We take a look at the true innovation and widespread influence James Brown had as he evolved his sound and created funk music in the process.
Very few individuals can lay claim to having invented an entire genre of music. Thomas A. Dorsey is often credited with creating gospel music, Bill Monroe with bluegrass, Ornette Coleman with free jazz, Fela Kuti with Afrobeat … there may be one or two others. Of course, none of these artists worked in a bubble, and one can point to multiple sources that either pre-dated these artists’ contributions or led directly to their inspiration, but each of these artists took existing ingredients and baked them into something recognizably new.
Which brings us to James Brown, who (more or less) invented funk music. That more or less is important, because even Brown himself pointed to Little Richard for having introduced funk into rock and roll and there are some precedents in the music of New Orleans (guys like Professor Longhair and Dave Bartholomew), but it really is James Brown who molded funk into a separate genre from rock, soul, and R&B. It’s his template that gave rise to all the various funk music subgenres, transformed jazz, and provided hip hop with its samples. Given the predominance of hip hop in today’s music industry, and its reliance on funk records, one could argue that James Brown is the most influential musician of the twentieth century.
Of course, how much of the invention of funk music is attributable to Brown and how much to his band is debatable. Considering that Brown assembled his musicians and gave them direction, he still commands much (if not most) of the credit, but from now when I talk about James Brown, I’m really referring to him and his band.
What’s interesting about Brown’s career is how you can hear him create and evolve this new genre, paring it down to its core elements, and then teaching a new generation of musicians who would go on to form other bands that spread the funk gospel to the world.
Brown began his career as a soul singer, much in the same vein as his hero, Little Richard. Early James Brown hits are fine examples of R&B, for example, “Please, Please, Please,” which became James Brown and the Famous Flames’ (his first vocal group) signature song. This song was originally released in 1956, though this was still pretty exemplary of his sound as late as 1964, as seen here in his amazing TAMI performance.
Note the 12/8 time signature, the bluesy I-IV-V chord progression, the standard horn arrangement, and the classic soul interplay between Brown and the Flames. It’s a more hysterical and dramatic performance than his R&B peers, but otherwise, it’s a song that Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke could have performed. (Though the cape bit is pure James Brown.)
By 1964, Brown’s sound was starting to change. Although “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” often gets the credit as the first funk number, it’s really his 1960 song, “Think,” that gets the ball rolling. “Think” was actually a cover, and it’s worth checking out the “5” Royales’ original to get a sense of what a revolution Brown’s version was.
Note the emphasis on the backbeat (the claps on beats 2 and 4) and how the song swings — elements that were typical of R&B boogie-woogie at the time. The chorus definitely does emphasize the one (the first beat) but the rest of the song does not.
Now Brown’s cover, which takes the chorus’ emphasis on the one and carries it through the whole song.
This didn’t come out of the blue. The rhythm and even the piano part are reminiscent of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis’ version of “A Night in Tunisia” from 1946.
Though again, Parker’s band limits that emphasis on the one to just the head. After that, the song jumps into standard jazz swing. Brown sticks with that rhythm for the entire song.
“The one” is one of those terms so closely associated with James Brown that it’s kind of easy to gloss over how unique that innovation was.
Most mid-twentieth century music featured an emphasis on the backbeat. This was famously a tenet of rock and roll, as stated by Chuck Berry in “Rock and Roll Music” (“It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it…”), but it was also central to every other form of popular music at the time, including the blues (e.g. “Smokestack Lightning”), swing (e.g. “Something’s Gotta Give”), and even country (e.g. “Hey Good Lookin’“). It was so pervasive that Brown’s musicians, like Maceo Parker, had a hard time adjusting to Brown’s insistence on playing on the one.
“Think” offered a new feel, but it’s still not quite funk. After all, there are still chord changes, and the horn parts are pretty busy and “musical,” which I’ll explain in a moment.
Brown continued playing around with this new feel with “Out of Sight” (1964) and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965). While both songs still feature I-IV-V progressions, the horns are playing less of a harmonic and more of a percussive role. But the next giant leap forward was definitely “Cold Sweat” (1967).
Rhythmically, this song is a real departure. Unlike with “Think,” “Out of Sight,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the rhythm of “Cold Sweat” lasts for two bars. It feels more like an 8/4 song than 4/4, with the “one” only being emphasized every eight beats, making its arrival that much more anticipated and powerful. And the snare hit on the last eighth note of the first bar (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & / 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &) gives the song its uniquely funky beat.
Bonus points: this is the first record where Brown “gave his drummer some” and let him have a drum solo. The “breakbeat” would become a standard part of the genre and funk records would go on to supply hip hop with most of its beats. The drummer here is Clyde Stubblefield, the man responsible for the break from “Funky Drummer,” which is one of the most sampled breakbeats of all time.
This is also Brown’s most harmonically static song yet. The verse stays on D until the refrain, which is in G. That’s it. The horns are reduced to that repeating two-note figure (which was inspired by Miles Davis’ “So What”) as part of Brown’s growing “every instrument is a drum” philosophy, something Brown would push further.
(It’s interesting to see how far Brown had come: “Cold Sweat” is a reworking of Brown’s earlier song from 1962 called “I Don’t Care.”
“Cold Sweat” would prove to be a launch point for the next several years of Brown’s career. He would push the rhythmic complexity and syncopation of “Cold Sweat” almost the point of the esoteric with 1968’s “I Got the Feelin’.”
1970’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” apart from its surreal use of parentheses, takes the lack of harmony to almost laughable extent. The band (which is essentially just Bootsy Collins on bass, his brother Phelps on guitar, and Jabo Starks on drums) hangs on Eb for eons until Brown asks if he should take it to the bridge. Finally, the band lets loose on Ab for a bit until going back to Eb. The horns — mostly due to the players being inexperienced thanks to Brown firing his old band just weeks before — only punch in on the intro, reducing their role to pure rhythm.
The “every instrument is a drum” theory gets pushed to its furthest extent with “Super Bad.”
By this point, Brown’s influence was immense. Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton’s bands — both of whom would go on to influence countless musicians — were directly influenced by James Brown (Clinton even took the Collins brothers from J.B.). So was Brown’s hero, Miles Davis, whose On the Corner album would be unthinkable without Brown’s funk. And of course, where would hip hop be without its funk samples? Check out these 25 breakbeats — all of which (except maybe Billy Squire’s) owe their debt to James Brown.
The other day my son played Cardi B’s new single (“I Like It”), and it’s such a perfect example of how the one still dominates hip hop. James Brown’s influence lives on.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The evolving art of sampling in hip hop
Subverting song structures: Roy Orbison and Kendrick Lamar
The song worlds of three musical greats
Prince before the Revolution
Musicians who died in 2017