By Various Authors
Black Mind is mine a mine
for the gold of past and future
Shine your gold black light
out of yr mind into the mine
of our time
Be James Brown and wish
The line to the mind is straight
w/ rhythm flyin, change up stride
in blinding light
And JB be
out flows black
force in Heaven
A rich man
A priest of gold
Black juice royal time
Rivers of movement
Oceans of Yea-ah
Oceans of Yea-uh
In gold green orange and James
In maroon chartreuse silver and Brown
Digging in the black
All the world and heavens moan forever
In sweet black angelic Boogaloosence
- Amiri Baraka
By Robert Farris Thompson
Sweat pouring down his face and neck, head titled back at the ecstatic angle, eyes closed in distant meditation, lips contorted in rage and majesty, James Brown goes on forever. Like his spiritual brother, Damaso Perez Prado, he was a master of non-verbal action. His grunts and his screams detoxified a nation. I remember ten years back when I was asked to talk about him for the BBC, I gave them a typology of James Brown screams. It was not what they expected. but boy was I honored to talk about Brown's sonic landscape. Once I saw a video in Brussels on the life and art of soul brother number one. They showed him singing for a Democratic candidate. Brown screamed. Brown got down. The white candidate stood still without a smile. I thought: damn, if he can't react to James Brown, he's gonna lose. He did. There aint no past tense big enough to hold James Brown. The cat, as I said, goes on forever. Locked in his screams, pain purified to pleasure, is a message from Kongo to all of us: mu diavwezwa mweti mena diansitusu! -- from humiliation stems grandeur.
Lineaments of a Promised Land
By Charles O’Brien
For a long time, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)” (Sex Machine, Polydor, 1970 on vinyl) has been one of my favorite pieces of music; and I sometimes wondered if there wasn’t something unreasonable how much I loved it. But this was the song that was played over and over at James Brown's funeral. Judged by the title alone, it’d be hard to come up with anything more incongruous. The song as it is, though, was a great choice. “Sex Machine” is ten and a half minutes of prime JB built around practically nothing: a song called “Sex Machine” might hint at all kinds of prurience, but here it mostly just rhymes with “stay on the scene.” The song begins with JB "moving these things around.” Equipment, furniture, who knows? This is James Brown in the studio, “just proud and doing my thing.”
The full band starts the song. The horns play eight notes for just one bar; about halfway through, they play that same bar; and the song ends with that bar. Otherwise, they’re gone. The song is just guitar, bass, and drums, sticking to one chord, except for a short bridge, done twice, and a “taste of piano,” JB himself for about eight bars. In performance, James Brown poured sweat. His music, no: it could be icy in its perfection, as it is here.
At the end, he wanted to “hit it and quit.”
In other words we hit and we done.
The horns, eight eighth notes worth, hit him, and us, and we are done, and it could not have ended better –
But first, there’s a lot of ground to be covered. American music (movies, too, and literature) loves to throw out place names from around the continent. Think of Chuck Berry’s songs, or Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66”.
Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty
Well, maybe it does. The point here is that it sounds pretty. These songs are imagination taking joy in a map. James Brown’s place names are realer. In “Living in America”(1) JB sings:
You might not be looking for the promised land but you might find it anyway under one of those old familiar names
And he reels off some of them. But “Sex Machine” has more. When he goes to the bridge for the second time, he asks the band where he can go.
We got to go to Dayton
[Has anyone over spoken those words with such delight?]
(and I might go to Macon, if you don’t mind)
Houston or Dallas?
Both of ‘em!
Got to go San Antone, brother
Over to Memphis
I think I’ll go to Nashville, too
By the way of Chattanooga
And on and on. All these places are lively memories, all scenes of – this is the James Brown Band! – past troubles and past good times, troubles and good times just up ahead, near enough to taste. “Night Train” is not a James Brown original, but he takes it. The horns come in with a swell, emulating the Doppler Effect, what anyone has heard, dreaming of being taken away. You can see the train’s single light cutting through the darkness, speeding through the night. The train in Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” had showed only their rear lights, menace and regret. The “Night Train” is full of promise, and all the places the train travels are blest with that promise.
In his recent memoir, I Feel Good, JB reports that Hubert Humphrey wanted him to run for Vice-President in 1968. Think of it, though. James Brown, as President of the Senate, could have turned the place around, setting bounds on windy speeches, fining members for missing votes, running the place. An America with James Brown as its best-known diplomatic face to the world in 1969-1972, it would have been a different America, different world, different 1969-1972. And picture him doing the ceremonial stuff, like funerals. He could put aside the flashy threads and wear a suit as well as anyone – look at the pictures of him with Richard Nixon. And he could look as solemn as anyone has ever looked.
Even though JB was best known for dance music, he kept that solemnity near at hand. “Man’s World” is the obvious example. But I’d like to call attention to 1972’s There It Is album. The hits on that album were the up-tempo numbers, “There It Is,” “Greedy Man,” “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”, “I Need Help.” The dope raps “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy #1” are undeniably a little ridiculous and may come across as filler. But listen again. This was 1972, and amid the wreckage of the civil rights movement – and the hopes it had engendered and the music that was its twin star – there was a mournful strain of black popular music – something new in its time, and a lot of the best hip hop in years to come would draw on it. Records like the Superfly and Across 110th Street soundtracks brought the bad news to your door. But sitting inside your door, hardly noticed, and probably even more powerful, were James Brown’s heavier, flawed dirges.
More often, of course, he was up. He recorded prolifically, and toured incessantly. On his deathbed, he was planning to see in the New Year on stage. On record, he has laughed more than even Al Green. It was notorious how he worked his band. There’s a story about his confrontation with some Nation of Islam heavies. They were berating him for having a white bass player, Tim Drummond. JB looked and looked around the room, trying to find this white bass player. Finally, he said, “Oh, that’s my bass player.” A story about race, obviously, but also a story about management style. P-Funk, a mutant form of James Brown’s band, has always been happy to get recognized names into the fold – Vanessa Williams, say, or Philippe Wynne. James Brown’s band was filled with James Brown’s players. Bootsy and Maceo could be musicians in his bands; they could become names only afterward.
His most important formal innovations were labor-intensive. Staying on one chord for ten minutes, and making it work, is a lot harder than running through a lot of changes. Stripping away (and minimalism doesn’t feel like the right word for James Brown’s music) often involves an appeal to an aural comfort zone, a false memory of past assurance. JB’s basics were the opposite. Listen to the 45 version of “I Can’t Stand Myself.” The instrumentation is this: an organ playing the same seven-note riff throughout the song; one guitar playing an invariant four-note riff; another guitar playing one two-note chord, slid down a half–tone and back once; a drummer keeps the beat; only the bass player (Bootsy) goes crazy – but this was 1968, when bass wasn’t received as a lead instrument, and the equipment to hear it didn’t exist, at least not where JB was likeliest to be listened to. This music is not your old time used to be. It is someplace you never guessed was there, and forty years later, the strangeness in the song remains. Much of what James Brown started has become familiar, either because the songs themselves are still heard, or he’s been sampled(2) or the formal stuff has been assimilated by others. The newness is untouched.
Mr. Dyn-ee-mite, Hard Working has rested.
1 Rocky IV is hardly a defensible movie. It has one great scene, though. Carl Weathers, as Apollo Creed, is about to fight Dolph Lundgren, playing a robotic Russian (He's acting). James Brown is on stage, his band, showgirls, everything cooking, doing "Living in America." The camera goes around the room, taking in Sylvester Stallone, Weathers (dressed in patriotic colors, and dancing with an Uncle Sam hat on), JB, the players and the dancers. JB ends the song throwing one arm out and shouting
I Feel Good!
Everybody feels good. A moment later, Lundgren bumps Weathers' gloves hard, and tells him, "You will lose." Weathers' face registers shock. And a moment later, Weathers , in his Stars and Stripes trunks, is carried unconscious from the ring.
However briefly, James Brown raises the movie from a delirium of silliness to a delirium of fraternity.
