By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Dead on the Heavy Funk 1975-1983
IN 1995 ERIC Weisbard, writing in The Spin Alternative Record Guide, asserted: "James Brown isn't alternative. Sampled James Brown is." Well, two recent collections suggest that there's something even more alternative than sampled James Brown: alternative James Brown. Or, more accurately, James Brown outtakes--the rare funk texts that sound just as foreign to us today as the hip-hop and house records grounded in his more well-known beats and riffs.
Alt-JB is the hidden James, the stuff that no one paid attention to because it was mainly recorded after Mr. Dynamite's fuse had supposedly been snuffed out. Yet Dead on the Heavy Funk proves there was still plenty of fire in the Jamesian soul, even after classics like "Funky Drummer" were memories.
"That was a hit, right?" a friend asked when I played her 1977's "I Refuse to Lose," a scorching workout that would have been instant pop Top 10 had it been released a decade--or even five years--earlier. Instead it tanked, peaking at No. 48 on the R&B chart. 1976's "Bodyheat" is a masterpiece: skeletal clavinet melody, swollen, throbbing bass with a high hat bobbing like a ball on a fishhook. Yet despite being one of Soul Brother No. 1's most original productions, it's barely remembered today by anyone outside of JB cognoscenti and breakbeat hounds.
Speaking of revivals, just as nobody sang Dylan like Dylan, nobody rewired the Godfather like the workaholic himself. Take the 1975 remake of "Sex Machine": With its Superfly, wah-wah guitar, shuffling beat, and relaxed feel, it's almost a different song from the original 45. 1980's "Rapp Payback" updates the original "Payback" (from '74) with a vocal nod to the newly hatched hip-hop generation, and a near-Sugarhill groove to complement it. Most elaborately, "I Never, Never Will Forget" is a disco remake of 1973's funk version of the R&B-style 1960 cover of the Five Royales' 1957 hit "Think" (got all that?). All compare favorably to the originals.
Of course, the Most Self-Referential Man in Show Business wasn't the only person who cited James Brown on record. More often than not, his underlings did, too. Original Funky Divas collects the work of the women who traveled with Brown's Revue during the '60s and '70s. The Hardest Working Man in Show Biz's sexual politics weren't exactly enlightened (see Heavy Funk's hilarious "For Goodness Sakes, Look at Those Cakes"), but his respect for his female foils was genuine, and the records he masterminded for them were as tough as post-Aretha R&B got.
Of course, these were still his records. Brown was often physically present on the sides themselves--see his duet with Bea Ford on "You've Got the Power," or his shouts in the background of Lyn Collins's hellacious "Rock Me Again." And, if he wasn't in the studio, Brown's charges often took pains to reference his influence, as on Vicki Anderson's fierce "Answer to Mother Popcorn" and the "Super Bad" rewrite, "Super Good."
It should only make sense that the best stuff here is often the most James-centric. Brown's roughhousing female singers were often self-created in the image of the man himself. The best was Lyn Collins, who earns more cuts on Funky Divas than anyone else; her classic contribution is "Think (About It)." The track is rooted in King Records-style R&B, but it has nothing to do with the Five Royales and everything to do with Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two," in which it is famously sampled. Spin, shmin: Sampled James Brown is as alternative as Nirvana, and after more than a decade of dancing to the hip-hop 'n' house revisions, the unvarnished sources seem pretty alternative, too.