Early Hip-Hop Records Sampled James Brown. His 1st Funk Record Sampled Miles Davis.
If the debate for the King of R&B is up for grabs, followers of the late great James Brown can rest easy, as his position among the greatest to ever do it, is secure as a Master padlock. Known indelibly as the “Godfather of Soul Music,” Brown’s career covered successive generations that stretched from chitlin circuit pit-stops in the ’60s, through his own Funk era and ultimately, the birth of Hip-Hop. In the Netflix original documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown, the life and times of the oft referred “hardest working man in show business,” is examined fully. Questlove, Chuck D, Nelson George, Greg Tate, and others appear in the doc’.
It is common knowledge that Brown’s influence on Hip-Hop has been acknowledged and celebrated through countless samples – “Funky Drummer” being the most popular – but who knew Brown dipped into the sampling pool himself?
As it turns out, Brown’s saxophonist and bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, was called into James’ dressing room one night after a thunderous performance in the summer of 1967. Never formally trained to read music, Brown explained to Ellis that he had something in his head he needed to be transformed into song.
“I started putting notations to his grunts,” Ellis remembers with a hearty laugh at the 57:00-mark of the film, “which came out to be the bass line of ‘Cold Sweat.’”
Ellis goes on to explain that he had been listening to Miles Davis’ “So What,” which “popped up” while he was developing the track that would eventually become “Cold Sweat.”
“So I took that [dee dumph] part and repeated it over and over,” Ellis explains. “Then we added a very important guitar part, contrasting all of that – which is funky all by itself.”
An unquestionable masterpiece, “Cold Sweat” has been cited, by some (including in George’s The Death Of Rhythm & Blues) as the first true Funk song for all its moving parts. Aside from Brown’s grunts that laid the groundwork for the beat, the finished track borrowed from his previously-released “I Don’t Care” in 1962. Moreover, it incorporated Brown’s signature screams and solos from Maceo Parker on sax, and Clyde Stubblefield on drums.
“I didn’t write it to be so monumental,” Ellis confesses, “but my Jazz influence was creeping into his R&B, so the combination of the two is where the Funk came from.”
During the late 70s, when Brown was said to be losing a step, his Funk music was hot as ever in the Hip-Hop community and among DJs. Albums like Get On The Good Foot and Sex Machine were in heavy rotation, while “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose” provided breaks that proved to be something of a goldmine. But it was the unlikely “Funky Drummer” that catapulted “Mr. Please Please” to un-chartered territory.
For the record, the actual Funky Drummer was not very fond of the tune. “I hate that song,” the late Clyde Stubblefield affirms in the doc. “We all was so tired and didn’t even want to record. So I started playing just the drum pattern. Brown liked it. We recorded it, and it came out ‘Funky Drummer.’”
Be that as it may, “Funky Drummer” has since served as the backbone to a long list of hits made popular by Public Enemy (“Bring The Noise,” “Fight The Power”), Dr. Dre (“Let Me Ride”), Run-D.M.C., JAY-Z, and Nas, among a plethora of others.
#BonusBeat: The trailer for Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown: