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James Brown, 1933-2006: Harry Allen on How JB Revolutionized Popular Music, Provided the Soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement and Created the Blueprint for Hip-Hop

StoryDecember 26, 2006
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Musical legend James Brown died on Christmas at the age of 73. He was one of the most significant musical pioneers of the past 50 years. The Rev. Al Sharpton said yesterday, “What James Brown was to music in terms of soul and hip-hop, rap, is what Bach was to classical music.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is dead at the age of 73. He died early Christmas morning, a result of congestive heart failure caused by pneumonia.

Over the past 50 years, James Brown revolutionized popular music. He transformed the sounds of soul and R&B. He helped invent the music known as funk. He created the blueprint for hip-hop. He even changed the sound of modern African music by influencing artists like the late Nigerian afro-beat star, Fela Kuti.

The Reverend Al Sharpton said yesterday, quote, “What James Brown was to music in terms of soul and hip-hop, rap, is what Bach was to classical music.”

James Brown’s various nicknames captured just a part of his larger life persona: the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, the Minister of the New New Super-Heavy Funk, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Please Please Please, and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

On Sunday, musicians around the world paid tribute to his legacy. This is the hip-hop star LL Cool J.

LL COOL J: He has been a tremendous influence on my life as a hip-hop artist, not only an actor, but a hip-hop artist. There was a point in hip-hop when you couldn’t make a record or song without using a James Brown sample or borrowing a James Brown riff or loop or scream or yell, or something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa called James Brown the most sampled artist of all time. The break in his song “Funky Drummer” became one of the most famous rhythms in hip-hop.

James Brown is also remembered by many as a civil rights icon. In 1966, he performed at a special concert in Mississippi soon after the shooting of James Meredith. He often canceled his own shows to perform benefits for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups. In 1968, his song “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Yet Brown was also criticized when he openly backed the presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon. He later served on Ronald Reagan’s Council Against Drugs.

Last year, James Brown traveled to Edinburgh to perform at Live Aid.

JAMES BROWN: I’m very proud of all my travels and being up here, because this is something that I think is long overdue. I think the fact is we are concerned about the people throughout the world. I was in Jakarta. I was in Jakarta about a month ago. People are having problems. The ones that can solve them is you and I. We can only let the people, the governments know how we feel, but we have to start it by loving each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Offstage, James Brown’s name has repeatedly appeared in the police blotter. He was arrested several times on drug and domestic violence charges and served prison time as a teenager and again later in life.

For more on the life of James Brown, I am joined by hip-hop journalist and activist, “media assassin,” Harry Allen. Harry Allen worked with groundbreaking hip-hop group Public Enemy, a member of that group. Welcome to Democracy Now!

HARRY ALLEN: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about James Brown.

HARRY ALLEN: Well, I think Al Sharpton’s summary of him is appropriate, in the sense that much the way the techniques and sounds and arrangements that Johann Sebastian Bach put together, went on to influence European classical music and are diffused throughout it, James Brown’s ideas are diffused all throughout popular music.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how he really helped create funk, how he influenced hip-hop?

HARRY ALLEN: Well, hip-hop is a music that relies to a great extent on using preexisting musical ideas expressed through recordings. And James Brown put together some of the densest ideas in black music ever made. And so, in hip-hop it’s almost like, when you go to a James Brown recording, it’s like you’re finding a piece of ore, something you can take apart and use in endless numbers of ways, because there’s so many ideas per fraction of a second in any one of his recordings. If you listen to James Brown’s catalog, you’re pretty much going to be hearing little bits and pieces of hip-hop, of the hip-hop idea, repeated endlessly throughout it.

AMY GOODMAN: What gave him his strength, his power early on, and then branching out the way he did?

HARRY ALLEN: I think — my impression is that his hardships in life — James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1928, and then went on to live in Augusta, Georgia. And he had an upbringing and a life that can only be summarized as typical of ghetto youth, and by that, I mean people who are poor, who often don’t have both parents in the home, who are often uneducated and mistreated, and as black people living under the cloud and conditions of white supremacy having to find a way. And James Brown found his way through life on the street and then through prison, but he was saved by music.

