|Damn Right I’m Somebody
A short riff on James Brown
When I first got into the Mod thing in the early 1980’s I had begun to listen again to the music I had been surrounded by in my youth, my Mum’s old Motown, RnB and ska records. But she told me there were two other strands which I hadn’t been educated in (and all Mod is education). Records she had had in the past that had disappeared during parties. She bought me two compilations, the first of the fearsome blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, the other by the Godfather of Soul, Mr James Brown.
Putting the needle down on ‘Cold Sweat’ remains one of those key musical moments. At that stage, I hadn’t learned about jazz, and so didn’t make the connection to Miles Davis’s ‘So What’. But the syncopation, that first turn on the offbeat, the screaming. What was that all about? I played it over and over, trying to find out.
What I was hearing was music played in the moment, in order to capture that moment. Later I was to learn that JB and his band would often, still pumping from a gig, record an extension of a riff caught like lightning in a bottle during the performance, enhancing it and extemporising on it. The jazz background of many of his band allowed James (a proficient but not a brilliant musician) to capture the essence of what he wanted to do quickly and add their own thing, as you do in the jazz world. For all his martinet tendencies, musically James was generous, allowing his guys to colour in and repaint. The musicians he gathered, Maceo Parker, Chank Nolen, Clyde Stubblefield, Bootsy Collins, were all under James’ control, all obeying the rule to ‘stay on the one’. Yet still, even then, their own voices and characters shine through, contributing to the whole.
James captured a moment in history and was able to impose his own will on it. That emphasising of rhythm over melody remains one of the most audacious moves in musical history and perhaps only an ego like his could accomplish it. SAY IT LOUD, I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD. King, X, Carmichael, Newton, Seale. And James at the confluence of history. The underlying African rhythmic pulse of black music was brought to the fore, even without the words, the music speaks of that moment of consciousness. And who, after all, could be more black than James? He wasn’t supper club, for sure. Never a political revolutionary, James couldn’t help but be a revolutionary just by existing. Poor, backwoods, nearly dead at birth, prison, release, make music, struggle, insist, struggle, succeed, no compromise, no sell out. James wanted your dollar but would not compromise his music. You either get it or you don’t and that, friends, is true art.
James even captured another moment without even doing anything. Kool Herc and Flash lifted the rhythms and those punctuating horn blasts and looped them, extended them, remoulded them until they were paradoxically the same thing they were before. The relentless pulse of JB, accentuating ‘the one’, under the dense rhymes and machine clatter of the greatest Public Enemy records is still James, still connected to the earth, body and soul.
And that’s the ultimate James Brown moment. When all the stories of egotism, drugs and prison melt away, when James the band dictator and capitalist are in the background. The foreground is the moment his records come on and you move to the dance floor. The rhythm connects you to the earth and the atmosphere, off beats sometimes hitting like a hammer, sometimes like a feather. You spin, drop the hip, step to the side, connect to the source, exulting in the moment, ‘sometimes I feel so good, jump back, gonna kiss myself’.
James is gone but it’s in the grooves and it still moves.
© 2007 Gavin Gribbon