This morning, one of my inboxes had the bad news that James Brown had passed away. Brown was a such a force of nature that its almost hard to believe he’s gone. Truth is, you can’t underestimate his contributions to music. He’s one of the people that I internally refer to as a “nexus”– in that he’s at the center of certain musical forms. This is where existing forms collide, new forms are created, and multiple influential musicians are markedly influenced themselves. You don’t have to like these musicians, but you can’t deny their impact. And as debateable as my choices of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Hank Williams may be; I will allow no argument with incorporating James Brown into this lineup. It’s MY internal classification, afterall.
James Brown invented rap. He invented funk. Invented disco. He put the crossroads of gospel and rhythm ‘n blues on the map. He may not have invented soul music, but he alone is a main ingredient– flour is to bread as James Brown is to soul. In politicizing his music, he became a powerful voice not only for moving your ass, but freeing your mind. Later on, George Clinton would state this in so many words– but as always, James did it first.
He had the best bands, the best moves, the best songs, the tightest rhythms. Some of my best memories involve his songs– Please, Please, Please… It’s A Man’s World… Papa Don’t Take No Mess… Hot Pants… Doin’ It To Death, all are amazingly fantastic. It’s almost hard to believe the man was from this planet.
Even throwaway stuff like “Living in America” was great. Hell, I was listening to it last night on “Rocky Radio,” believe it or not. I still remember having James Brown kick my ass as a little kid, hearing “The Payback” for the first time. “I don’t know karate, but I know kah-razy!”
Years later, I’d end up with one of my favorite albums, “James Brown at the Organ.” I was getting pretty heavy into funk at the time– Funkadelic, Confunkshun, Cameo, Buddy Miles– and it was especially cool to hear this relatively simple album top them so easily. And as an atheist, let me say that I’d gladly attend church if I got to see something like his performance in Blues Brothers. It was James Brown’s funk in Fela Kuti’s “Colonial Mentality” that turned me on to Afrobeat. It was his sounds (literally!) that sold me on Public Enemy– they hardly needed the help, but damn, what a way to sweeten the deal! I’m in deep enough to get a sick little giggle at what’s facing me on the Wikipedia entry now– “James Brown is dead,” an unavoidable reference to his “death” in 1992, and the subsequent LA Style track.
Rest in peace, James! Thanks for the music. –DaveX