2 A personal favorite: the "Okay, I'll talk a little louder" sample on Technotronic's "Come Back."
Mr. Brown, May God Rest His Funky Soul
By Chuck D
Got the news Christmas eve from Davey D on the Westside of the country; we'd just left there. Thus at 3AM in the East, it's too early and too late to call anybody like my man KYLE JASON who, together with me, did our damnedest to catch his tour three years back. I had heard things like Mr. Brown was pushing it real hard, defying gravity and time itself. I myself saw a seventy year old man wear an Atlanta stage out, as well as the crowd. It was good to see some black folks in the audience for a change, checking out our classic creator of funky soul himself.
Now this news. It makes one really understand that time is God itself.
Thus we shall praise God and cherish the time. James Brown is somewhat woven into my professional and entertainment regimen. In my travels on the tour bus from Sacramento to Spokane, I'd just picked up yet another JB CD; this one from Universal Millennium MASTERS 'JAMES BROWN and FRIENDS' for my drive time groove pleasure, in the hotel the BLUES BROTHERS were on AMC where JB did that scorching preacher scene in the church backed by the JAMES CLEVELAND CHOIR. While everybody seemed to relish in the now of comedian KATT WILLIAMS on the long bus ride, I locked my DVD player and headphones to Mr. Brown's classic SOULTRAIN and PARIS performances. When talking music, JB was/is just part of the day, thank God for recordings. As a 70's B-boy I recall panic on the floors of hip hop while GIVE IT UP TURN IT LOOSE roasted off the 1969 SEX MACHINE LIVE LP transfixing the forming rap nation ten years later, as if it were a discovered oil well. While the rest of the disco and rock country had not a clue.
As barely a social hum registered at the recent passings of ATLANTIC RECORDS founder AHMET ERTEGAN and ATLANTIC RECORDS star R&B artist RUTH BROWN, I as a music student felt those losses. Good peer and buddy GERALD LEVERTS passing was a shock and largely just black folk's pain at the loss, like a family member...nationally only a few sentences because an Anglo-nation couldn't possibly understand. Now MR. JAMES BROWN is entirely another magnitude, a seismic passing - the level of a KING, the Cincinnati record label he recorded on or a very funky president, the title of his 1975 political hit.
Recently I covered some ground being interviewed for a movie documentary his latest wife TAMI RAYE was producing. I myself felt extremely honored to have been asked to be interviewed for that and his prior SOUL SURVIVOR special and DVD. I promised myself to reach and do all I can when the legends callout.
I missed out on MR. RAY CHARLES, wanting to catch any show during 2002, then I heard he got sick. The founders of rock and roll are still doing gigs - LITTLE RICHARD, CHUCK BERRY, BO DIDDLEY, and we almost lost FATS DOMINO to Katrina. JERRY LEE LEWIS just released a new album, and IKE and TINA TURNER continue to defy time. Still MR. JB is it for me. I have yet to meet MR. MUHAMMAD ALI, and only met RICHARD PRYOR one brief two minute period at the 2000 BET AWARDS in LAS VEGAS. I met MR. JAMES BROWN. Backstage in the concocted green room looking at the screens - just me and another gentleman were checking it out. I was behind this man dressed in a bluish suit, but I could tell it was James Brown. Reading everything about the man beforehand I knew to address him as MR. BROWN. I tapped him on the shoulder and said "Hello, er, MR. BROWN" and introduced myself. He asked my name again and when I answered it must've registered, because he let out a "Whoa", and smiled with a hug. I didn't have a damn camera and asked him to hold on. When I came back a minute later he was gone, on stage doing his thing with singer GINUWINE. Off stage he left through another way...and that was the one time for me.
