Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Ultimate Taboo

A post-I Am Nas was in search of an identity. After a series of changes, from Nasty to a run-of-the-mill Cristal sipper, Nas seemed lost. Fortunately, by the time the Jay-Z feud came around and with the arrival of a moment named Ether, Nas reasserted himself as the ever-defiant, lyrically-minded New York rapper not to be written off. Still, this identity was in reaction to another man, so just as Nas would say of Jay, "[you] came in with my style, so I fathered you", a rebirthed Nas was now Jay's progeny by extension, at least. However, about a year after Stillmatic, Nas reemerged once more, standing as tall as before, but not needing to be associated with any other rapper for relevance this time. This change was signaled with the call of the classic Apache breaks on 2002's Made You Look. It was in this one moment that Nas summoned forth all the energy and grit of a near-three decades worth of Hip-Hop and stamped out a millennia style all his own.

Breakbeats defined the charging sound of God's Son. While there were tempered moments abound, the power and sweat of these enduring cuts gave the album its ultimate kick and Nas his step. Made You Look, in its first-single position, was the initial hit, but the album's actual opening silo was found elsewhere in the crates. Primarily based around James Brown's Funky Drummer and The Boss, the sonic thrush of Get Down was a brilliant mix of old-school grooves and modern swagger. Although Nas' constructed careful series of vignettes are not to be overlooked, James Brown truly owns the stage here. Because of this, I recently asked someone who I know to possess a Yoda-like knowledge of music to break down the breaks, those that revived Nas and too once reintroduced James Brown back into popular culture a time ago. That someone, John Book, hit me back with the following response. From this perspective, you see the pioneers of Hip-Hop and the pulse of James Brown coming together in an undeniably important moment in music. John Book illustrates not just how Brown gave Nas, or any other of the many rappers who've sampled similarly, an ideal sound to work off of, but how, in turn, these b-boys would give Brown a bit of a push themselves.

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These days, James Brown and Hip-Hop go hand in hand, almost to the point where some people probably think James Brown invented Hip-Hop. While he did not have a hand in its creation, his music was a spark that helped light the fire for what was to come. Brown had been known for his dance numbers as much as his ballads, which showed hints of the pop craftsmanship of the 40's and 50's, and the R&B sounds of the day. They were bright and they were happy, and his voice was as unique as anyone else's. But what set him apart from others was a need to be a bit more grittier, to take soul music to a higher level. The passion of his lyrics would turn into urges, and that urge became the emphasis of what we now know as funk. James Brown made it a regular practice to change the roster of his backing band, and in time he would find a group of musicians that would not only pave the way for his brand of funk, but for soul music in the 70's, the second coming of funk later in the decade, and a move from jazz artists to get locked into an updated groove.

By the early 1970's, soul music was paving the way for another happier, brighter sound, disco. For young kids who had been exposed to James Brown through their parents, they wanted more of those good vibes they were getting from songs such as The Funky Drummer, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, and Funky President. Unfortunately, with disco taking over, that old style of funk was considered outdated. However, if you are a young kid with a love for your favorite music, you are naturally going to fight for it until everyone knows about your mission. One of these people who fought for his music was a Jamaican-born, Bronx-relocated DJ, Kool Herc. Incorporating the mobile DJ systems of Jamaica into his new surroundings, and complimented with booming speakers, Kool Herc took his records to the people, and the people moved. You couldn't hear these songs on the radio, but they were certified classic and the start of something special.

What people looked forward to in those songs was the breakdown, when James Brown would often tell his band to "give the drummer some." That was their cue to stop playing and allow the drummer a few sections to share his talent with the listeners, a chance for the musicians to take a "break" from playing. In time, that "break" would be the cue for people in a basement or street to dance and show off their new moves. Soon other DJ's would learn how to manipulate a record, or two records, so that that break could be played for three minutes or longer. It was nothing more than looking at your parents' phonograph and wondering what else could be done besides stare at the knobs and lights. The ultimate taboo of touching the phonograph without your parents permission became a challenge, and these experimental techniques would become the emphasis of DJ'ing and turntablism.

Subsequently, in the early 1980's, people in the know were making rap music their own, most of it recorded with a backing band recreating older songs or playing variations of familiar tunes. The idea of taking a record and rhyming over it was limited to a live capacity, but the recording studio was about to expand its limits with the introduction and acceptance of digital technology. The equipment that was used to digitally record any audio source was not meant to make music, per se, but when it was discovered that it was possible to record small sections from a record, one could "replay" those elements without actually needing two turntables and a mixer. In this way, the method of mastering those records was eliminated with convenience.

