JAMES BROWN / “Funky Drummer”
Journey with me back to the late Eighties and early Nineties. Back to a time when James Brown samples obsessed rappers the same way that shiny cars, gunplay and hating women do now. Or we could go back even further, back to the mid to late Seventies, when ten-second breaks on James Brown records were laying the foundation for what would eventually become known as hip-hop. Truthfully, trying to take a brief look into the world of J.B. breaks is like trying to write a brief history of the universe, but we’re going to give it a shot anyway. But to keep the job manageable, and keep this post down to a readable length, I’m going to limit the list to five and keep my comments brief . So here, in reverse order, are hip-hop’s five favorite J.B. breaks ever. 5. (Tie.) “Blow Your Head” – From Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s Damn I Right I Am Somebody(Polydor, 1974) & “The Grunt” – From The J.B.’s Food For Thought(Polydor, 1972) For me, these two tracks from the J.B.’s (the Godfather’s backup band…but y’all should know that already) were the jaw-droppers. Even back when my musical diet consisted of 95% rap and 5% reggae, I’d heard enough classic soul around the house to know my hip-hop heroes were rapping over lifted loops. But when I heard these two records…. Man, talk about blowing heads—mine was certainly blown. Those next-century-sounding ‘sirens’ from Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back? Straight outta “The Grunt.” The eerie, Big Brother-ish keyboard whine from “Public Enemy #1” and “9th Wonder? That would be the intro to “Blow Your Head.” If you’re familiar with Golden Age-era hip-hop and you haven’t heard either one of these, you’re in for a surprise.
4. “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” – From In The Jungle Groove(Polydor, 1985) (Originally issued as a single in 1970) The actual groove is too hyper for anyone except, say, a Big Daddy Kane (who visited and revisited this sample several times during his career). For everyone else, it’s all about the guitar line, which is remarkably funky and upbeat, yet at the same time, strangely ominous. I first remember hearing this sample on K.R.S.-One and Scott La Rock’s classic boast/tribute/threat “South Bronx.”
- Times Sampled (according to The-Breaks.com): 33 each
- Overall Rank on Top 20 ‘Most-Sampled’ List: N/A
- Mtume’s Picks: Public Enemy – “Public Enemy No. 1,” Ultramagnetic M.C.’s – “Ease Back,” Digable Planets – “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)”
3. “The Payback” – From The Payback(Polydor, 1974) Any revenge song that includes a line like, “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy” can’t be half-bad. Throw in a bassline for the ages, a guitar line that’s about as addictive as nicotine and some serious funk coming from the drum kit and it’s another classic. “I’m a man,” J.B. says. “I’m a man. And I’m a son of a man.” And what about the soul sisters in the background?: “Whooooh! Yes, you did!” Hell, yeah. (By the way, when J.B. says, “I can dig rappin’,” he’s talking about negotiating, not MCing.)
- Times Sampled: 59
- Overall Rank: #12
- Mtume’s Picks: Boogie Down Productions – “South Bronx,” Original Concept – “Can You Feel It?,” Kool G. Rap & D.J. Polo – “Poison”
2. “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” – From Reality(Polydor, 1975) This one has been chopped up so frequently and so completely, that it’s hard for me to hear it as an actual song. For someone with hip-hop ears, “Funky President” sounds more like a megamix of rap breaks than it sounds like a musical performance by an actual band. How’s that for weird? A sample source that has been sampled so much that it starts to sound like a mix of samples.
- Times Sampled: 65
- Overall Rank: #9
- Mtume’s Picks: L.L. Cool J – “The Boomin’ System,” Ice Cube – “Jackin’ For Beats,” En Vogue – “Hold On”
1. “Funky Drummer” – From In The Jungle Groove(Polydor, 1985) (Originally issued as a single in 1969) Number one by far. And, I can say with certainty that the 182 records listed on The-Breaks.com are only the tip of a very large, wide and deep iceberg. Remember, The-Breaks lists only verifiable samples and nearly all of them are from the world of hip-hop. But like the ‘Amen’ break, the break from “Funky Drummer” has become ubiquitous enough that it is no longer always thought of as an actual sample, and its use certainly isn’t contained to hip-hop. These days, ‘the James Brown beat’ (as I’ve heard it called) can turn up anywhere. Commercials, pop tunes, movie soundtracks, random NBA dancers’ halftime routines, embarrassingly bad Madonna/Lenny Kravitz records, literally anywhere. The “Funky Drummer” break may have began as a fragment of a song, but it’s become an integral part of the soundscape of the modern world. The thing is, someone had to play that beat. That someone is James Brown’s main man and master funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield. With the possible exception of the ‘Amen’ break’s G.C. Coleman, Stubblefield is probably the most unwittingly prolific session musician in the history of recorded music itself.