Man, no lie, whenever I see a frozen pond, I take myself to 1967 when us kids did the James Brown I Feel Good dance on any patch of ice. Global warming has somehow produced fewer patches of ice, just as soul loses a bit of itself every ten years. The sheer magnitude of SAY IT LOUD I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD was an implanted, soundtracked theme into understanding that our minds, bodies, and souls were black and beautiful. ALI, PRYOR and JB were our snap, crackle and pop from the transcendent, previously silenced black male in 60's-70's Amerikkka. It ain't never left me. Never will. This is why spreading the word is our jobs as modern day griots. I've had phone conversations with HUEY NEWTON before he passed, KWAME TURE respected my works of words, and Minister Farrakhan and the Nation Of Islam have introduced PE to parts of the darker earth where few like us had gone before. Yes time is God indeed, and all of our words and deeds are in passing, but the passing down and forward is so important. My children know MR. JAMES BROWN's music, as well as LEVI STUBBS of the FOUR TOPS and REVEREND AL GREEN (whereas it was a trip at the SCREAM TOUR 5 in Madison Square Garden NYC hearing 16,000, mostly young black girl, teenagers finishing off singing LETS STAY TOGETHER during YOUNG JOCs DJ set as if it was a clear channel hit).
In the fifty years of MR. BROWN's recorded music, since his 1956 hit PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE; we PUBLIC ENEMY head into our 20th year of existence with full dedicated honor to the fabric MR. James Brown provided for hip hop's founders AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, KOOL DJ HERC, and GRANDMASTER FLASH to weave. Expect the utmost respect for the architect. Again I expect the executive asses of the record industry ashes to say little, and do less. The radio stations are eerie in their silence, proving there ain't no such thing as black radio, just robot fuel from white corporations who continue to argue that race ain't an issue. And in the end there will be folks who will dedicate and play 50 years of soul, that realize that black is important to say it loud and proud because amerikka continues to discredit it and strip it away. But this should make us realize how lucky many of us are to have witnessed, experienced, and infused the work and pride ethics of the godfather of soul into our daily lives. For that alone we are all better for it. Probably the hardest working man in heaven right now ...but may his funky soul R.I.P ... Mr. Dynamite
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!”
By Michael Lydon
Singer, songwriter, dancer, showman, rhythm master, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and self-proclaimed sex machine, James Brown is dead at seventy-three, mourned by millions of passionate fans who love his music and have long followed each pioneering step of his artistic growth, each twist and turn of his tumultuous career. Like his contemporary Ray Charles, James Brown did so much in his lifetime to improve the soundscape, the mindscape of America, that we can measure how far he came (and we have come) only by looking back to his beginnings.
In January 1956, Ralph Bass, a producer for Cincinnati’s King Records, was in Atlanta scouting talent when a deejay played him an acetate, “Please, Please, Please,” by a group who called themselves, with more optimism than truth, The Famous Flames. The rough but exciting demo knocked Bass out. Where could he find the group, he asked. In Macon, said the deejay; the lead singer, James Brown, was a twenty-three year-old ex-con paroled out to a local promoter, Clint Brantly, who also managed Little Richard. And Bass had better hurry: Leonard Chess of Chess Records was flying down from Chicago to sign the same band. Bass jumped in his car and drove the hundred-odd miles to Macon through a blinding rainstorm.
“Macon was a real Jim Crow town,” Bass recalled years later. “Brantly told me to park in front of a barbershop by the railroad station and come in when the Venetian blinds went up and down. I did, we sat down. ‘I got a contract from Leonard Chess in my hand,’ Brantly tells me, ‘he’s coming to sign it.’ But in those days, if the weather was halfway bad, airplanes couldn’t land at little airports, and Leonard was grounded. I gave Brantly two hundred bucks and said, ‘You want to sign right now?’ ‘You got a deal,’ he said.”
Brantly introduced Bass to Brown that night after his show. “James was so browbeaten with that Southern shit that he called me ‘Mister Ralph.’ I said to him, ‘Man, don’t call me no Mister Ralph. Call me Mister Bass or call me Ralph, but don’t call me no Mister Ralph.’”
A week later, Bass got Brown into King’s Cincinnati studio then went home to St. Louis. There he got get a screaming phone call from his boss, Syd Nathan. “‘You’re fired,’ Syd was telling me,” Bass recalled. “‘You cut the worst piece of shit I ever heard in my life. The man sounds like he’s stoned, all he’s saying is please, please, please.’ ‘Tell you what,’ I told Syd, ‘put that record out in Atlanta and if it don’t sell, baby, don’t fire me, I quit.’ A month later ‘Please, Please, Please’ hit #5 on the R&B charts. The rest is history. Who knew then that James would be what he is today?”
