December 27, 2006

James Brown, Revolutionary

Okay, don’t get your undies in a bunch—I’m not memorializing James as belonging in the same expressly political musical pantheon as, say, Bob Marley or D. Boon or Phil Ochs. I just want to highlight a few points which were shorted in many of the obits that have blanketed Teh Internets and the media.

James Brown was, beyond any doubt, a musical revolutionary who changed the face of African American music—two times, maybe three. Which means he changed the face of American music. Which means he changed the face of world music. And that’s revolutionary, small-r revolutionary anyhow, on a scale few have ever achieved.

The estimable Charles Keil, a crack musicologist of the partisan rather than the academic type and all-round smart guy, identifies two traditions in popular music. The more common is the one which highlights strings and the human voice—“pickin’ and singin’ ” for short. The other is based on horns and drums, a school which Charlie favors, as shown in the more intriguing shorthand he has devised for it—“beaten and blown.” If one accepts Charlie’s typology for a minute, the biggest difference, in my opinion, is that pickin‘ and signin’ tends to be head music, listening and toe-tapping music, where beaten and blown is body music, demanding, impelling, a more comprehensive physical response than the patting of a foot.

Well, James Brown was a beaten and blown guy all the way, in a country where, with the partial exception of the big band era and some earlier and subsequent small group jazz, one could argue that pickin’ and singin’ has dominated and shaped musical taste for the last century.

With early instrumentals like 1961’s “Night Train” pointing the way, he developed a band that transformed the vamp—the repeated unison instrumental riff in a long jazz performance, as in “vamp ‘til ready”—into the whole song. Goodbye to the conventions of popular songwriting—the intro, the verse, the chorus, the bridge, the changes, the resolution. What was left at the heart of the song was the vamp. Folks talk about the Live at the Apollo, Volume 1 album as the epistemological break, but I gotta go for “”Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Dave Marsh says of it:

“No record ‘Before Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” sounded anything like it. No record since—certainly no dance record—has been unmarked by it.”
But “Brand New Bag” was only a turning point, not the end. By the time he got to “Cold Sweat” a couple years later James had virtually dispensed with chord changes, period. As the late Robert Palmer put it:
"The rhythmic elements became the song....Brown and his musicians began to treat every instrument and voice in the group as if it were a drum. The horns played single-note bursts that were often sprung against the downbeats. The bass lines were broken into choppy two- or three-note patterns....Brown's rhythm guitarist choked his guitar strings against the instrument's neck so hard that his playing began to sound like a jagged tin can being scraped with a pocket knife."
In these early years he had also transformed soul vocals. In jazz the voice was often treated (as in classical and art music) principally as another instrument—words were secondary. Scat singing as practiced by Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald made the point that the often–corny pop lyrics they recorded didn’t matter; the joy of the music and artistic mastery (mistressy?) were what counted.

James’s implied critique was different. Drawing from the traditions of the Black church, he tortured the lyrics, hollering them, whispering them, drawing them out, chanting them, moaning them, and in doing so transcended the lyrics by showing that these words, that any words, were too weak, too pallid to fully express what was inside him—and us.

The second revolution Brown pioneered was the further evolution of what was by now called Funk. In the late “60s. early ‘70s, he was putting complex polyrhythms into cuts like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” codifying and deepening Funk and setting the stage for the early ’70s disco era. Like ‘60s soul, with its Motown vs. Stax/Volt dichotomy, classic disco had its smooth and its rough—and James was in the vanguard of the rough.

Of course Brown didn’t make the revolution alone. He had help, in the form of his band, and motivation , in the form of innovative funk competitors like the Isley Brothers, the Brothers Johnson, New Orleans’ Meters, and loads of others. The main one of course was George Clinton and the whole P-Funk combine. Some followed James’s polyrhythms back to Africa, like Osibisa and Mandrill. Folks who turned to Africa to find the roots of this remarkable music found themselves tripping over James himself more than once, in the form of artists like Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who got turned on to him during a US sojourn in the late ‘60s. The creator of Afro-Beat, Fela returned the favor, influencing James Brown cuts like 1973’s “Time Is Running Out.”

Which bring us to the “maybe three” revolutions in the introduction. Plenty of people will argue that without James Brown, there would be no hip-hop. Certainly his shit got sampled by more early MCs and producers than anyone else’s—by at least an order of magnitude. It kind of peaked with NYC MC Fresh Gordon’s “Feelin’ James” tribute in, what was it, '85? (And someday somebody’s gonna write a book about James’s influence on house music. Despite what would appear to be an insistence worthy of the Adversary, the AntiJames, on a synthesized four/four beat, a lot of ‘80s house and garage cuts used piano flava recorded or inspired by James.)

To close, a brief word about James Brown’s politics. A lot of people have parsed his interesting love-hate relationship with America and his contradictory views on racism and capitalism and poverty. Hey, go to the music. Two tunes tell the story, and the rest is commentary.

In 1968, James Brown cut the raucous, defiant anthem of the Black Liberation Movement, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud.” This was well before the more mainstream outfits like Motown and Stax/Volt let their artists record even mildly nationalist or political music—or, to be more exact, were forced by them to allow it. It announces that the long centuries of white values, white history and white aesthetics being imposed on Black folk and used as a yardstick to judge them are at an end. When Sam Cooke cut the achingly beautiful “A Change Is Gonna Come” less than five years earlier, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted that it would come this fast or that it would take this amazing form.

Another five years on, in 1973, Richard Nixon was going down in flames. James’s background band, the JBs, led by legendary trombonist Fred Wesley, recorded a little ditty called “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Get Straight.” It’s absolutely a James Brown cut of the era, complete with grunts, a goofy riff on Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead” and a repeated chorus of “I need some money!” (Which reminds me—there’s precious little in Go-Go that doesn’t come from James Brown, too.) And the message is just as simple as “I’m Black And I’m Proud”: Black folks can’t afford to care about politics, we got to focus on the wallet. Wrong, but a view that is stronger now than it was then and hence one that revolutionary socialists need be on top of and ready to engage with.

But I can't leave that as the last word. The personal is after all political. James Brown was an abuser of women, a serial abuser. He may have meant every syllable of agonized self-abasement in "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World," but it didn't stop him from clocking wives and girlfriends anymore than "I Get Along Without You Very Well," stopped Frank Sinatra. I'm gonna go back and reread Pearl Cleage's influential "Mad At Miles," to cut my sadness, and my wonkery, with anger.


Be sure to check out Ajamu Dillahunt's thoughts on James's death over at Sankofa Meets the Future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At the People's Organization for Progress Kwanzaa celebration tonight (Ujamaa; Cooperative Economics, BTW) Amiri Baraka read a poem about James Brown.

He described as a "low-ku"(like a haiku):

If Elvis Presley's
the king,
What's James Brown?