On the One: James Brown’s Impact On Hip Hop Culture

By Byron N. Richardson  

Hollywood just released their blockbuster biopic, “Get on Up” about James Brown, “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, last week and although I am proud to see James Brown’s story finally come to the big screen, this is not a review of the film. I wanted to share some of what I have discovered and determined based upon my recent academic immersion in the life and music of the man, Sir James Brown, and his involuntary contributions to Hip Hop culture.

James Brown’s impact, influence and inspiration to the culture of Hip-Hop is not only undeniable, it is boldly apparent in almost all of Hip-Hop’s core elements, especially in the dance and the music. Many Hip-Hop Scholars’ have concluded for years, that Hip-Hop in the traditional form, could have never existed, (as we know it), if not for the “Godfather”, Brotha’ James Brown. WThe purpose of this post is to expand upon this theory.

James Joe Brown Jr. came to this world in Barnwell, South Carolina, on May 3, 1933. From birth, James Brown embodied the “something out of nothing” drive and desire that would become the literal foundation for the emerging culture of Hip-Hop. James Jr. was born in the depths of Southern depression-era poverty, scrounging for any and everything just to survive. James claims to have started shining shoes when he was only 3 years old. It is safe to say, most Americans’ of the Hip-Hop culture could not extrapolate the impoverished conditions young James Brown endured. Listen to the classic, “Mind Power” for confirmation where Brotha’ J.B. himself states, “…being 9 years old before I got my first pair of underwear out of a store”, the struggle has always been real. James was actually removed from school at the age of 12 due to lack of sufficient clothing.

James, like many poor kids, turned to crime to attain financial freedom, however much like today’s poor youth that indulge in the fast lifestyle, Young J.B. ended up serving 3 years for Grand Theft Auto. It was there that James met his eventual best friend, group member, and master hype-man prototype, Bobby Byrd. Upon his release from prison at the age of 19, James Brown Jr. joined Bobby Byrd’s group, The Famous Flames as a background singer. Soon after joining the Flames as a background singer James became the lead singer, then the overall group leader, and finally Bobby Byrd’s Flames became his background singers. James Brown’s gospel roots were invariably present on the early records like 1959’s “Please,Please, Please”, and “Try Me” but the attitude of his past experiences posed the creative and personal dichotomy of “Mr. Dynamite” to evolve over the coming years.

The civil Rights Movement was very intrinsic to James Brown’s musical, and political metamorphosis. The day Dr. King was assassinated, James had a show that evening in Boston. Fearful Bean town was going to erupt in flames, (as much of the country had that afternoon), the Mayor of Boston was prompted to have a meeting with James. During the meeting it was discussed to cancel the concert, for safety concerns, however, It was eventually decided that the show would go on live for anyone who felt safe enough to attend, and broadcast live on local television. Ironically, the streets of Boston were said to be eerily quiet that evening as “Mr. Dynamite”, earned his title on stage by keeping people safe through soul music.

As the times got funkier, so did “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”. Watch his feet in any of his earlier performances and you can clearly see some the components to the footwork B-Boys use in their up-rock. Listen to the way His lyrics are delivered in almost any song he performed. Brotha’ James wasn’t singing, listen to the rhythmic patterns, check out his usage of slang, sex, and the tales of the urban sociological experience, this is indeed the prehistoric MC on display. I have heard many of my elders say that the “Live at the Apollo ’67” album was the marking of a musical paradigm shift, the emergence of the funk movement, which would spawn its own sub-culture we all now know as Hip-Hop. In 1969,

James Brown became, “Soul Brotha’ #1” when he released, “Say it Loud, (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’. By this time, James Brown had already become the embodiment of what Jay-Z would say decades later, “… not a Businessman, I’m a Business, man”. By the early 1970’s, James Brown was the undisputed king of the ghetto, not just in America but world-wide. James said it was “The Big Payback” and it spoke directly to the ghetto. When he said, “I don’t need nobody to give me nothin’, open up the door and I’ll get it myself”, poor kids everywhere had an anthem that was universal. He owned his own record stations, restaurants, night clubs, real estate, and two, (yes two) private 747 Jumbo Jet planes. James was ballin’, period point blank, and was doing it with his head held high, and you couldn’t front on that.

“Soul Brotha’ #1” hung out with “The Greatest”; Muhammad Ali, Jessie Jackson, and took  a young Al Sharpton under his wing. However, as his political stances grew ever so increasingly Pro-Black, his record sales, label support, and crossover appeal basically evaporated. In addition, the majority of his band jumped ship to the Parliament-Funkadelic stable ran by George Clinton, (who ironically lists James Brown as one of his idols and influences). After all of this, in true Hip-Hop fashion, James did not waver, he took his newly constructed J.B.E., (James Brown Experience) straight to the hood and made it funky once again.

As the 70’s came to an end, disco and hard times took over and seemed to spell the end of everything Brotha’ J.B. had worked for. The Fed’s came in via the IRS and went deep in Brotha’ J.B.’s pockets. They took his planes, homes, bank accounts, jewelry, clothes, radio stations, studios, everything. As the 1980’s came around, so did a new sound of urban musical expression. Heralded by the modern technological advancements of the day, ghetto youth were experimenting with new methods of music creation. The emerging style of Hip-Hop music in the 80’s was directly responsible for the re-emergence and discovery of James Brown, musically and personally.

It is safe to argue that if not for “Funky Drummer”, “Give it Up or Turn it a Loose”, “Mind Power”, “Soul Power”, and countless other J.B. classics, this culture known as Hip-Hop may have gone in a totally different direction. At the same time his music was being re-discovered by the next generation of funk-a-teers, Brotha’ J.B. was going through some rough times that were often publicized, and led to James being incarcerated once again in 1988. Upon his release in 1991, James went right back to the stage, film and studio, where he continued to embrace the youthful spirit of Hip-Hop, working with many notable pioneers such as Afrika Bambaattaa  and MC Hammer.

Until his final days on this planet, James Joe Brown Jr. fought for freedom, justice, equality, and the funk. He fought for human rights, those individual rights that all man women and child should be entitled to regardless of class, sex, race, age, or religion. All praise due to Mr. James Brown, “The Godfather” of soul, aka the “B-Boy Omega”, as he is the incontestable essence of real Hip-Hop.

References: Bio: James Brown Retrieved from: http://www.biography.com/people/james-brown-9228350 

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