It’s been said with confidence that James Brown’s music will live on forever. Hip-hop producers and DJs heavily contributed to his catalog’s potential immortality, helping make the late “Godfather of Soul” the most sampled artist in history according to British magazine, FACT.
2015 marks the 45th anniversary of Brown’s iconic jam, “Funky Drummer.” Released in 1970, it features a solo by drummer Clyde Stubblefield, a break that holds a special place among hip-hop’s most creative. In 2014, Complex Magazine reported (via information from music community WhoSampled) that “Funky Drummer” had been sampled an astonishing 1,181 times.
James Brown aficionado, the legendary hip-hop DJ and producer Pete Rock, knows a thing or two about sampling and then some. Ranked #1 on SoulTrain.com’s Top 40 Most Soulful Hip-hop Artists list, he told SoulTrain.com the song’s origin while recalling a conversation with Stubblefield. “I don’t think James could read music,” Pete Rock explained, “so he got the most talented band members he could find so he could interpret what was going on inside of his head.
“Talking to Clyde, he was breaking down what James wanted him to do, what was going on inside his head when he was trying to interrupt ‘Funky Drummer’ to him,” Pete Rock continues. “Clyde said James told him, ‘This is what it sounds like in my head, so I need you to rock it like this—boom-boom, boom.’ Clyde said he had no clue what the hell James was talking about because it was like James spoke another language when he tried to explain what he wanted. But somehow they were able to get in tune with one another, and that amazing connection became ‘Funky Drummer’.”
Pete Rock said James Brown was a huge musical influence to him and the whole planet, especially the genre of hip-hop.
By now we’re all aware of hip-hop’s relationship with the late James Brown and his music. Of all his songs, though, why’s there been such a creative connection with “Funky Drummer?” In celebration the four-and-a-half decades this classic has been in existence, SoulTrain.com asked a number of top DJs, producers, and musicians to answer and provide us their take.
“There’s just so much groove and funk in such a short period of time! Back when sampling time was really limited on older samplers, what could be better than using ‘Funky Drummer?’ If you break it down musically, there’s a hard distinct groove in 1/4, 1/8, and 1/16 notes. In that sense, it allows you to dance to it 3 different ways, bob your head to it 3 different ways, and most importantly, rhyme to it an infinite amount of ways. I always feel like the de facto beatbox rhythm for cyphers mimics ‘Funky Drummer’ in ways, too, and the way the break has spun off into drum ‘n bass and jungle music is fascinating as well.” —6th Sense
“‘Funky Drummer’ has everything a hip-hop head wants in one drum break: a countdown, crunchy but funky drums, a call and response—“Ain’t it funky?,” vocal stabs, and then horns at the end. It’s a one-stop-shop for fresh beats because you can play it out and it’s dope, you can chop it up and it’s dope. But I think one reason it may have endured is because sampling or deejaying ‘Funky Drummer’ is akin to a jazz musician learning or playing a jazz standard. Blues, rock’n roll, jazz, etc., all have their standards that students of the genre know how to play. Hip-hop doesn’t really have that. Sure, it has the tracks we recognize as classics, and we know the lyrics, but hip-hop doesn’t really have standards that get covered when rappers are coming up. You write your own verses, but what you can do is sample the standard. It’s a place to start. It’s ground zero. It’s the hip-hop standard. You can learn how to sample on those drums. You can learn how to spit over those drums. You can learn how to breakdance over those drums. You can learn how to rock doubles on those drums. It’s the starting point. You cut your teeth on those drums before you get adventurous.” —DJ J-Beez
“The ‘Funky Drummer’ sample we used in hip-hop in the ‘90s was an industry standard for every producer—east or west coast, from Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad to Compton’s own Dr. Dre. And, of course, myself. If you didn’t have James looped in any of your records back then, your music wasn’t hittin’ or funky enough. To this day, you can still hear ‘Funky Drummer’—not just in hip-hop but other genres as well.” —DJ King Assassin
“I think ‘Funky Drummer’’s popularity and legacy are solidified in sampling. The original song is great, but until hip-hop picked up on the drum break, I believe it would be just another song in James Brown’s discography. Once hip-hop producers jacked the loop it made its way into pop songs, thus familiarizing a much broader audience with the song. Whether we knew it or not, we all were affected by ‘Funky Drummer’.” —DJ Wonder
“The track ‘Funky Drummer’ is one of hip-hop culture’s great gifts that the hip-hop pioneers frequently used from Mr. Clyde Stubblefield at high school jams, block parties, and breakdance events, and it was extremely well-received by our great legendary MCs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many artists, DJs, and producers have sampled this track, including myself. The track starts on the ‘one,’ which makes it easy for DJs to cut it up. Also, the drum pattern works well when combining with most mid-tempo melodies and bass lines. That overall sound of the bass kick and snare really stands out. It will always be one of the all-time greatest funk tracks of that era.” ––Mix Master Ice (UTFO)
“I think [‘Funky Drummer’] was such a solid, clean, and timeless beat that grabs you rhythmically. It was easy to be sampled when James let [Clyde Stubblefield] play by himself. ‘Don’t turn it loose’ is what James said on the recording, meaning let the drummer play by himself but keep that groove going!” —Ron Otis
“What else can I say about this full nine minutes and sixteen seconds of genius? From the intro to the Godfather of Soul’s closing riff, this song has all the elements of feel good music in it! This is why there is such an amazing connection to the song. We all know that our culture is driven by the heartbeat of the drums, down to the murmur of the bass line. ‘Funky Drummer’ is perfectly titled [because of] the pocket the drummer Clyde Stubblefield stays in, especially at his solo. Kills it! Masterpieces like this will never be created in this new generation! Fist in the air for the old school! Thank you, Mr. Brown, for creating the blueprint of where we should be!” – CORE DJ Hershey
—Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker is an urban and pop culture enthusiast. Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, the biographer, author, entertainment and celebrity journalist, and columnist is currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of weekly classic hip-hop reviews for Concrete Magazine’s Concrete615.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He is also working on a book project with Liquid Arts & Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog MrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.