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Music

James Brown explains the origins of funk

@TylerGolsen

It’s rare that a musician gets universal recognition for creating an entire genre. DJ Kool Herc’s mix of discotheque record spinning and Jamaican toasting largely laid the foundations for hip hop, while Chuck Berry’s streamlining of blues and country opus don cars and girls made rock and roll what it still remains today. But if you’re looking for a true originator, look no further than the Soul Brother number one himself, James Brown.

Although he initially played in a style that incorporated ballads, rock and roll, and classic uptempo R&B, Brown soon found that he could do more with less by stripping away the more superfluous elements of his music and arrangements. Multiple chord changes were reduced to vamping on a single chord. Fleshed out lyrics were tossed in favour of improvised lines. Predetermined sections were dropped as call and response between musicians began to take shape.

All of these elements soon began to coalesce into a brand new sound. Built around the rhythm of his drummers, Brown wanted music that was highly danceable, relatively simple, and could go on for hours on end. In short, Brown wanted music that was as indefatigable as he was. What he stumbled on was the importance of ‘The One’, the first downbeat of every measure of music. If the band constantly hit ‘The One’, then everything else could flow easily after that. It was a basic concept that could lead to unlimited sonic possibilities, and Brown milked those possibilities for all they were worth in songs like ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)’.

While sitting down with SPIN magazine in 1988, Brown shed some light on how his electric style of R&B eventually morphed into the bare bones sounds of funk that we know and love today. “Funk is the root of the blues,” Brown explains. “It’s soul, jazz, and gospel. Funk is coming down on the one. If it’s on the one, then it’s funky. But it’s hard for me to get people to understand that”.

Adding: “It took me four or five years to get Bootsy Collins to understand what ‘on the one’ was. Most people didn’t know what it was. They know now. ‘Take me to the bridge,’ I heard someone use that expression maybe 45 years ago, referring to the middle part of a song, and I changed it to mean a release.”

It’s still difficult to fully articulate how much meaning Brown found in concepts like ‘The One’ and ‘Take It To The Bridge’, but it’s easy to hear and even easier to feel. Songs like ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ and ‘Funky President’ are barely songs, but they hold together remarkably well despite their lack of changes, dynamics, or variety. For Brown, it was all about the groove, the hits, and the feel. That’s what made funk music so powerful, and it’s why his version, the original version, remains so potent all these years later. The man was funky to his core, and he couldn’t be anything else.

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