Clyde Stubblefield “Defined Funk Music”

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Clyde Stubblefield was James Brown’s drummer through the glory years of the mid-Sixties/early Seventies and is credited by experts as the drummer most responsible for Brown’s signature funk beat. He passed away this weekend at the age of 73.

Stubblefield played on several James Brown hits such as “Cold Sweat”, “I Got The Feelin’”, and “Sex Machine”, but despite Brown’s reputation as a taskmaster it was Stubblefield himself who came up with the definitive version of Brown’s funk beat, once telling a reporter that “we just put down what we think it should be. Nobody directed me”.

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It’s hard to describe this beat, other than to say it’s kind of a stop/start syncopation where some key beats are left open, or what they call “grace notes”. Questlove of The Roots, himself one of the top 10 drummers on the planet, told The New York Times in 2011 that

There have been faster, and there have been stronger, but Clyde Stubblefield has a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer in the 20th century. The thing that defines him, that sets him apart from other drummers, are his grace notes, which are sort of like the condiments of what spices up the main focus… It is he who defined funk music.

Stubblefield believed that Brown shortchanged him not just financially but also in terms of recognition for his contributions, a not-unfamiliar story. But here’s where it gets crazy. In 1970 Brown released a single “Funky Drummer”, a fabulous example of his soul-meets-jazz brand of funk. The track wasn’t released on an album until 1986, when suddenly the hip hop community discovered Stubblefield’s drum breakdown about five minutes into the song.

That section of “Funky Drummer” is probably the most-sampled clip in hip hop history. We’ve all heard it, you will recognize it immediately. It was used on Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, and on LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”, and on over a thousand more tracks. And Stubblefield never saw a cent from it, because the song was credited to James Brown.

So a major contributor to two different eras of American popular music ends up with his contributions going practically unrecognized for most of his life. This is just wrong. There’s got to be a better way to compensate musical innovators like Clyde Stubblefield while they are still living. May he rest in peace.

Photo by Paul VanDerWerf (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pavdw/5580394474/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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