Grassroots & the Gray Lady
By Mel Watkins
“That dude is down as a chitlin’,” one black teenager shouted at his friend as they filed out of the Apollo Theater ahead of me after a James Brown concert in the late 1960s. I was there on assignment to write an article about the Apollo Theater and its legacy as a cultural showplace for the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times — it was one of my first freelance assignments for the newspaper — and, of course, I jotted down the remark. As it turned out, the Times editors cut the teen’s colorful quip as well as much of my commentary on James Brown’s performance that night. Despite his status in the black community, Brown and his brand of funky music had not yet been embraced by mainstream pop culture; it was certainly much too raw to be taken seriously by editors at the Gray Lady. Another decade would pass before Brown and his impact on pop music was fully acknowledged outside the black community.
Still, my most vivid memory about researching and writing the piece was the JB concert. When I entered the theater that evening Brown had already taken the stage. And as I walked down the aisle toward my seat I distinctly remember that the floor — pulsing with the insistent stomping of a packed, screaming audience — was literally rocking, undulating under my feet. The place was truly cooking. It was a remarkable performance, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and an unforgettable experience.
It wasn’t the first time I saw Brown perform, however; less than a decade earlier, as a teenager, I’d witnessed one of his early appearances at the Elks Ballroom, a gutbucket night club in Youngstown, Ohio, my hometown. At the time, “Please, Please, Please” and “Night Train” were his only recognizable hits but everyone in that sweaty, tightly packed joint seemed to sense that he would soon carve out a unique place as a musical trailblazer. And when I went off to college at Colgate University in upstate New York, the box of personal items I carried with me included several of his early 45s. In that glaringly de-funked atmosphere, they were rare but surprisingly popular commodities even with my mostly white-bread classmates. By the mid sixties, with the release such popular hits as “Papa Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat,” Brown’s popularity had increased, but his audience was still primarily black. During that time I saw him several times at the Apollo, and, only occasionally, did the audience include any downtown visitors. It wasn’t until the seventies, when new media outlets like Rolling Stone magazine started to tout his music that he gained any substantial crossover appeal.
I’d go on to write several articles about James Brown and his cultural significance during the seventies and eighties. Those articles included a piece on the lyrics of his songs, which surprised some because comedians like Eddie Murphy had often satirized the verbal element of his work. (“Does anybody know what the hell James is talking about?”) They of course conveniently forgot or ignored socially relevant songs like “I’m black and I’m Proud” and “Don’t Be a Dropout.”
Among my friends, Brown’s music was an absolute necessity at any set where people wanted to jam or get down during those years. At parties where the era’s most influential young black writers gathered (Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, Claude Brown, to name a few) Brown’s music was always the key ingredient. Like Aretha, Sam Cooke, and, later, Marvin Gaye, he was a both a symbol and personification of the grassroots black musical heritage that wielded such tremendous influence on America’s popular culture during the latter part of the 20th century. Whenever I think about the man, I think about that 1968 concert. After that night I had no doubt about why he was called the “hardest working man in show business.”
As it happened, the show was recorded that evening and later released as a two-record LP recording “James Brown: Live at the Apollo — Volume II.” It remains my favorite James Brown recording, and, every time I play it, I’m reminded of that evening and of the perspicacious teenager that I overheard in the Apollo Theater lobby. “Down as a chitlin’,” that’s still the way I like to remember the Godfather of Soul.
Mel Watkins is the author of On the Real Side: The History of African American Comedy; his latest book is Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry.
Time Will Take You Out
By W.T. Lhamon Jr.
James Brown died? Quick as a wink, the late riser at my house wondered, “Overdose?”
