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In their own words: What James Brown meant to me

Aretha Franklin, Ice Cube, Reverend Run, and other peers and disciples remember the Godfather of Soul

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James Brown
James Brown: SMP / Globe Photos

Say it loud! Following the Dec. 25 passing of James Brown, a.k.a. the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, among many other monikers — most of which he coined himself — EW’s music team gathered a rich and varied collection of never-before-published quotes from his admirers. Be they contemporaries, musical descendents, or merely bystanders, all were touched in some way by his supreme funkiness. Here we offer an extended recollection of the memories and moments that made the man The Man, from some of his biggest bold-faced fans.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul

”His performance, you just can’t get away from that. Whatever else you might think of, you cannot get away from that. He was one-of-a-kind, an original, [like] a Rembrandt or a Picasso. The first time I heard him, I was traveling with my father as a teenager, and [Brown] had just joined the Famous Flames, I believe. We were driving in Florida and I heard this record, ”It Was You,” on the radio, and I just loved it instantly.

”And then I must have been about 19 or 20 when I first met him in person. We never actually performed much together, though I remember a show [we did] here in Detroit around ’86 or ’87 [with] me and Wilson Pickett. Oh my Lord.

”He was a showman extraordinaire, a social activist, and he was certainly concerned with the human condition. When I first heard about [the passing of] Gerald Ford, I thought oh, wow, that’s very sad, but I also thought that James might be overshadowed by that, but I don’t think he was at all. I think that the media and the people at large absolutely gave him his respect.”

Nile Rodgers, producer (Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Chic)

”Obviously his impact upon me and my generation goes without saying. Not just his complete body of work but records like, Live at the Apollo, which completely changed the way I looked at music.

”Once I had a meeting with him at WBLS, a popular radio station in New York at the time. I don’t even know what it was about, but at the very beginning of the meeting, I told him how profound I thought his songwriting was, as a lyricist. He was wondering what I meant by that and I told him, ‘There’s one lyric that I think is one of the most amazing lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life.’ It was a lyric that goes, ‘Thinking of losing that funky feeling. Don’t.’ The way he puts the word ‘Don’t’ at the end of the sentence is like James Joyce. It’s just incredible to be able to encompass a thought so clearly: ‘Thinking of losing that funky feeling. Don’t.’ Don’t even contemplate that thought, it’s just ridiculous!

”Afterwards, when he was just about to leave the radio station, [DJ] Frankie Crocker played something, and I wish I remembered what the song was — it was a long cut, like an album cut of his. James was in a hurry but he just stopped and listened to the whole thing and then he looked back at me and said, ‘Damn! I’m a bad mutherf—er, ain’t I?’ It was even amazing to him how great it was! I just sat there and thought to myself, ‘You know what? [I’m] in the presence of greatness — he is a bad mutherf—er!’

”I think that James Brown’s actions, more than anything, gave black people in America the sense of a person with power. At one point, he owned a string of radio stations and had all sorts of businesses which we didn’t think black people [could be involved with] at that time. He was an innovative thinker, and not just musically.”

Vernon Reid, solo artist and founding member of Living Colour

”I would tell you that in discussing James Brown, thinking of him as the ‘Godfather of Soul’, while convenient and familiar, is a very shallow way to appreciate what he did. It’s much easier to underestimate what James Brown did than to overestimate it. I mean, he literally changed the form of the music! Funk music as we understand it starts with James Brown. We always had groovy, danceable R&B prior to that, but if you think about the evolution from ‘Please, Please, Please’ to ‘Super Bad,’ it’s extraordinary because the whole time, he was paring away elements to get to a pure, truly African-American music. He’s a true American minimalist.

”I think lyrically he gets short shrift because no other artist synthesized the dynamics of the male-female sexual relationship like James Brown. The song ‘Sex Machine’ is outrageous because it literally brings to mind the mechanics of sex but it’s ambiguous and says nothing. It’s up to you to picture what a ‘sex machine’ is.

”He exemplified the notion of ‘call and response’ and his ‘call and response’ was with an entire community. So when he [says] ‘Say it loud,’ it’s deep. That song, ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ is a totem of a social movement; it’s as powerful as [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘What’s Going On.’

”He’s a giant in American music, and as an entertainer, he’s unbelievable! When you think about the arrests and the things like that, the unfortunate thing is that they overshadow the enormity of what he accomplished musically. He had a tumultuous life but in the balance of things, he gave much more than he took.”

Ice Cube, actor, multiplatinum rapper and onetime member of N.W.A

”James Brown had the attitude and swagger that the early hip-hoppers picked up on and adopted as the foundation for our music. Without James Brown, as well as people like Muhammad Ali, hip-hop would not have the swagger that it has today. The music would be boring.

”James Brown not only had the funkiest music ever heard, but he had breakdowns in his songs that DJs in the ’70s would spin so rappers could rap over them. He showed us what a beat was supposed to sound like. We used to loop James Brown breakdown beats, now we’re looping our own breakbeats. George Clinton, who is very influential in rap music, was basically a student of James Brown. Bootsy was his bass player for a number of years. Without James Brown, there’d be no P-Funk, no Afrika Bambaataa, no hip-hop.

”[People sample him because] the song was already a hit even before you put lyrics on top of it. We all grew up on these songs. Everybody loved when James would ‘break it on down.’ He kept it raw. Drums, bassline, guitar, horns. You could not lose with a James Brown sample.

”I never had a chance to meet James Brown and I’ve only seen him on TV. He’s one of my idols that just got away. So I only know him as a fan, but I love him like a brother. My sisters and brothers loved James Brown in my house and played his records everyday. ‘The Payback’ is an anthem in South Central L.A. still to this day. (Maybe the first ‘gangsta rap’ song ever made). JB has always been the voice of the ghetto.

”James Brown is the standard. No black musician or [one of] any other color will ever get his music arrangements to record and sound as tight as James Brown. Everyone will always be chasing the master. We love the sub-woofer because of James Brown. Our music is very bass-heavy because of him. He showed us that we could be ourselves and still be a star. You don’t have to change who you are to be a star, and James Brown was the sun.”

NEXT PAGE: The RZA, Pam Grier, Reverend Run, and more

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