How James Brown Made The Blueprint For Hip-Hop AND Today’s Music Business
The name Alan Leeds might not be widely-recognized outside of music industry circles, but the 40+ year veteran of the business has worked, in numerous capacities, with some of the all-time great. James Brown, Kiss, Prince and D’Angelo all considered him a key member of their behind the scenes teams, at some point in their careers, and he also worked with non-musical talents, like Chris Rock. If a celebrity toured the nation performing shows, Alan Leeds was “the guy” who became indispensable to them on the road. Leeds was the guest on this week’s edition of Questlove Supreme, the new Pandora radio show hosted by The Legendary Roots Crew band leader (with an assist from Phonte Coleman, of The Foreign Exchange and formerly Little Brother), and Leeds had stories for days.
In many ways, Leeds’ visit was a continuation of the discussion Quest had with members of Prince’s band, The Revolution, in last week’s episode. He told stories about Prince’s mercurial nature, his exacting work ethic, and the difficulty he had accepting Hip-Hop. An example of the latter was reflected in Prince’s decision to allow Carmen Electra to rap over his beloved slow jam classic, “Adore,” on a song called “All That.” Alan also revealed humanizing stories about Kiss, particularly Gene Simmons, who Leeds described as turning into “Jackie Mason,” after a show, with his histrionics about a sub-par fruit salad…while still in full makeup, no less.
As engaging as those stories were, some of the most compelling moments came when Leeds spoke about James Brown. In many ways, both Prince and D’Angelo were the musical progeny of Brown, so it’s not surprising Leeds would be drawn to each of these men, and they to him. In fact, while discussing Prince, Leeds mentions that their first meaningful conversation occurred when Prince asked Leeds to tell him some stories about Brown. The tales the former Brown road manager told Quest about the Soul Brother #1 were instructive, and revealed that the man often credited with laying the foundation for Hip-Hop actually might be better described as the architect of the paradigm for how to survive in today’s music business, as an artist.
Much like today’s environment, sales of recorded music in Brown’s era were not enough to sustain an artist. Instead, they had to perform for their livelihoods. As such, recording albums were not the goal, as they were time-consuming and expensive. “It wasn’t about albums, it was about singles,” says Leeds. “You get a hit record to get you out there.”
In discussing Brown’s legendarily rigorous touring schedule, Leeds said “It wasn’t about going on tour because you were always on the road.” He explained, “hopefully you worked 51 out of 52 weeks cause that’s how you supported yourself.”
Nowadays, with streaming and downloads leading to a natural disaggregation of music, artist’s are taking similar approaches. One of 2015’s biggest releases was “Hotline Bling,” which was not attached to an album until it was added onto 2016’s Views. Artists in other genres, like DNCE, have established themselves with hit singles and performing, instead of albums, as well.
Another paradigm that Brown perfected was creating longform projects for cheap, that he could use for sale and even more touring. Some of his biggest releases were recordings of live performances. In many ways, these were the prototypes for mixtapes. As Leeds noted to Quest about the recordings, “If you listen to the album (Apollo 1), it’s one long medley. Never stopped.”
The last aspect of Brown’s career that bears striking resemblance to today’s modern artists, is the DIY approach he had. Leeds details how, for all intents and purposes, Brown’s organizational structure was self-contained. He booked his own shows, his team scheduled his appearances, and he continually hustled, even making it a practice to charm interns at radio stations, knowing that one day they would be station managers deciding on whether or not to play his records. Several artists, like Chance The Rapper, have adopted similar models, releasing their own music, and maintaining overall control of their destinies.
While Brown regularly receives accolades for his musical contributions, it was fascinating to hear Leeds’ deep dive into how he functioned behind the scenes.
Questlove Supreme premieres each Wednesday on Pandora, at 1pm EST, and airs continuously thereafter for 48 hours. Listen here.