“He was not only the Godfather of Soul, but the Godfather of Funk and Rap. Music will never be the same.”
– Ice Cube
A godfather sponsors our baptism into the world we live in. One whose relation to us is defined not by our physical but of our soulful nature. A patron who spiritually guides us as we journey through our existence to explore and stretch ourselves. The baptism signifies our road to heaven and happiness. The role of godfather is to ensure the religious education and, if necessary, care for the child in the event of the loss of parents.
HipHop’s early history was shaped by disco and funk breaks, and shaped by partying to R&B classic tunes and preexisting melodies. As the genre expanded and developed its own identity, we began a search for our own sound. Apache was hype. Before I Let Go was ill. Freak Out was funky fresh. But HipHop hungered for more. Disco died, followed by funk and HipHop was in search of musical direction. We were orphaned. Not many of us were musicians in the true sense of the word. We were curious, inventive, and zealous, but we lacked direction. So we crawled at a snail’s pace, communicating with our drums, clashing with our cymbals, and scratching our records. James Brown emerged as our Godfather, providing that base of soul to power our journey to the heaven of Hip-Hop. He adopted us as his own.
“He did gain respect from the rappers after a while once his lawyers started getting him paid. He wanted that recognition.”
-Bow-Legged Lou of Full Force
He connected with one of our pioneers, Afrika Baambataa, for a song called “Unity”, at a time when black radio shied away from Hip-Hop. Left to fend for ourselves, and dismissed as a transient fad, Hip-Hop fought for acceptance and James Brown welcomed us under his wing. “Tell the truth James Brown was old ‘till Eric and Ra [kim] came out with I got Soul. –Daddy-O (of Stetsasonic) Talking All That Jazz. Daddy-O couldn’t have been further from the truth. Brown embraced our music and helped guide our progress. Brown had hits in 4 decades including 1985’s Living in America, and although “Jazz” was a response to the ongoing attempt to make rappers pay for samples, The Godfather was a willing contributor to our music.
“James Brown was the funkiest! To this day, there has been no one near as funky. No one has even come close.”
– Chuck D of Public Enemy
As HipHop grew, we leaned on James Brown to provide us with a sonic foundation. We took his drums, his Funk, and his Soul. His catalogue was so immense that many different subsets of Hip-Hop used different parts of the Godfather’s legacy to give them direction. Underground pioneers like EPMD and their extended family (Def Squad, Hit Squad, et. al.) used funky songs like “Hot Pants”(Hit Squad Heist), “Soul Power Part 1” (Total Kaos, and Das Efx’s Mic Checka, Undaground Rappa) and “Get on the Good Foot”(Jane 3), while Public Enemy powered the revolution with “Night Train” (Night Train), “Cold Sweat” (Prophets of Rage, Welcome to the TerrorDome), and Revolution of the Mind (Caught, Can I Get a Witness). It didn’t stop there. “Make it Funky” provided inspiration to Tribe (What Really Goes On), Brand Nubian (Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down), De La Soul (Down Syndrome) and Run DMC (Beats to the Rhyme) while “The Big Payback” put the batteries in the backs of Big Daddy Kane (Just Rhyming with Biz), 3rd Bass (Stepping to the A.M.), Common (Payback is a Grandmother), Redman (Tonites da Nite, A Day of Sooperman Lover, Blow Your Mind), and perhaps the most famous, Total feat. Notorious B.I.G. (Can’t You See).
“Without him the aggression in Hip-Hop that helped top rock & roll and punk music would have not existed. Clearly remove his samples, and where would Hip-Hop and today’s R&B be?”
– Eric Roberson
Not only did Brown’s music powered different lanes of Hip-Hop music, but also different locations. As the music went out west, we can still hear its influence. Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride would not have been so bizarre without “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (I’m That Type of N####). Ice Cube and YoYo’s Bonnie and Clyde act would have fizzled without “It’s a Man’s. Man’s, Man’s World” (This is a Man’s World), and Tupac would be “Trading War Stories” a capella without the same. Countless artists including the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. (Psycho Funk), Hammer (They Put Me in the Mix), Ice-T (Power), and even the entire ensemble West Coast All-Stars (We’re All in the Same Gang). The list is all but endless.
“He was pure greatness.”
Born in Poverty in Augusta, GA, in 1933, James Brown’s story prophetically resembled the many lives that rappers 60 years in the future would portray in their rhymes. Brought up in a brothel, and exposed to crime, Brown was incarcerated at a young age, and sought sports (baseball) and music as his way out of the ghetto. Music would end up being his salvation just as Hip-Hop has moved so many of our youth out of the cells and off the corners today.
Perhaps that’s why The Godfather’s music resonates so much in the souls of black folk, and Hip-Hoppers in particular. It’s the story of struggle, of truth, and of redemption. It’s about never giving up, putting in the struggle, and paying the cost to be the boss. How else are we to go from ashy to classy? Whatever belief system you subscribe to, you can bet that our Godfather is getting his Big Payback for all the love and all the inspiration that he gave to us either directly or through people he inspired (Prince, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones). He leaves behind a musical legacy so intertwined with the growth and development of America during the 20th century that I would be doing it a disservice to try and chronicle. One thing is for certain. His music, which has helped fuel the engines of Hip-Hop to this very day, will live on and continue to enrich our lives. Let the church say Amen.
“James Brown is to Soul Music what paint is to art.”
– Anthony Hamilton