Saturday, September 19, 2009

James Brown: Still Underrated After All These Years

James Brown Photo by Soul Portrait

Although James Brown has received tons of accolades for his incredible talent, I feel that he is still underrated. By many, he’s remembered as a tremendously gifted showman who released great records to dance to. However, that is just scratching the surface of what the legendary artist had accomplished in his 50-year career in the music industry. Much more than just a great entertainer, Brown was one of the most important and influential music artists of the 20th century.

During the mid-1960s, Brown reshaped the musical landscape with the creation of a raw, rhythm-heavy form of R&B that we’ve come to know as funk. This new music style was polyrhythmic and heavily syncopated and more earthy than most of the R&B that was heard on the airwaves at the time. The rhythm took precedence over melody and harmonies in this fresh new sound, which was quite unique at the time. Brown's grooves were explosive; the guitars, bass, drums, and horns ricocheted off one another to form the sonic equivalent of a combustion engine. In Brown's hands, all the instruments functioned as percussive components in support of the groove. Funk is all about the groove and how it moves the listener on an instinctive and visceral level.

Additionally, Brown’s funk possessed a tribal edge and had direct ties to his African roots. Funk immediately connected with America's black youth. It spoke to them in a way that no other previous genre ever had. Funk represented the freedom of pure black expression with all of its visceral power and authenticity intact. It was rebellious, aggressive, unabashed and in-your-face, not tamed and watered-down for easy mainstream consumption. Consequently, the existence of funk alone was a huge political statement. Before long, people of all races and social standing around the world began to embrace the funk. The power of "the One" was just too strong to ignore or deny.

Funk took center stage in the ‘70s with the emergence of popular funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and The Average White Band. These bands charged full force through the funky path that Brown had blazed for them the previous decade. In addition, innovative, groundbreaking music acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Parliament-Funkadelic expanded on Brown’s blueprint, adding their own unique touches to the  genre. And in that decade, Brown remained at the top of his game, dropping countless funk classics, including “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Funky Drummer,” “Super Bad ” and “The Payback.”

Moreover, Brown’s dynamic performance style also proved to be very influential. Superstar artists/performers like Michael Jackson, Prince and Mick Jagger owe a great debt to the Godfather of Soul. When you watch their live performances, Brown’s influence is undeniable.

Additionally, his grooves were the foundation for early rap records via samples. Hip-hop music wouldn’t have even existed without Brown’s funk. And he anticipated rap on early-‘70s records such as “Escape-ism” and “King Heroin” in which he spoke the lyrics instead of singing them. And let’s not forget “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of the most iconic black pride anthems of all time, where he rapped the main verses and only sang on the song’s famous chorus and the bridge.

Disco music was another descendant of funk. In fact, most contemporary dance music can be traced back to Brown’s early funk grooves--house, techno, trance, trip hop, jungle/drum ‘n’ bass, breakbeat, etc. And Brown’s influence is not only restricted to R&B, hip-hop and dance music; it also can be heard in pop, rock and even alternative music. Alternative funk-metal bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and Faith No More are all products Brown's pioneering funk innovations decades earlier.

And if that weren’t enough to remove any doubts of Brown’s massive impact on popular music, let’s take a peek his accomplishments on the charts. He had 99 singles make Billboard’s top 100. The only artist to have more was Elvis Presley. Additionally, he had a staggering 116 entries on the Billboard’s R&B singles charts, seventeen of which went to number one. Only Stevie Wonder and Louis Jordan had more number ones on the R&B charts.

Also, his concerts were the stuff of legend. Brown (aka “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and "Mr. Dynamite") electrified audiences all over the world with his powerhouse performances and set the bar unbelievable high for every performer who came after him.

As a way to measure Brown’s amazing legacy, try to imagine what popular music would be like without him… didn’t think you could.


James Brown & the Famous Flames turn out the T.A.M.I. Show with an explosive, history-making performance in 1964.


James Brown and the original J.B.'s tear up the stage on an Italian TV show in 1971.

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