The Living Legacy of James Brown:
A Hip-Hop Tribute
Christmas Day 2006 began early with the news of the passing of James Brown, at the age of 73, in Atlanta, Georgia. As the undisputed Godfather of Soul, James Brown was a long distance, marathon runner who always led the race in not only being one of the greatest innovators in R&B and soul music, song and dance, but also James Brown used his remarkable genius and indefatigable energy as a freedom fighter in the struggles of Black Americans and others throughout the world for justice and equality.
The soul music explosion of the 1950s and the 1960s was led by James Brown as a music writer, producer, band director, and most of all as a tireless stage performer. Long before rap music and rappers became popular, James Brown was one of the most successful forerunners who rapped using repetitive word phrases and lyrics in the 1960s over the music of the pulsating beats of a bass guitar and drums with the rhythmic horn sounds of a full big band.
While there will be many well-deserved salutes to the memory of James Brown, I know that it is also important to put on the public record a tribute to the living legacy of James Brown from a Hip-Hop perspective because of his defining influence on the evolution of hip-hop culture.
Over 35 years ago when Hip-Hop began to emerge on a national level, amidst a chorus of player haters and media owners who opposed giving rap music and hip-hop any air time on radio or television, James Brown was very vocal and forthright in his support of rappers and rap music. in 1984, he and Afrika Bambaataa “Unity” as a showing of solidarity with Hip-Hop.
In fact James Brown had no problem in advocating the complimentary connection between R&B and Hip-Hop music. Little Richard, who is one of the icons of R&B and a lifelong friend of James Brown, put it bluntly to MSNBC, He was an innovator, he was an emancipator, he was an originator. Rap music, all that stuff came from James Brown.
Chuck D of the legendary Public Enemy emphasized, James Brown was the funkiest! To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one has even come close. It was the funky beat with a funky message underscored by an irrepressible funky spirit of triumph over social, racial and personal adversities that made James Brown forcefully unique and effective.
I can still hear the reverberations of Afika Bambaataa and James Brown in a 1984 studio performing together Unity, Peace, Love and Having Fun. The reciprocity between R&B and hip-hop reached a new plateau in the revolutionary life journey and music of James Brown. During the last three decades, numerous Hip-Hop artists have sampled Browns up-tempo music.
For millions of African American youth back in the late 1960sand early 1970s, nothing was more fulfilling in terms of self-identity and pride than to hear James Brown shout, Say It Loud: I am Black and I am Proud! When that song first broke in 1968, many radio stations refuse to play it, but James Brown still managed to get to the top of the R&B charts with that hit song. As a result, many young African Americans and Latinos were able to culturally reclaim their African ancestry because of the contributions of artist-visionaries like James Brown.
The Hip-Hop generation today is still Saying It Loud in recognition of the power of songs whose texts, time and responsibilities continue to evolve by daring to spit the simple truth in the face of injustice and poverty. The living legacy of James Brown today serves as a vivid and vibrant reminder what it means to speak out, act out, perform out, and to do whatever is culturally necessary to reawaken people to push forward for self-empowerment and economic development.
Brown was born into poverty, but he refused to allow the rough edges of poverty to reduce or confine his determination to make a positive difference through his creativity in lives of millions. That is still today one of the goals of Hip-Hop: to inspire and motivate the next level of the movement for social and economic transformation.
James Brown had ups and downs in his career and in his personal life. Yet he did permit jail, prison, or other hardships to keep him down. His first hit in 1956 Please, Please, Please dramatically portrayed his love for life. Fifty years later, we all can say we have been blessed by the resilient contributions of James Brown who gave greatly to a world that remains in need of the freedom, rhythm, and soul that was so generously exemplified throughout his life.
Peace Unity Love – James Brown & Afrika Bambattaa