And it was, I think, all of those experiences and the fact that he never lost his connection, as Al Sharpton said, to the common man, that throughout his life, James Brown was not the guy who went to Beverly Hills and married a white woman, although I think he ultimately did, but that he stayed with the people. You could always imagine James Brown as being the kind of guy who, you know, would saddle up to a plate of collard greens and mashed potatoes and chicken and, you know, not have any airs. And so, he kept his common touch.

And I think that, I should also say, he surrounded himself in his music production with extremely capable and powerful sidemen. You know, Pee Wee Ellis and Stubblefield and John Jabo Starks and Maceo Parker and all the rest, who helped refine this incredibly dense, incredibly powerful polyrhythmic, polytonal sound that is known as the James Brown sound.

AMY GOODMAN: His involvement in the civil rights movement?

HARRY ALLEN: Well, I was talking to my wife yesterday about this, about the record, Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud). And she says that she remembers when it came out when she was a teenager. And it almost sounded dangerous to say, you know. And to this day, James Brown has carved a path, in terms of music, in terms of politics, that few have followed. You know, a certain number of hip-hop artists have gone that way, as well. But he put down ideas politically and musically that no one else has taken up, that are unique to him. “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” you know, “I’ll Get It Myself,” “Soul Power.” These are all extremely, extremely strong declarations of black independence and black resilience at a time when those ideas were really needed in music as the lifeblood of black culture.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Harry Allen, who is a hip-hop activist, known as — why “media assassin”?

HARRY ALLEN: Because I realized very early on as a writer that my job was to annihilate and kill the ideas that were surrounding me and that were in the popular press.

AMY GOODMAN: And you call yourself an aide-de-camp of Public Enemy. What do you mean?

HARRY ALLEN: I wasn’t in the — I’m not in the group. I didn’t get on stage and rap or anything like that, but I’ve always been around and supportive of and helped and aided in various ways Public Enemy’s efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how was Public Enemy affected by James Brown?

HARRY ALLEN: Oh, Public Enemy wouldn’t exist without James Brown. It’s that simple. Hank Shocklee, Chuck D, as the founders of the Bomb Squad, and Chuck D, the vocalist and architect of Public Enemy, talked about James Brown continuously. We sampled his music. Chuck has gone on and will probably be heard again, during this time of mourning, talking about James Brown, his influence and the power of his music, and what it added to — you know, the J.B.'s “The Grunt,” that squeal on that record was repeated 94 times on one of Public Enemy's records.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, for people who are not familiar?

HARRY ALLEN: Well, P.E. took the record, “The Grunt,” by the J.B.'s, which was James Brown's background band. And they sample it, this [makes squealing sound], and they repeated it 94 times on the record to give it an insistence and a power that they wanted it to have. So they were pulling from James Brown’s power to express some of their own.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the accusations of domestic violence later in his life?

HARRY ALLEN: I think it’s very sad. And I think that a lot of black males, especially, have a very difficult time in the context of the racist system making sense of our relationships with females. I think we have a hard time figuring out what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to live. And James Brown lived a life where he saw the greatest. He met presidents, you know, presumably kings and statesmen, but was still always a black guy from the South who didn’t grow up with his parents. And he had to struggle with a huge amount of insecurity, a huge amount of all the demons that afflict people who are famous, rich, successful, but ultimately come from very poor backgrounds.

AMY GOODMAN: He died this weekend, just after giving out Christmas gifts to kids in Georgia.

HARRY ALLEN: I mean, that sounds like the James Brown of legend, the person who was, you know, very much connected with normal people, the community, you know, but was, at the same time, great.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Harry. Your favorite James Brown song?

HARRY ALLEN: Wow! I’d have to say, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” but there are so many, so many, and all of them for different reasons. But probably “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Allen, media assassin, hip-hop activist, aide-de-camp to Public Enemy, talking about the life —

HARRY ALLEN: I should also say, producer of Nonfiction on WBAI, the host and producer of Nonfiction on WBAI, which we both love.

AMY GOODMAN: WBAI, Pacifica Radio. Thanks so much, Harry.

HARRY ALLEN: Thank you.

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