Get Up Offa That Thing

by Scott McLemee on December 26, 2006

UPDATE: See Phil Ford’s response, on “Hot Pants,” at Dial “M”


While taking in the news that James Brown has died, I’ve been in transit — far away from my CDs, and unable to celebrate his life in fitting manner. It sounds like a joke in really bad taste, but in fact what I most want to hear is the album called Dead on the Heavy Funk 1974-’76. I used to have it on tape but am not sure if it’s still in print. There’s another compilation with a similar title released as part of what sounds like a worthy archival edition covering Brown’s entire career.

The outstanding cut in the original collection, if memory serves, is the song “Funky President,” which is basically a Black Power manifesto with an awesome rhythm section:

People, people
We got to get over
Before we go under…
Let’s get together
And get some land
Raise our food like the Man
Save our money like the Mob
Put up a fight down on the job

Thereby splitting the difference between Nation of Islam’s bean-pie ghetto capitalism and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers who were raising hell in the Detroit auto plants. Remember those?

All very interesting, Radical History Review -wise, but what really sticks in my memory was the density and drive of the music itself: heavy funk, as the title put it. It was probably a matter of Brown pushing back against the challenge posed by the former band members who’d formed Parliament/Funkadelic.

Anyway, that’s the cut I want to hear. (Guess that Border’s gift card I got as a Christmas present is just about as good as spent.) In the meantime, here’s a challenge to the talented folks over at Dial “M” for Musicology, one of my favorite new blogs: Will somebody with the proper training weigh in on what’s distinctive about Brown’s arrangements?

After waxing programmatic in “Funky President,” Brown returns to the basics:

Turn on your funk motor
I know it’s tough
Turn on your funk motor
Until you get enough

Within any given track, the drums are the funk motor. So I’d especially like to encourage some discussion of what’s going on with the drums. (Other than, you know, hitting “on the one.”)

The Godfather was a tough boss to work for — that’s what everybody says. All the more reason to want to hear an informed appreciation, now, of the art itself. Of course there are less discursive ways to turn on your funk motor but that is a topic for another day.



joe o 12.27.06 at 2:32 am

I listened to the James Brown christmas album alot this christmas. It is very good.


Thompsaj 12.27.06 at 3:49 am

Well, regarding the drums, I think the element of style which gives the “hard funk” feeling is using ghost notes on the snare drum between the heavy backbeats on two and four. Some say that the ghost notes should be more felt than heard, but they serve to outline a pulse in which the 16th notes are implied, so that the syncopations in the horns, guitar, and especially the bass come together. “get on the good foot” “mother popcorn” and “funky drummer” are great and provide the feel for countless hip-hop tracks.

regarding the arrangements, what is striking is the collective improvisational aspect which is apart from, for example, a jazz solo concept. To me, the songs are really about the grooves, and each is a sort of extended rhythm section solo, led by Brown, hence the seemingly off the cuff vocalizations: “Can I take it to the bridge?” I’m not qualified to comment on the uniqueness of this formal concept, but clearly Brown influenced the 70’s funk style immensely. I say it’s striking because it goes against the pop song ideology, that the songs don’t “go anywhere” in the sense of building tension to a climax and release, and they aren’t really organized around the vocals. I’m way too young, but I can’t imagine they played it on the radio, for example; but then, maybe radio didn’t always suck.


kid bitzer 12.27.06 at 9:20 am

yeah, james brown was funky.

but not as funky as gerald ford.


Ken Houghton 12.27.06 at 12:50 pm

kid bitzer must be correct, since Sara Hickman did a transcendent version of “This is a Man’s World” on her first album, and she didn’t even attempt to imitate the pardoning of Millhouse (or Dick, as Michelle Williams fans call him).


Robert 12.27.06 at 9:21 pm

James Brown: First there was music for the body; and Jimi Hendrix: Then there was music for the mind and body.


Daniel 12.28.06 at 9:53 am

I think that what Phil Ford misses out is that the key to James Brown tracks is that Brown’s vocals are part of the percussion section. The relationship between the placement of different parts before and after the beat which he’s finding it so difficult to sum up is precisely described by the phrase “Hot Pants” (and can be contrasted with “Soul Power”, which is also an onomatopoieic summary of how the beat fits together). There’s a lot of this in Indian drumming, where they have a special set of syllables they use for describing drumbeats (it gives us the ubiquitous irritating vocal interludes in the middle of a lot of Shakti tracks IIRC).

The other point of note is that although everyone goes on about “the ONE”, there is actually quite clearly a minor emphasis on the eighth half-beat as well. It’s more like “the and-ONE”.


Cirkux 12.28.06 at 1:27 pm

Unfortunately the album has not been released on CD.

Catalog #
LP Polydor 827439
1985 CS Polydor 827439
is all there is…
He will be missed but it was quite a feat to live as long as he did considering the life he lead.

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