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January 3-9, 2007

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James Brown

Say It Loud: James Brown invented the sound and language of funk.

I Ain't Talkin' Just To Tease

James Brown wasn't just a musical innovator, he was also one of pop music's greatest street poets

By Steve Palopoli


IN THE RUSH to eulogize James Brown, who died on Christmas Day, it's suddenly fashionable to say that the Godfather of Soul "was to rhythm what Dylan was to lyrics." Are they kidding? The implication that Brown was any less of a lyrical poet than Dylan is just plain wrong. In fact, the whole popular notion that what came out of Brown's band was more important than what came out of his mouth is a crock. Yes, he invented the sound of funk, but he also gave the world its vocabulary. You better believe speaking to his audience was just as important to him as making them dance, and in his finest moments, no one could speak more directly. Here are five examples of how he rocked the mic:

1. 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud'
Was any song more revolutionary in 1968? It was so powerful it actually blew up in Brown's face by scaring his white audience—it was a lot easier for them to accept a black man singing "please, please, please" than leading a chorus of children asserting their racial pride. Most white Americans in '68 didn't want Blacks to be loud or proud, but you couldn't ask for a catchier crash course in identity politics. And what a downright human song Brown wrote to convey his political message. It's full of constant references to the body: "I've worked on jobs/ With my feet and hands/But all the work I did/ Was for the other man" and "Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself/We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall and workin' for someone else/ We're people, we're just like the birds and the bees/ We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees."

2. 'The Payback'
Possibly the height of James Brown cool, this is where he let his unique street lyricism get right up in your face. This song contains several of his most mind-boggling lines, including "I don't know karate, but I know ka-razy!" Theoretically that last word should be "crazy," but only a phonetic spelling can even begin to do justice to this lyric. Who knows if he even meant to say "crazy"—it seems like in James Brown's mind, "ka-razy" might be a real thing, like he had to make up a new word just to describe how much crazier he was than everybody else. Even when his poetry went that far out, Brown was able to take the listener along with him, and in doing so he changed the way America thought not only about music, but also about language.

3. 'Super Bad'
There's more meaning to this song than people have given it credit for. It's not just bragging; in fact, its famous chorus "I got soul, and I'm super bad" is actually a brilliant bit of diplomacy. Though he's remembered as the Godfather of Soul, ironically Brown's 1965 hits "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" were considered body blows to soul as mainstream pop music, and from then on out his new funk sound moved further and further away from the soul style he'd helped to found in the '50s. With this 1970 song, though, he boldly fused the two identities, suggesting that his new harder sound (represented by superbadness) wasn't at odds with his more sensitive, soulful side. It also gave the world the classic Brown line "I jump back, wanna kiss myself."

4. 'Papa Don't Take No Mess'
Brown was a man of many contradictions, politically and personally. In this song, he turned them into a story of a father who's both a hero and a monster. If it's harrowing now to hear the lines "But when we did wrong/ Papa beat the hell out of us," imagine what it was like when this was released in 1974. It's shocking how personal and raw Brown is willing to get in this song, though most people who heard the lyrics "Papa rap is very quick/ He definitely ain't no trick" three decades ago didn't know that Brown was raised in a brothel.

5. 'Funky Drummer'
It's a crime that this song is usually considered an instrumental. Brown improvises lyrics all over it, and they're sheer poetry. One of the most liberating moments in all of popular music comes when he tells the drummer: "You don't have to do no song, brother/ Just keep what you got/ Don't turn it loose/ 'Cause it's a mother."


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