- Times Sampled: 100
- Overall Rank: #5
- Mtume’s Picks: Eric B. & Rakim – “Eric B. Is President,” Ice Cube – “Jackin’ For Beats” (again), Das EFX – “They Want EFX”
At some point, you have to ask why? Why does hip-hop love the Godfather so much? Type ‘James Brown’ into a sample-source website and you’re going to get back pages and pages of hits. So many that you’ll initially think you made a mistake. But no, it isn’t a mistake. James Brown samples are just that prevalent. James is listed as The-Breaks.com’s #1 most-sampled artist ever. And his total sample count (903) is more than triple that of the nearest contender. It’s said that J.B. makes millions per year on sample-related royalties alone. Hell, James’ publishing lawyer has his own website. How’s that for popular? And, we haven’t even mentioned the hundreds and hundreds of samples of songs by James Brown satellite acts like Lyn Collins’ “Think” (Overall Rank - #4), Bobby Byrd’s version of “Hot Pants” (Overall Rank - #16) and all of the rest of the output by the J.B.’s. So why? Why did James Brown’s music have such a pull on hip-hop DJs and producers? The answer is actually simple. It’s rhythm. Kalamu has a theory—and I think he’s right—that James Brown was trying to turn his entire band into a rhythm instrument. And by ‘entire band’ I don’t just mean the traditional rhythm section of the drummer and the bass player. Listen closely to the horn riffs on “Funky Drummer” or “Get Up, Get Into It.” That’s rhythmic—not harmonic or melodic. Listen to the classic ‘chicken-scratching’ of the guitar on “The Payback.” Again, that’s rhythm. Or listen to J.B. himself. Yes, back in the day, J.B. cut melodic ballads like “Try Me” and “It’s A Man’s World.” But by the late Sixties and early Seventies (not coincidentally, the period most-favored by hip-hoppers), J.B. was deep into his ‘New Super Super Heavy Funk’ phase. Even his vocals were rhythmic. He chant/spoke/grunted his way through nearly every record. (Well, every hit record, at least. The album filler is another story.) There was virtually no attempt on J.B.’s part to actually ‘sing.’ He’d eschewed melody and harmony almost entirely to create symphonies of pure rhythm. When you consider that rap music in its essential form is nothing but vocal rhythms (MCing) layered over drum rhythms (DJing)—i.e., no melody or harmony—it shouldn’t be surprising that hip-hop and James Brown would fit so well together. In fact, the Godfather of Hip-Hop himself, DJ Kool Herc has been quoted as saying that if it weren’t for James Brown, there would no such thing as hip-hop. All I can say to that is ‘amen.’ (No pun intended.) This one’s for you, J.B. —Mtume ya Salaam Sherlock Holmes rides again Boyeee, Mtume, when you put to your mind to it, you know you a bad somebody…. And behind the curtain, dances the wizard of funk. Every MC ought to fall down on their knees every day and say 20 Hail JB’s, Super-Heavy, Badder Than Bad, Godfather of Funk! Cause they the sons of the man of funky music. Ain’t nobody ever combined bandleading ability, with dancing ability, with singing ability, with ultra-rhythmic sensitivity and sensibility like James Brown. But, Mtume, you know that. What I dig about what you did is show us the extent to which JB is the foundation of the latest development in Black music. I knew the man was important, but da-yam this is outta sight. Anyway, everybody, have a funky good time. JB is elementary—the origin of one of the major branches of black music. —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. Mtume, do you remember when you came on as a guest on one of my Kitchen Sink radio programs, you played the rap with the sample and right behind it we played the original? We had some fun that night. Back in time Yeah, I do remember that. And I still like to do that from time to time. In fact, I have whole playlists in my iTunes that are nothing but the original versions of famous hip-hop samples. If you know the hip-hop songs, listening to the originals feels something like traveling back in time to hang out with your Mom and Dad before you were born, back when they were young and cool (as opposed to old and cool ) and the music was soulful. Or at least, that's the feeling it gives me. —Mtume ya Salaam
- Times Sampled: 182
- Overall Rank: #1
- Mtume’s Picks: Run-DMC – “Run’s House,” Ice Cube – “Jackin’ For Beats” (why not?), Sinead O’Connor – “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”
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