PREFACE: Every Christmas for the past four years I along with a lot of other people think a lot about James Brown. And though I’ve never been particularly fond of the ritual of celebrating and remembering folks on the anniversaries of their deaths – rather than, oh say, their birthdays – I can’t really help it in this case. The memory of gathering with neighbors and strangers in the frigid cold along Lenox Avenue three days after James passed to watch (and ultimately follow) a horse drawn carriage usher him down to the Apollo Theater for once final appearance is one I’ll forever associate with the holiday season in Harlem. A few days after hearing that I was among the many compelled to attend the Godfather’s public wake, Brendan Frederick of Scratch asked me if I’d be down to eulogize James Brown in the magazine. And this is what I wrote.
Words: Chairman Mao
Originally published in Scratch, March/April 2007.
In the early hours of Christmas Day 2006 James Brown, weak from pneumonia and suffering congestive heart failure, turned to his long-time friend and manager Charles Bobbit and said simply, “I’m going to leave here tonight.” After making his peace with the Creator, the Godfather of Soul lay back in his Atlanta hospital bed one final time, passing on to a better place not of this earth.
Music fans of the world mourned the passing of a legend. James Brown, it had seemed to many of us, was bigger than life, someone that no hardship, obstacle, or setback – be it growing up in the Jim Crow South, incarceration, band mutinies, or changing popular musical tastes – could hold back. We of the hip-hop generation, of course, felt a great kinship with James for having helped him overcome the latter. During the better part of the late ’70s and early ’80s when Black radio turned its collective back on JB, essentially writing off Soul Brother #1 as Soul Brother # Done, South Bronx selectors kept his heaviest beats in rotation – one break and two copies at a time – and commemorated his birthday with annual Zulu Nation throwdowns. By the mid-’80s, when producer Marley Marl discovered the powers of digital sampling (and soon after the super-powers of sampling James Brown and his productions) the Godfather was once again back and, to quote a line from his own “Coldblooded,” hipper than hip. He was hip-hop.
Rap cats took great pride in taking credit for the restoration of his career (lest we forget Daddy-O’s oft-quoted lyric from Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz” – “Tell the truth James Brown was old/ ’Til Eric and Ra came out with ‘I [Know You] Got Soul’”). But the truth of the matter was it was James who’d blessed us by laying down the true blueprint of hip-hop (sorry, Kris; sorry, ’Hov) with the pioneering rhythm method of his funk recordings of the late ’60s and early ’70s. On ground-breaking groove-centric workouts and extended jams like “Soul Power,” “Funky Drummer,” “Escape-Ism,” “Make It Funky,” “Mind Power,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” the almighty “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” and countless others, traditional song structure was handed its walking papers, replaced by funk-drenched vamps repeated to the edge of panic before temporary relief arrived in the form of a bridge every now and then. This was rhythm for rhythm’s sake, a celebration of beats so bad (meaning good) that the self-dubbed Minister of New New (two times!) Super Heavy Funk could even cease singing, drop entire songs of spoken jewels, or have his prodigious band-members shout out their hometowns and still keep the party live. This was the future – the basis of not just hip-hop, but every other genre of modern club or dance music now in existence. James himself knew it; it just took the rest of us a while to catch up to him.
No such uncertainty existed on Thursday, December 28th, 2006 when blocks upon blocks of James Brown fans withstood several hours waiting on line in the winter chill to see our musical guiding light grace the stage of Harlem USA’s Apollo Theater one last time, and say goodbye and thank you. We represented different generations; from old timers who’d seen the Godfather perform frequently over the years; to young children – there at the behest of their parents – for whom hearing “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” sung in unison by a crowd of strangers the same complexion as theirs induced an epiphany that was priceless to witness. Our common bond was undeniable: the soundtrack to our lives would be entirely unimaginable without James Brown.
The King is dead; long live the King. James Brown Forever. R.I.P.