The Magazine

Troubled Soul

The man who started it all heads for the finish line.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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By the early 1960s, funk was well established in jazz. But not until played by Brown's perfectionist band did funk become mainstream--to the extent that such gnarly, muscular, whiplash rhythms can ever become mainstream. Brown recalls: "I was still called a soul singer . . . but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. . . . When I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating in a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance."

As his wording implies, Brown never lost the gospel spark. The high point of his concerts was always the moment when, after a 30-or 40-minute version of a song, he would sink to the floor of the stage and allow his "cape man," Danny Ray, to enfold him in a satin cloak like that of the wrestler Gorgeous George. Then, as Brown limped offstage supported by Ray, the band would teasingly revive the rhythm. Brown would stop, swaying like a man drunk with exhaustion, and amid the fulminations of the rhythm and the screams of the fans, wait for the spirit to seize him. When it did, he would throw off the cape and deliver a ferocious encore.

Brown, in his prime, blazed with energy both spiritual and erotic. Yet as soul gave way to disco in the "liberated" 1970s, the spiritual was forgotten and the erotic reduced to raw sex. Some performers, like Barry White, embraced this change and became caricatured "love men." Others, like Al Green, rejected it and returned to gospel. Brown tended the flame without going to either extreme, as suggested by his comment to Tucker: "Really, a lot of the ways I communicate with people and what I communicate I owe to the church. When I'm on a stage, I'm trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does."

Yet disco hurt Brown. Listeners who came of age in the 1970s will hear his rhythms as part of a generalized soundtrack that, as the decade wore on, became ever more mechanical. Brown's account of this transformation is priceless:

Disco is a simplification of a lot of what I was doing, of what they thought I was doing. Disco is a very small part of funk. It's the end of the song, the repetitious part, like a vamp. The difference is that in funk you dig into a groove, you don't stay on the surface. Disco stayed on the surface. See, I taught 'em everything they know but not everything I know.

After the disco craze imploded in 1979, the name was dropped but the method remained. Brown adds: "It was all done with machines. [The artists] thought they could dress up in a Superfly outfit, play one note, and that would make them a star. . . . The record companies loved disco because . . . machines can't talk back and, unlike artists, they don't have to be paid." Computerized rhythms still dominate popular music. Why struggle to record live drummers, bassists, and other percussionists, when the majority of listeners don't notice the difference? To grasp the current relevance of Brown's comment, just substitute "pop" for "disco" and "Britney Spears" for "Superfly."

Finally, people who grew up in the 1980s will associate Brown not with soul or disco but with rap--because when rap first emerged from uptown New York dance clubs, its foundation was funk, especially James Brown funk. But rap did not grow directly out of the musical tradition that produced James Brown. Instead, it grew out of a spoken tradition with roots in both North America and the Caribbean. In the West Indies historically, the popular music of blacks was not played on the government-controlled radio. Nor was it played in people's homes, because most blacks were too poor to own record players. Instead, it was provided by mobile DJs with large record collections and powerful "sound systems," who specialized in "toasting," or delivering a steady patter over instrumental remixes of popular records.

The creator of rap is said to be Kool DJ Herc (Clive Campbell), a Jamaican immigrant who introduced toasting to the Bronx. He was quickly followed by Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler), the son of Barbadian immigrants who devised a way to switch back and forth between two turntables. Atop his "wheels of steel," Grandmaster Flash was a true percussionist, weaving together the "breaks," or most heavily rhythmic sections, of two different funk records.

Early rap was thus an improvised art requiring a ready wit, a sharp ear, and quick hands. But the 1970s were a time of swift technological change, so it was not long before rap went high tech. All it took were a few chart hits. Once rap entered the studio, it no longer depended on the skills of live performers, either record spinners (DJs) or rappers (MCs). Instead, it became a sound collage, assembled on tape by a producer adept at "sampling" all sorts of recorded sounds--not just voices and rhythms but everything from sirens and gunshots to political speeches and jazz solos. (Today, of course, sampling is even easier, because it is done digitally.) Because the funky rhythm remained essential, the single most sampled source in rap is James Brown. That's why he commented to Spin magazine in 1991 that rap "is the next thing, but it's all from me." And that's why he sued record labels who were sampling without paying for the rights.

