.
But there are many reasons Ms.Greene might not have allowed us to write about Mr. Brown back in ’91. His arrests. His staunch patriarchy and sometimes violent relationships with women. His country accent, mocked by talents such as Eddie Murphy. His very funk itself, and the emotional honesty and rawness of it, and that it represented another time in black America.
Inspired by hip hop, Public Enemy, my parents, my own study of history, and my local hero M.C Hammer, I never lost my interest in James Brown. And even as late as the ’90s, the first concert I attended was a James Brown concert, on which he shared the bill with one of the great Oakland/East Bay funk bands, Tower of Power. That concert was special to me because I saw it with my best friends Jesse and Frank, and my mother and father as well.
Last weekend, I went to see one of James Brown’s greatest inheritors, Prince, in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Hotel. There is a great James Brown exhibit there, featuring one of his capes, a non stop loop of his performance at the T.A.M.I show, a stage outfit, and a shoeshine stand that Mr. Brown owned to remind him of his roots. On the ride back from Vegas, I played a record for my friend Angelina, and I told her to listen carefully because it was Mr. Brown’s advice to women of today. Of course, that record was “It’s a New Day, So Let a Man Come In and do the Popcorn.” Her husband, Ron, had a big laugh, as we all recited the lyrics to the song. “Hold your man!!!!!”
There are many things I could say about Brown, and I’m sure there are other things that I will discover over time, but as I think of Mr. Brown around his 80th birthday, here are some things that come to mind:
1) His business acumen. Mr. Brown always grabbed the bull by the horns when it came to business. He booked his own tours, getting out maps to do so, and remembering many venues he’d played in in cities across America. He was one of the first artists outside of the classical musical realm to get a 10% royalty rate. He had a practice of renting out places like the Apollo Theater to stage his own productions. He paid for many of his early hits such as “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” out of his own pocket and paid money for the promotions as well. He paid himself to have the legendary “Love at the Apollo” Volume 1 album recorded when the record label didn’t beleive in it.
2) His musical impact: Really, what role did James Brown play in music? Do we judge him as a singer, dancer, performer, instrumentalist, composer? He was all of those in various measures. But when musicians and many people talk about Brown, besides his singing, his great performing, and his hit records, James Brown was a bandleader, and a conciever of a sound. He took his influences such as Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Ricahrd, and Hank Ballard, and his roots in gospel and folk rhythms and the blues, and concieved of a whole new way of playing music. But this way of music didn’t feel just brand new, it also felt ancient at the same time, or in it’s way, just RIGHT. Brown’s groove was so powerful, it made a Nigerian musician like Fela Kuti feel he hadn’t been playing African music at all, Brown’s music struck out all over the world as a modern, transformed, American, futuristic version of the African groove that has been here since the beginning of time, and it paved the way for years of funk, disco, dance, house, hip hop, and many other dance genres since then.
3) Of any musical innovator, James Brown is unique because as much as he is copied, he’s also a conduit to finding one’s own originality in music. Brown always talked about “doing my thang.” As much as his groove brought out a kind of African communal spirit, it also exaulted the individual. Which is why artists from Prince, to Michael Jackson, to Miles Davis, to Kool & The Gang, to Public Enemy, to Iggy Pop all cite James Brown as an influence.. What I appreciate about it, is that unlike some artists, like Michael Jackson, where it so’s obvious when you do certain moves you’re doing Michael Jackson, there are so many things you can learn from James Brown, such as his showmanship, his zeal for presentation, the tightness of his band, his penchant for down to earth street slang, his business acumen, and most of all, his FUNK, that you can incorporate into how you do things musically without looking like a carbon copy. Because the James Brown style is a ROOTS style, it lies on the bottom (got to have a mutha for me), not the top!
4) His emphasis on “reality.” Although James Brown put on a great show, wore sequins, danced, and generally took you away from your problems in the two hours he performed for you, or the three minutes, fifty seconds you danced to his 45 rpm, he insisted his theme was reality. All you have to do to check me on that is go and listen to “Mind Power.”
But as for me: