James Brown: Funky President (People It’s Bad)/Coldblooded (Polydor PD 14258, 1974)

Why did I buy this record?  Pure and simple, this is the first hip-hop record.  These two sides sound like they would feel right at home in the Golden Age of hip-hop.  These songs are not just a groove.  They are a GROOVE.  A funky-ass GROOVE.

Um, wait, didn’t the first hip-hop record come out in 1979?  And it wasn’t until 1984 that the “Golden Age” began.  True on both counts according to historians and critics.

OK fool, how can “Funky President” be a hip-hop song?  Let us review the principal motifs of a hip-hop song.  I would suggest listening to the track while you read.

DJ Gunga's copy of Funky President by James Brown
Funky President – 1974 Polydor US release.
  • Rhythmic and rhyming speech?  Check.  Readily apparent as soon as James Brown belts out “People People We Gotta Get Ova Before We Go Unda”.  And notice the non-rhotic endings on those words?  That’s a hip-hop motif too.  Flip over to “Coldblooded” and The Godfather is rapping like it is 1989.
  • Chanting vs. singing?  Check.  James Brown’s quickspeak on this record will not be confused for a Sam Cooke style vocal at any block party.
  • Freestyling?  Sort-of-Check.  Most apparent in the final ‘verses’.
  • Bragging?  Check, though it is done by his ‘posse’ of singers, much like an MC might toast a DJ.
  • Sociopolitical Commentary?  Check.  The song is called “Funky President” after all.  And it is not a lighthearted title.  The Godfather touches on income inequality, unemployment, and disenfranchisement, among other topics.
  • Afro-Centrism?  Check.  “Let’s get together and get some land/grow our own food just like The Man.”
  • Sampling?  Check.  That horn riff, repeated over and over on the downbeat, is essentially a sample.  Same with the bass line.  And guitar.  Repeat when listening to the B-side.
  • Jazz Influence?  Check.  Listen to the band explore the chords.  Not surprising, given that James Brown often went with jazz-influenced players.
  • Isolated Beat/Lack of Melody?  Check.  Both songs are four-minutes of beat.  Even the breaks have breaks.  OK, that is exaggerating a bit.

Maybe I’ll buy what you’re sellin’.  But this is still funk, not hip-hop.  Ah, but hip-hop DJs took funk records and isolated the breaks, emphasizing the beat and putting aside the rhythm.  And what did DJs do in the Golden Age of hip-hop?  They started bringing the rhythm back with samples, turntablism, and instrumentation.  So what is Golden Age hip-hop if not a deconstruction/reconstruction of funk using instruments (drum machines, turntables, synthesizers, computers) that funk musicians did not have at their disposal?  That James Brown was able to do all of that on “Funky President” without the technology his successors had available shows how he earned the moniker “The Innovator”.  As for “Coldblodded”, the Godfather is straight-ahead rapping a good 3 years before rapping was a thing.  “Funky President” has been sampled at least 600 times; the DJs were REALLY listening to this one.

Yeah, but this is just one record.  There’s no scene.  True, James Brown did not have b-boys.  But everyone in his review was a dancer.  There was no graffiti art.  But look at the colors and setup of his stages.

I don’t see it.  This ain’t hip-hop.  There wasn’t an explosion of hip-hop after this record came out.  True.  Hip-hop did not directly descend from James Brown.  But there are parallels.  The Godfather is the most-sampled recording artist in all of hip-hop.  Those DJs were not just sitting around listening to the breaks.  When working out their production, they were listening to the whole record.  And by the early 1980s, there were hundreds of DJs listening to these records and playing with all this new technology. They were not directly following in James Brown’s footsteps.  But just like The Godfather, they were seeking new ways to assemble elements of beat, rhythm, and vocalizations.  Even if the song is not hip-hop categorically, it IS hip-hop in spirit.

Whatever, old man.  You crazy.  Yeah, time to shut up and turn on your funk motor.

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