He Made the World Funky

An appreciation of James Brown.

James Brown

In the spring of 1965, James Brown went into a Charlotte, N.C., studio to cut a new record. The song’s lyrics were little more than a laundry list of dance crazes, but the music was eerie and unusual—a jittery blues vamp, with oddly accented beats and horns darting and honking in the vast, empty spaces between whip-crack snare hits. “I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums,” Brown would recall in his autobiography. Sure enough, the guitar sound was heavily percussive, clanking like a sledgehammer striking a rail spike. Brown flubbed a couple of lyrics during the recording, but when he heard the playback he decided, correctly, that the piece was too good to warrant a second take. “When I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance,” Brown remembered, adding, in the understatement of all-time, “I had discovered that my strength was … in the rhythm.”

The song was called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and for once it’s not glib to say that the rest was history. With “Brand New Bag,” Brown created funk and laid the groundwork for disco, hip-hop, techno, and virtually every other style of modern popular music that has come since. He taught the world to wring percussive noise from every instrument—to hear drums everywhere—and to treat every song as the occasion for a riotous party. And he embarked on his most fertile period, a decade that produced dozens of the hottest records ever made: “I Feel Good,” “Sex Machine,” “Brother Rapp,” “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” “Super Bad,” and “Mother Popcorn” (my personal vote for funkiest song in the universe), among many others.

But Brown’s achievement is larger than his own oeuvre and the genres that it begat. Flip on the radio virtually anywhere on earth today, and you will hear the sound of the Brown Revolution, the blare of propulsive, polyrhythmic dance music. Beats have conquered the world, even the West, where polyphony was born and melody and harmony have traditionally held sway. No other musician—not Louis Armstrong, not Elvis Presley, not Bob Dylan—can claim so central a role in this momentous cultural shift. “Make It Funky,” James commanded, and from Boise to Berlin to Bangkok, they have.

The obituaries that have appeared in the wake of Brown’s death yesterday at the age of 73 have sketched the milestones and curiosities of his life: his hardscrabble childhood in Georgia, where he was raised by an aunt who ran a brothel; his rise through the chitlin’ circuit; his marriages and arrests; his big hits, black pride anthems, and strange fondness for Richard Nixon. And his nicknames: “the Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” “Minister of Super Heavy Funk,” “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Mr. Dynamite.” No one who ever saw Brown in concert could doubt that he earned those titles. Even in his dotage, he led a band as tight as any in the world and executed his signature shimmies, slides, and splits in dance shoes buffed to a high gloss.

Brown’s showmanship merged the fervent emotionalism of the black church with pure showbiz—flashy clothes, vaudevillian theatrics, sweat-drenched movement, and a pompadour flamboyant enough to inspire Al Sharpton (and countless pimps). He was the model for all pop performers who followed him. After Brown, even the whitest white boy felt compelled to shake it a little onstage.

The world is a quieter and duller place now that Brown will never again stride the boards, although you can relive the excitement by playing the volcanic Live at the Apollo (1963). That record, by far the best live album ever made, is a good place to begin listening, along with the Star Timebox set, which includes most of the big hits. But digging into the Brown discography is the task of a lifetime. He made at least 70 albums, and there are brilliant moments on all of them. His earliest recordings, from the late 1950s, prove that his raw-throated ballad singing would have made him a legend even if he’d never found the funk. (Hunt down his 1959 debut Please Please Please.) He recorded jazz standards and gospel testimonials and disco, rap, showtunes, instrumentals, and dozens upon dozens of hilarious numbers like “For Goodness Sake, Look at Those Cakes” and “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”—which I suppose you could call novelty songs, if the grooves weren’t so seriously ferocious.

The relentless groove was Brown’s specialty, and he proved its pleasures were as profound, its mysteries as rich, as any that art has to offer. He worked hard to refine his craft. Earlier this year, critic and occasional Slate contributor Douglas Wolk gave me an extraordinary collection of MP3s he’d compiled of nearly every single ever produced by James Brown. Listening to these hundreds of songs by dozens of artists, it becomes clear that Brown is a bandleader and musical auteur on par with Duke Ellington. Like Ellington, he presided over a steady cast of players (including, among other greats, bassist Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield), composed to their strengths, and kept pushing the music into new territory. Listen closely, with a good pair of headphones, and the thousand pointillist details of Brown’s genius open up to you: the shifting accents and registers, the variations in dynamics and attack, the disconcerting spaces and silences, the beats piled atop beats. But, of course, that genius is never more apparent than when the headphones come off and you lose yourself in the steamy blur of a packed dance floor.

A subtler, often overlooked achievement is the words that Brown wrote and sang. He was capable of writing traditional pop lyrics, but by the late ‘60s, straightforward narratives and confessions were largely replaced by a surreal flow of catchphrases and exhortations that gushed out over the inexorable beat: “Give it up or turn it a loose”; “Gimme some air!”; “Take it to the bridge!”; “Mama, come here quick/ Bring me that lickin’ stick”; “Hit me!”; “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud”; “Sometimes I feel so nice/ Good Lord!/ I jump back, I wanna kiss myself”; and, passim, “Unh!,” with which Brown proved, again and again, that in pop music, sound is sense, and that a single well-placed, wordless guttural can carry more meaning than a thousand poetaster’s stanzas. Of course, in between grunts, Brown slipped in some worldly wisdom. To wit: “Get up offa that thing, and shake ‘till you feel better/ Get up offa that thing, and shake it/ Sing it now!” In other words: Dancing is joy’s end and its means. As philosophies of life go, it’s not too shabby, and it’s the best user’s guide to James Brown records that I know.