James Brown excessively lived the legends of our time, their blooming for tabloid fascination. Beginning by dancing for pennies, just the way Black Guinea did in Herman Melville’s nineteenth century novel, The Confidence Man, James Brown went on to White House invitations, to TV, to pop film. In words, he was incommunicado--just listen to Terry Gross’s embarrassment asking him on NPR to explain any aspect of his work. In song, however, his grunts made novels about living in America. Like no one else leading early boomers through their paces, James Brown embodied the momentum of our time.
Brown bore that momentum in his body and carried its thickening weight wherever he went. It kept him company through prison terms, through his several troubled marriages, while he learned to code that momentum as punctuated sound. For all their compulsion, it’s not news that his earliest songs were slight, even derivative. From Little Richard he learned screams, sentiment, and spectacle. From Louis Jordan he learned joy and the jump beat. Through all that development, you can hear his originality grow. He gave us more than one new style of rhythm ’n’ blues, but he also shows how originality can realize and amplify what’s essential in extant moods and ongoing modes. So, I’ll let others laud his middle career when he passed beyond Doo Wop to speak up for rhythm, black pride, staying in school, and the hard work of black capitalism. I want to recall, instead, the late performance of, “How Do You Stop?” That’s where he tamped his experience into song that found its own meaning without heeding any chamber of commerce.
In 1986, we were all more than three decades into James Brown’s stream of hits. His lyricist and producer for the song was Dan Hartman, but the two most important phrases in the song are not Hartman’s. They are the two that Brown mumbles at the beginning and end: “relaxin’” (or, maybe, “relax it”) and “no lies.” He’s giving himself directives parallel to his famous hand signals that fined his musicians’ missed beats or wrong notes. Brown’s music always finely sliced discipline, but here his topic becomes the penalty of excess, both too much control and too much laxity. It’s the threshold from one to the other that the brilliant beat constantly reiterates and crashes. The rhythm of this song enacts the “runaway train” that drives past the one to the other. And the continually stuttered triplets before the downbeat are the threshold he cannot hold. You think love will wait and you don’t hold on, and then it’s gone. Anh Hanh! It’s not in Hartman’s words that this performance communicates, but in the grunted vowels that remark the threshold’s going. Then it’s gawWwn.
“How Do You Stop?” anthemizes the brave dignity of carrying one’s compounded meanings well past their decades. Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Art Buchwald, Eartha Kitt, James Brown: they all learned to make their whole maturing selves convey their message. The endgame for boomers, it turns out, requires pop guidance as much as the rocky beginning. I cannot find a video of Brown doing “How Do You Stop?” on You Tube, but there are lots of him doing “Living in America” from the same time. His thickened fire-hydrant body with its chunky belly and stubbed face are broad, marked like the boxers his performance precedes in Rocky IV. He is in calculated contrast to Stallone’s demure cuteness--he who is not marked by pain. The paradox is that Brown needed disco’s spectacle to salt his complexity and nestle his roughness. And disco needs him as a reality check. In that context he doesn’t lecture me but growls articulate vowels. I miss him already. No lie.
W. T. Lhamon, Jr. has written Deliberate Speed (1990),Raising Cain (1998), and Jump Jim Crow (2003).
In Place, In Time
By Anne Danielsen
“Now when we finish with this session, they’ll know where funk come from. Every time I look, listen at the radio, I hear, I hear JBs. I hear James Brown. Can’t even say, “Good God.” But that’s alright, I don’t care. They don’t never give me no royalties, and when they get on the different shows they say, “Yeah, I put it all together by myself.” Listen to James Brown, that’s all they got to ask me. But that’s alright, I can take that, yeah, cause I’m sayin’ it loud. But we gonna get on down, ’cause reality don’t ever lie.”
—James Brown introducing “Dead on It” (1975)
Funk developed into a trendy musical style in the 70s. No longer just a bit of African American slang denoting deep, soulful feeling, the word Funk became a faddish term - a label many artists, white as well as black, wanted to stick on their music. Funk was a new commodity - something some claimed to have invented last week, all on their own. But as James Brown stressed, on stages and pages, there was funk long before it smelled like money in the 70s.
