James Brown died on Christmas, which is so like him. And already there’s some weird fallout. Apparently Spike Lee has arranged to direct the biopic — well, he’s got some material to work with. I’d see that movie.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, I think about hipness a fair bit, and one of the things I think about is how very, very few things remain hip all the time. Hipness is Heisenbergian: the act of observation changes the thing observed. If I say that Madlib (say) is hip, the mere fact that I, a paunchy middle-aged music professor, say he’s hip will mean that he’s actually a little less hip, because it means that I’ve heard about him, and now that you’ve read this, so have you. (Ideally you know of Madlib’s hipness because he got you high in his bomb shelter or something. You gotta live it or it won’t come out of your horn, as Charlie Parker said.) So hipness is unstable, and you can’t ever really define hipness in terms of individuals. Even so, there are a few musicians who are basically hip all the time: Miles Davis, John Lennon, and, it now must be said, James Brown. James Brown is hip because hipness, as a concept, as an eschatology, is unthinkable without him.*
Scott McLemee, who now blogs at Crooked Timber, has kindly invited Dial M to try its hand at explaining just why JB’s music is so goddam funky. Which is sort of like explaining why JB is hip, which means I’ll have to resort to slight-of-hand, namely, the academic bait-and-switch of defining a complex concept in terms of a single aspect — in this case, rhythm. Now, funk has something to do with the notes you play — this particular guitar figure played against this particular horn line, with JB interjecting just the right howl, etc. But the notes have to be weaponized by rhythm, and by a particular way of playing rhythm. Right now I’m thinking about the opening vamp of “Hot Pants,” with its octave-jump bassline and its up-tilted three-note** guitar riff against a chicken-scratch rhythm guitar and a tambourine doing steady eighth-notes. (All led off by JB shouting ONE TWO ONE TWO THREE UHHNN.)
Some funky ingredients here, but what really funks me up is the way each part has its own decided placement in relationship to the beat. The tambourine gives us the straight uncut beat — it’s the backbone, the unmovable point of reference to everything else. But if the tambourine beat is rock steady, there’s a tiny lope between the first and second halves of the beat — between eighth-notes. And the bass, while anchored to the beat, has its own perfectly studied casual lope between the first note of every pair (DUH-duh, DUH-duh) and the second, the distance between them conjuring the exact aural equivalent of a gangsta lean. I’m driving my 1998 Saturn station wagon listening to my Ipod on shuffle and this track comes up, and my body immediately and unconsciously tries to make itself look like Youngblood Priest driving around in his Cadillac Eldorado, eyes narrowed, head tipped back, knees and elbows wide. The bass and tambourine rub up against one another, and then there is the infinitely complicated way the chicken-scratch guitar rubs up against them, with each staying with the beat and describing its own macked-out orbit around it. And each of these sonic elements — JB, tambourine, bass, guitar, guitar, and then the horns — is locked together in a groove that is both one and many, an overall funky gestalt that propels your ass onto the dance floor like a puppet on a string and yet contains a multiplicity of tiny rhythmic irregularities. A good funk beat is like a pure white light that breaks prismatically into a thousand colors — is both white and a thousand colors at once. This is what’s so goddam funky. You hear the ONE and yet the ONE is everything jiggling around inside it, and you hear everything jiggling prismatically around and hear it resolve into the ONE. Fred Wesley, in his grumpy autobiography, described how he created the arrangements of JB’s tunes by layering all these different musical elements together, working them individually and in combination until they resolved into a “washing machine” groove, everything locked together in a chugging engine of funk. Incidentally, this is also the same principle by which hiphop producers make beats, as Joseph Schloss describes in his fine book Making Beats. (I’ve mentioned this book before.)
And it’s often this principle that draws a line between people who “get” hiphop and people who say that it’s hardly music, just some guy shouting about hos, guns, cash, and crack over the same two-measure phrase repeated over and over again. But the vector of aesthetic complexity in hiphop (and funk) is vertical, not horizontal: you don’t listen to a hiphop beat or funk groove for all the interesting events that happen over time, as in a Beethoven sonata exposition or a jazz solo. You listen for the interesting events that resolve themselves out of the moment: you listen to hear the colors refract out of the light and back into it; you listen to hear the many in the one.
*I like this argument. Its orotund circularity has a kind of theological aroma. James Brown is hip because he has to be. James Brown is hip because hip is what James Brown is. James Brown is hip because I say so.
**<0,2,5>, for the pitch-class-set inclined.