Saturday, September 19, 2009

James Brown: Still Underrated After All These Years

James Brown Photo by Soul Portrait

Although James Brown has received plenty of accolades for his stellar talent, I still feel that he is 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 late 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 influential musical artists of the 20th century, just as important as Elvis in my view, if not more so.

In 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. In Brown’s grooves, the rhythm took precedence over melody and harmonies. These grooves were explosive; the guitars, bass, drums and horns ricocheted off one another to form the sonic equivalent of a combustion engine. In addition, Brown’s funk possessed a distinctive tribal edge and immediately connected with the urban youth of America and before long was embraced by people of all races and social standing across the country and even abroad.

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 blazed through the path that Brown opened up for them the previous decade. In addition, talented songwriter/musicians Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder and innovative funk/rock collective Parliament/Funkadelic expanded on Brown’s blue print, 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. Legendary artists/performers like Michael Jackson, Prince and Mick Jagger owe a lot to The Godfather. When you watch their live performances, Brown’s influence is undeniable. Additionally, Brown’s grooves were the foundation for early rap records via samples. Hip Hop wouldn’t be what it is today if not for Brown’s funk. Also, 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 greatest 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 popular genre in which Brown had been a major influence. 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 but can also be heard in pop, rock and even alternative music. Alternative funk-metal bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and Faith No More couldn't have existed without Brown pioneering funk music decades earlier.

And if that weren’t enough to remove any doubts of Brown’s massive impact on popular music, let’s take a gander as 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 made it 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”) 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.

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