In the liner notes to the 4-CD anthology of his musical career called Star Time, (Polydor) James Brown wrote: “It [Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag] had its own sound: the music on one-and-three, the downbeat, in anticipation.” But what did Brown mean by “the music on one-and-three”? What’s the big deal about a downbeat in anticipation? Why does it count when a beat hits, not exactly on the beat, but slightly ahead of it?
In the ten years that followed “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” Brown and his bands focused on what might be called the micro-rhythmic aspects of a groove. Each funky funk groove bears witness to the fact that playing the right patterns is not enough, equally important is how they are played. The matter and the manner are inseparable. This might be what James Brown hints at when he claims it all started with the light, early accent on an expected strong beat that marked his “Bag’s” groove. Under the leadership of Mr. Brown, his band would become a lab for developing perfectly imperfect metrics and for the cultivation of advanced rhythmic sensibilities.
After Brown’s “Bag”, one beat, and especially the One - the first beat of the bar - ceases to exist as a fixed point in time. Rather it might be approached as a rhythmic field, almost a whole rhythmic world. Brown’s famous “Get Up!” from ‘Sex Machine’ is characteristic in this respect. His cry gets right to the beat though it comes perhaps a little early in the metrical flow. And that is exactly why it is such a musically satisfying gesture. Brown’s utterance seems to conduct the entire rhythmic fabric that unites in an anticipatory downbeat just before the one. JB and the band, in other words, do as they say: they “Get up!” for the downstroke. The creative flow here takes place at the margins, impelled by what feels like a sort of impatience, as if one can’t keep from loosing the attack of the One a little early, thereby focusing the energy for a hot second before the release comes and a new repetition commences.
Brown’s downbeats in anticipation would spread to all parts of the groove -- to the drums, to the guitar riffs, to the bass. According to Brown’s autobiography, James Brown. The Godfather of Soul (1997), the significance of the One and the shaping of the dynamic aspects of that moment in time was something the legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned during his time with the JBs: “I think Bootsy learned a lot from me. When I met him he was playing a lot of bass—the ifs, the ands, and the buts. I got him to see the importance of the one in funk—the downbeat at the beginning of every bar. I got him to key in on the dynamic parts of the one instead of playing all around it. Then he could do all his other stuff in the right places—after the one.”
When funk first surfaced as an international pop trend, nobody seemed to remember where this aspect of the One, this little funky disturbance before the metrical one, came from. Now we know better. We know that Brown’s funk is funky in a way that has made it a source of spiritual uplift and get-down bodily engagement, of presence and pleasure, for generations of fans. Brown’s funk is the origin of the experience of being in funk, which is not a state of being in flux - out of place, out of time, but rather — in place, in time.
Anne Danielsen is the author of Presence and Pleasure. The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament. (Wesleyan University Press). She is a researcher in the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo.
A JB Memory
By Richard Torres
Fifteen years ago, James Brown indirectly gave me the only movie moment of my life. It was another sweltering summer in New York City and I was walking south on Broadway - between Eighth Street and Astor Place - holding hands with my then-girlfriend. We were on our way to Tower Records in search of new music and free air-conditioning. (More the latter then the former.) The south-bound traffic was light; just a few cars with their windows open – radios wailing - waiting at the red light. On the sidewalk there were about ten people on the stroll. A couple of them were carrying boomboxes. My girlfriend and I glanced at each other when we realized everyone was tuned into the same radio station – WBLS -playing the JB’s “Funky Good Time.” James and Fred Wesley were wailing over and over “We’re gonna have a funky good time.” When they paused for the break is when everybody – driver and pedestrian - stopped what they were doing, threw a hand up in the air and shouted the next line “we’re gonna take you highhhhhhhhhh-er!” Then there was a scream of approval, the light changed and we were all on our merry way. That was the power of Mr. James Brown. He made music that could uplift and transform us at any given time of any given day. During a week where I heard about the deaths of both Mr. Brown and that same ex-girlfriend, I’ve thought about that moment a lot. In fact, it’s the only memory that right now can ease my spirit.
If Loving You Is Wrong…
By John Leland
One thing you can say for James Brown is that everything about him was wrong. Not just the hair or the marital habits, I mean the whole nine. Like calling himself the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Please. You might as well be Most Punctual or Best Insured – nice for a civil servant, but Americans need to imagine our entertainers sleeping till mid-afternoon, stirring only so that unearned Cadillacs and pussy can fly to them on gossamer wings. Why taint the leisure world with shadows of hard work?
By the same token, what kind of lover tells you that when you kiss him, when you miss him, or even just hold his hand, he’ll break out in a cold sweat? America abjures a clammy hand or a clammy kisser.
But by his liberties James turned the world upside down. Instead of escaping work – which is always a false promise – he redeemed it. Instead of speaking promises to his own lover, he hurled you-gonna-miss-me’s at the lovers of all the guys who joined him on the goodfoot. He’s singing his sweat to the fellas, for them, not to his woman. They too break out in a cold sweat. Now they can be proud, at least until he sings “It’s Too Funky in Here.”
Still, he left us some riddles. Like on “I’ll Go Crazy,” what did he mean by:
You’ve got to live for yourself
Yourself and nobody else
If you leave me I’ll go crazy?
Do we live for ourself and leave him? Do we stay so he won’t go crazy? It’s a Delphic dilemma for the ages, never to be resolved.
Much like his friendship with Richard Nixon, but that shit was just fuct up.
By Casey Wasserman
On December 30th in Augusta, G.A., James Brown’s Homegoing cemented his legacy for eternity in a carefully constructed fusion of mythology and musicianship. The funeral, following a public viewing in the hometown arena bearing his name, exemplified the strangeness, capitalist impulse, and true genius of the man who gave America the cultural imperative, “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The capitalist impulse Brown endorsed throughout his career was inadvertently invoked by local entrepreneurs shilling bootleg t-shirts to mourners lined up outside the arena as well as by Fannie Brown Buford, Brown’s sister, who hawked “authorized” souvenirs inside the arena doors, including the most amazing pieces of James Brown paraphernalia known to man - laundry bags sporting Brown’s face and the phrase Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, sets of pot holders emblazoned with Brown’s face and signature on one pot holder and the words, Oohhh Hottt Pan(t)s on the other, cold sweat washcloths. All merchandise was located less than ten feet from the operational concession stands. My first Fast Foodie Funeral. (Confession: I had a pretzel and a Diet Pepsi. In my defense, I was there for seven hours from the arena’s opening to nearly the end of the Celebration. JB wouldn't want me to go hungry, and he definitely wouldn't have wanted me to eat questionable looking nachos.)
While the event was certainly a celebration of Brown’s musical and cultural contributions to American life, it mainly served to cook up a mythical Elvis-esque postmortem meal ticket for an assortment of friends, family, and hangers-on. This was demonstrated, of course, by his souvenir-selling kindred and the seemingly never ending fiasco concerning his final resting place and children’s inheritance. From Michael Jackson’s fashionably late entrance to manager Charles Bobbitt’s retelling of Brown’s final moments and last words (“I’m going home tonight”) to the honorary doctorate bestowed upon the singer from Augusta’s Paine College, the day’s events were in keeping with the singer’s penchant for over-the-top showmanship, spectacle, and bizarre ritual. It is only a matter of time before Brown’s current band, the Soul Generals, go on tour while playing alongside video footage of the Godfather a la Elvis.
The Homegoing ceremony might yet turn out to be one of the greatest achievements of Brown’s later career. It managed to mobilize an audience of several thousand mourners, freak seekers, and the generally curious to attend an event in which his band misplayed several of his hits (the very mistakes for which they would have been fined previously), his wife of questionable legality gave a B-grade performance of grief and song on stage, and stories invoking the numerous peaks and valleys of his career were told in an effort to give JB a chance to take in the show for once. After all, as Rev. Sharpton stated, “Only God could have made James Brown possible, and only God could give James Brown rest.” Perhaps our opportunity to entertain Mr. Brown has indeed arrived, and I hope we can get up from those splits.
In The Funk World
If Elvis Presley
- Amiri Baraka
From February, 2007