Apart from self-interest, Brown's opinion of rap seems mixed. Back in the 1980s, he shared the general view of it as more bound up with politics than most forms of black music. That suited him, because that was how he saw his own music. It has never been easy to classify Brown politically. Today's "liberal" and "conservative" labels don't fit. Mostly Brown belongs to the generation of African Americans described by Martin Luther King as "materialistic, patriotic, and religious." During the 1960s, when his fame was at its zenith, Brown was attacked by both left and right. The left criticized him for writing a song called "America Is My Home," for entertaining the troops in Vietnam (even though he had to battle the State Department for permission), and, above all, for endorsing Richard Nixon in 1972. The right criticized him for writing a song called "Say It Loud / I'm Black and I'm Proud," which many misinterpreted as anti-white.

Brown came close to being a political leader in April 1968, when rioting broke out in several cities after the assassination of King. Brown was scheduled to give a concert at the Boston Garden, but Mayor Kevin White tried to cancel it, for fear that it would provoke rioting. Brown argued that it would be more prudent not only to hold the concert but also to televise it. He was right. Thousands of young Bostonians stayed home to watch Brown perform--and to hear him say, "Let's not do anything to dishonor Dr. King. . . . You kids, especially, I want you to think about what you're doing. Think about what Dr. King stood for. Don't just react in a way that's going to destroy your community."

It was in this same upbeat spirit that, in the mid-1980s, Brown told Tucker that he saw rap as "an extension of things I was doing for a long time: rapping over a funky beat about pride and respect and education and drugs and all kinds of issues." Yet Brown also saw where rap might be headed: "I feel solidarity with the breakers and the rappers and the whole hip hop thing--as long as it's clean."

Rap took a turn for the worse in the late 1980s, when the so-called gangsta style came out of Los Angeles. And in 1990, the pornographic sensibility entered in the form of a Florida group called 2 Live Crew. At first, gangsta rap seemed a kind of naturalism: an honest account of the ravages of crack, family breakdown, and gang violence in blighted neighborhoods. But naturalism became exploitation when gangsta rap caught on in the suburbs, and the pathology of the poor became the minstrelsy of the rich. As for 2 Live Crew, their legacy thrives in the "crunk" style, which depicts the sexuality of young black men and women in ways that, to put it mildly, conform to the fevered imaginings of the worst white racists. The standard defense is to say that this stuff is a parody. But of what? For millions of young people around the world, including many African Americans, these words (and video images) define blackness.

How did this happen? Brown's explanation in Eliot is worth quoting at length, because it echoes the view of a whole generation (not his) who grew up thinking of rap as something positive and now reel at the lessons it is teaching their kids:

The FCC controls the licensing of everything connected to broadcasting. If they don't want something on the air, it doesn't get on. . . . I believe a lot of the most anarchic, "dirty" songs . . . were either something [the artists] were pressured by labels into recording, or actually products originated by some faction of the FCC. . . . Who else do you think has sanctioned all the playing of the worst of it on the air constantly, so that White people could shake their heads and say, "See? That's what Black people are really all about. That's how they talk about their girlfriends and worse, their mamas. . . . Rappers out there . . . Listen to your Godfather! . . . Somebody's lying to you somewhere. . . . We need to get back to the roots of our music.

This may sound paranoid, but as the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. Brown has always understood that when the middle class dabbles in the sewer, the lower class drowns. Last year, when a mug shot of him with creased face, disheveled hair, and open dressing gown circulated on the Internet, he was mortified. Like all old-fashioned show business people, especially those who grew up without good clothes, Brown hates to appear ill-groomed. Compare this fastidiousness with the sartorial grossness perpetrated by rappers today, and you will see how high the B.S. is piled.

Godfather of Soul, get your act together. We need your help to cut through it.

Martha Bayles, who teaches in the honors program at Boston College, posts a blog called Serious Popcorn at www.artsjournal.com.