Around this time, while club DJ's were playing old James Brown records, his own career wasn't faring too well. Brown went through his disco phase, and when disco died by the late 70's, it slowed down many careers. He kept on working, but sales were suffering. Nevertheless, while the appreciation of James Brown's music was not widespread, his funk trades always maintained a loyal set of devoted fans. And it was those fans who helped bring those dead records back into the forefront. One of the first of such instances to honor James Brown was Lesson 2 by Double Dee & Steinski, part of a collection of songs submitted for a contest sponsored by Tommy Boy Records. Double Dee & Steinski won that contest, and the label wound up releasing three different "Lessons" as promotional records, with Lesson 2 being the ode to the Godfather of Soul. Young kids who were into rap music were now hearing James Brown for the first time, and there grew an awareness of something more than Parliament/Funkadelic, Ohio Players, or ConFunkShun.

However, with all of his classic records either out of print, hard to find, or high priced, even back then, knowing about James Brown's music meant really just knowing. Luckily, Hip-Hop found a way to spread the music and soon it seemed as if every rap album had at least five James Brown samples. What this did was revive someone who was pretty much dead by industry standards, and said thank you by sampling him. This was sampling before there were any laws, rules, and regulations, so you could experience James Brown's music still without having any James Brown records. Even if you didn't know it was James Brown, you knew it was funky. But the curious wanted to know more and went out of their way to find more. With interest sparked again, Polygram Records, who owned all of the legendary performer's music, would started reissuing these one displaced treasures. Their liner notes revealed a revival of his catalog, but didn't pinpoint why. By the end of the 80's, Polygram had to give it up. It was Hip-Hop and its sampling ways which gave James Brown a second life.

There was a sense of power in those old records, in those grooves, where one could stop for a moment and dance all the distractions and the night away. By taking those elements and letting them repeat over and over, it was an unconscious effort to not want those moments to stop. Eventually everyone had sampled James Brown. But by then, the DJ's who were looking for his old records were exploring other records, making the funky funkier and making the unfunky hip. The inspiration and glory of the golden era of Hip-Hop came from a man who could have easily become a has-been in his own lifetime. Fortunately, Hip-Hop made him valid once more to an older audience who had tossed him aside like some old dresses at a Goodwill bin, while a younger audience, discovering his music for the first time, turned him into their hero. This change would force everyone to re-evaluate James Brown's music and career, thus also putting value into a catalog that would have been ignored or otherwise ruled unimportant. His value as a hit artist would forever be limited to two songs if it weren't for a younger generation finding heaven in those dusty records.
New York streets where killers'll walk like Pistol Pete
And Pappy Mason, gave the young boys admiration
Prince from Queens and Fritz from Harlem
Street legends, the drugs kept the hood from starvin'
Nas: Get Down
BONUS: James Brown: The Boss
BONUS: James Brown: Funky Drummer
BONUS: James Brown: The Payback
BONUS: Double Dee & Steinski: Lesson 2

*NOTE: John Book runs a weekly column entitled "The Run-Off Groove", and his own musical creations and blog are also worth a look.--Fletch

5 Comments:

Blogger Fletch said...

Footnote:
John Book also, in his response to me, broke down just what is meant when people refer to James Brown as "the hardest working man in show business."
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The records James Brown made between 1967-1974 became certified classics in the black community, not only on the radio but in clubs and on jukeboxes. No decent jukebox in any good neighborhood could be without JB being there, whether it was one of his songs, something he wrong, or one of his many protege artists. In other words, if James Brown had a new single coming out, he would have five others under different names, even if they all shared the same roster. The hardest working man ethic wasn't just about performing on the road night after night, but maximizing what one could do when it came to record sales. More records meant more sales, more airplay, and more money. It may have been harder for James Brown simply because of what he is, but he did what he could do with what he was given, and did it for all that it was worth.

March 26, 2006 4:08 PM  
Blogger neo said...

Great blog. I've always been a fan of JB's blog entries..he knows his music.

March 26, 2006 7:20 PM  
Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

finally a fresh & intelligent discussion on hip hop.

reading this i felt like i was back in grad school or back in Dr. Boy's hip hop & cinema classes.

March 27, 2006 12:29 PM  
Blogger Hummingbyrd said...

Dammmmm gina.

I might to start calling you fletchski.

Dj Fletchski.

~modmin

March 27, 2006 1:38 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

To a true legend, with little equal in terms of influence and pure soul, RIP.

December 25, 2006 1:01 AM  

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