There are rappers, and then there’s the Godfather of Soul. Or James Brown, as we know him.
Hip hop owes a lot to this man who had left a most indelible impression on 20th century music. As the founding father of soul, he made badassery mainstream when most modern day rappers were still walking around in diapers. He also holds of the most enviable list of titles in the world, including the ever so enviable Sex Machine, Mr Dynamite and Mr. Please Please Please Please Her.
Talk about street cred: James Brown, born to poor parents during the depression era in Jim Crow south was given up for foster care at age six, when he began to live with his aunt who ran a brothel. Brown, ever the hustler, was soon bagging clients for her aunt (at age six!). He went to prison at age sixteen for armed robbery, had stints as a boxer and a baseball pitcher in semi-pro baseball (take that, Kanye West), all the while working on his signature music.
Brown single handedly created the genres of funk and soul, and for this alone he has been called one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. His influence can also be traced to the fact that before him, black music was invariably tied to blues. You had B.B. King as the proverbial blues guitarist, and you had bands like The Mamas and the Papas as the major R&B acts. But it all invariably depended on blues as the foundation.
After James Brown, black music was all about energy, experimentation, and just rocking the fu(n)k out. You had to see James Brown in person to really believe that he truly was, as one of his titles suggested, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Hair flying, body moving in rhythms hitherto consigned to private moments in the bedroom, sweat poring down the body in a majestic display of energy, James Brown brought a signature physical style to music that has remained with hip-hop ever since.
Oh, and he was also the original hip-hop entrepreneur. Brown bought his own radio stations, financed his own shows when record producers refused, and maintained stringent creative control over his output. He also started the fashion of exaggerated introductions. Take a look at one of the introductions to his show in 1963:
So now ladies and gentlemen it is star time, are you ready for star time? Thank you and thank you very kindly. It is indeed a great pleasure to present to you at this particular time, national and international[ly] known as the hardest working man in show business, the men that sing “I’ll Go Crazy” … “Try Me” … “You’ve Got the Power” …”Think” … “If You Want Me” … “I Don’t Mind” … “Bewildered” …the million dollar seller, “Lost Someone” …the very latest release, “Night Train” … let’s everybody “Shout and Shimmy” … Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr. Please Please himself, the star of the show, James Brown and The Famous Flames!
Makes Kanye West style self-exaggerations look somewhat childish, doesn’t it? (Don’t get us wrong, we love Kanye).
And before there was Public Enemy, there was Brown, singing and talking inexhaustibly about social activism right from the late 1960s. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, he was instrumental in preventing rioting by inner city youth in Boston and later, Washington, D.C.
It’s somewhat hard to imagine the development of hip-hop in the 1970s if it were not for the looming, liberating shadow of James Brown. By untying black music from the norm and the expected, for making music more badass than anyone before him, and for bringing to the stage unparalleled energy, we deem him to be the original hustler, the true godfather of not only soul, but also perhaps hip-hop.
So if you’ve never taken the chance to do so before, go to iTunes or your local music store. Look up James Brown. Choose from our recommended songs in the Greatest Hits segment below and give it a go. Or better yet, type in “James Brown” on YouTube and watch a performance – we doubt you’ll come off without being mighty impressed by the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
(May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006)
Funk, Soul, Energetic Dancing, Intense Performances
‘Try Me’, ‘I’ll Go Crazy’, ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine’, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, ‘The Payback’, ‘Night Train’, ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, ‘Cold Sweat’.