My long overdue salute to one of the funkiest drummers of all time. (audio)
Originally, I was all set to talk about this mix that Gilles Peterson did in honor of the recently passed Clyde Stubblefield, but decided actually it might be more fun to talk about a track that has already been analyzed to death: James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”.
For those who don’t know their funk and soul music history and the importance of this track, first off, shame on you. Secondly, if you’ve ever heard a hip-hop track from say, the 1980s even all the way up until now, you’ve definitely heard this famous drum break before. Hell, I’m pretty sure The Bomb Squad secured their place in hip-hop history thanks from this drum break alone. There’s just something about its texture, its fluidity, the way that there’s just enough space between each kick, snare, and hi-hat that you can manipulate in a million different ways that made it probably the most abused drum break in hip-hop history, outside of “Impeach The President”, “Amen Brother”, or “Apache”.
But after listening to the song in full for the first time in awhile, I noticed something else: I really like this track. I’ve heard some people call it a throwaway track; that it doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a “Papa’s Gotta Brand New Bag” or “The Big Payback” or “Sex Machine” and in many respects they’re right. For all intents and purposes, this is b-side jam where everyone got into the studio, pressed record and let it go.Yet somehow, there’s a certain charm to this song: James Brown’s nearly incomprehensible shouting, the back and forth of sway of the horns, the angular guitar, and just overall groove of the song (it should be stated that the drum work that holds this song together before the break is buttery smooth as well), I can’t imagine trying to listen to this song and not loose complete and total control of your neck.
It’s kind of a shame really since hip-hop has largely ignored the main meat of the song (except for Tall Black Guy, who masterfully sampled this track for a release on Bastard Boots, but I’ll get to that next week), and while it never achieves the same level of funkiness as the legendary and game-changing Stubblefield break, it certainly does a hell of a job building the anticipation for when the band finally lets him go. From the opening fill until about halfway through when James Brown says “I wanna give the drummer some of the funk and soul we got here”, everything thing is building up to that break. Then Brown’s iconic 1-2-3-4 count begins, it drops into one of the most heavenly drum breaks of all time. The song does keep going on afterwards, continuing in a similar fashion to how it started, before winding down with an excellent organ and sax lead and another drum solo which seems like’s been overlooked.
I would hazard a guess that back around the 70’s or so, drum breaks would usually lead off the song rather than be stuck in the middle like a jazz solo (see “Impeach The President”).which is why I think hip-hop sort of re-framed the song; increasing the anticipation for the drums to finally drop and to finally hear them in their raw, unsampled form. So for such an iconic break and important moment in music history, it’s creation could be summed up as just another day in the studio. In multiple interviews, the man has stated that sheet music “looks like Chinese writing” and that all of his famous drum patterns came to him as he was in the studio. It wasn’t lightning bolt of inspiration like “this drum break is gonna change the world”-type of thinking and more like “hey this might sound pretty cool”-way of thinking. That’s just a testament to the man’s ability as a drummer and musician.
Anyways, long story short: rest in peace to one of the greatest funk and soul drummers of all time.