James Brown has been a legend for so long that he risks being taken for a relic. There’s no question that, late in the ’70s, Brown became a crucial touchstone for sample-savvy rappers eager to graft bits of his legend onto the dense patchworks of their music. But most of the grooves they borrowed were laid down nearly two decades ago. Knowing where he spent the last two years of his life, it’d be churlish to ask what Brown has done for us lately, but Star Time, a four-CD (or cassette), 71-track compilation of essential James Brown, provides the ideal opportunity to reassess what the man’s done for our ungrateful selves over the past 35 years: nothing short of transforming the aural landscape of pop music by creating a sound that became the basis for a variety of styles, from disco to hip-hop.
Arranged chronologically and meticulously annotated, the retrospective includes live versions, long versions, and some previously unreleased takes or mixes as well as a booklet of tributes and essays. It’s just the sort of respectful undertaking that could stifle, if not embalm, a more tractable talent. But Star Time is Brown unbound — soul history as a headlong rush of killer hooks, brain-melting horn blasts, and a scream that fuses passion and violence in one inimitable call of the wild.
Still, if Brown’s inexhaustible repertoire of gospel shouts hadn’t been balanced by muscular, pressure-cooked grooves, he would have been relegated to the oldies dustbin decades ago. Those elemental rhythms — woven from tight drumming, stinging guitar lines, ecstatic horn solos, and Brown’s voice — brought together R&B and rock elements, and provided the underpinning not just for rap but for other more technically ornate styles such as disco and Philly Soul.
Beyond rhythm, it’s the roiling spirit of Brown’s stage show that saturates his music, so much of which sounds as if it were snipped from one endless jam session. Next to his astonishing rasp — a voice that sounds ripped from his lungs by way of a long, unpaved country road — Brown’s signature was his teasing, taunting repartee with his band (yet another trait of Brown’s that rappers incorporate), a running commentary on the performance in progress. Working with and molding some of the great soul musicians (bassist Bootsy Collins and horn men Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis consistently stand out), Brown conjures up his own spontaneous brand of funk by abandoning lyrics and shouting, ”Hit me!” ”Take it to the bridge!” or simply, ”Maceo!”
Over the course of four CDs, Star Time‘s energy can lose focus. But if one cut lags, the next two are likely to slap you wide awake with Brown’s trademark mix of urgency and, if you try to make out what his lyrics are about, ad-libbed absurdity. He may have been eclipsed by the sophistication of ’70s urban soul and overshadowed by disco, but the triumphant assault of hip-hop has brought his bedrock rhythms back to pop life, and made the best of his music sound not just fresh but more vital, more vibrant than ever. A