A few years before James Brown’s death at the age of 73—on Christmas morning in 2006—I went with radio personality and soul music lover Dyana Williams to New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom to see “the Godfather” in concert. Featuring rockers Lenny Kravitz and Slash as the opening acts, at some point during Brown’s set both of my favorite biracial stars joined him on stage.
In his late 60s at the time, James proved he was still “the hardest working man in show business” as he showed the “kids” how the magic was done. While Kravitz and Slash blared their electric axes, James slid across the stage, screeched loudly and did a slight split while I simply danced in my seat and broke out in a cold sweat. Though his performance wasn’t as hyperactive as his famous sets from 30 years earlier, the audience got the point and cheered loudly.
While I’d never seen JB in his prime—doing three shows a day on the chitlin’ circuit, his precise musicians in pressed pants and gleaming instruments doing their thing while he sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” or “Hot Pants”—I had been in awe of this perspiring soul man since I was a tike.
Of course, I wasn’t the only young boy turned out by James’s jungle groove. “When I was a kid, James Brown was putting out singles every three weeks, and I would buy them all,” Prince told me back in 1999. “I used to ride my bike to Dee’s Record Center and slide the discs on my handlebars so I could watch them spin as I rode home.”
James Brown was a prolific artist who was also a complicated man. Quick to cuss or fight, he could also be quite peaceful. By broadcasting his show live, he stopped the city of Boston from rioting after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. He also flew to Vietnam on his own dime to perform for the troops, uplifting Black America with anthems like “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).” Although he did himself no favors hanging out with President Nixon in the 1970s, we always knew James Brown was down with us.
On the day of Brown’s death in 2006, besides believing that the master showman was trying to upstage Jesus, I thought about how much his music inspired several generations of soul children like George Clinton, Prince, D’Angelo and Marley Marl. A few months before Brown’s death, writer Jonathan Lethem wrote “[H]e forged a style of music so beguilingly futuristic that it made everything else—melody, lyrics, verse-chorus-verse—sound antique.”
Nothing was perhaps more futuristic than the many JB sides sampled by producers on thousands of hip-hop records. As Brown told Lethem in the same interview, “I’m the most sampled and stolen. What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine too. I got a song about that, but I’m never gonna release it. Don’t want a war with the rappers. If it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t steal it.”
In the early 1970s, South Bronx expats Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash spun his joints till the break of dawn. The foundation of hip-hop’s present day force as a multimillion dollar industry was laid with the hypnotic drum and bass beats lifted from classic tracks “The Payback,” “Impeach the President” and countless others. “Brown’s cockiness and swagger is all up in the DNA of rap,” noted cultural journalist Nelson George says. “Simply put, if there was no James Brown there would be no hip-hop.”
When it comes to understanding Brown’s contribution to the art form of hip-hop, producer/rapper Daddy-O (formerly of Stetsasonic) explains: “When DJs like Jazzy Jay used to play in the parks, he always used Brown’s beats to rile up the crowd. The musicians that played with Brown had perfect metronome timing. There was a steady aggression in each of his songs that was just addictive.”
However, when James Brown died and was laid in state at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the same venue where he recorded his famed live album in 1963, the hip-hop community was missing in action; another ceremony in Brown’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia fared even worse.
“James Brown was like a member of our collective family,” Public Enemy MC Chuck D, who attended the Augusta services, says. “So yes, I was disappointed with the turn out of people from the rap world, since more than 50% of hip-hop’s musical psyche was James Brown.”
Still, according to Public Enemy producer Keith Shocklee, the legacy of JB lives in the soul of the hip-hop community whether they attended the funeral or not. “Truthfully, not many of us knew James Brown personally, but his rhythms will always be a part of us. Brown was one brother who, even as he got older, never slowed down.”
Photographer Ernie Paniccioli, who shot a picture of James Brown in 2001, first saw the legendary artist at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in the 1960s. “Here was a man who was abandoned by his parents, was in jail when he was 15, but was still a genius. James revolutionized music; there was nothing like him.”
In 2014, a James Brown biopic produced by Mick Jagger and co-starring Jill Scott and newcomer Chadwick Boseman (42) will bring the entertainer’s wild life and times to the screen. “Many of us achieved our own fame from James Brown’s music,” says Bronx born rapper Busy Bee, who won many old school rhyme battles utilizing the “Funky President” beat. “He was there in the beginning, and he will never be forgotten.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.
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