Monday, January 01, 2007

Godfather's Revolution

Just some addtional reflections on James Brown and his legacy. I was listening to the Underground Railroad, an exceptional hip hop show on WBAI - 99.5 FM on Saturday nights from midnight to 2 A.M with Jay Smooth.

He was comenting on the significance of JB. An interesting point that he made was that yes, many recognize him for the innovative sound and music he introduced, and some recognize him as a pioneer of hip-hop by providing so many of the foundational beats which were sampled and the basis of many a hip hop track.

But, according to Jay Smooth, his influence went a dimenstion further. Prior to his sound, the focus of American music was the melody with the rhythm or percussion being the background. What JB did was place the rhythm or percussion in the foreground and made that the focus relegating the melody to the background. As a result came the explosive and electric sound that we identify JB with, and which so many afterwards adopted.

This departure went one step further: in making the rhythm or percussion the foreground, he did not limit the rhythmic sound to just that of the drum. Instead, every instrument from horn, guitar, organ, piano, and even the voice became a percussive instrument. The beat was elemental in every expression of sound. Thus, we hear the horns and other instruments in the now familiar herky-jerky, stop-and-go sound.

The fact that the voice could be used as a percussive instrument was revolutionary in American popular music. Of course, that tradition existed for ages in the African and African American music and oral tradition.

However, its use by JB laid the foundation of rap itself, which became a musical genre completely centered on the fact that the voice is a percussive instrment, the rhythm, the beat itself.

Understanding that dimension of JB's influence allows one to see that it is no wonder that so many hip-hop and rap artists looked to JB's music for their elemental beats. Hip-hop and rap was a part of an innovation that JB had himself introduced in American popular music, and which embodied age-old African and African American practice: the power and prominence of the beat, the rhythm.

This was the revolution which the Godfather wrought.

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