FCJ-103 James Brown, Sample Culture and the Permanent Distance of Glory

Steve Jones
University of Sussex

But here I am, the man
Who started it all, and I’m glad,
‘Cause I’m number one, original,
I know I’m bad

‘I’m Real’, James Brown

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the James Brown song ‘I’m Real’ (1988) features the man himself lending a vocal turn (or two) to the track. The song contains numerous lyrics regaled from James Brown’s earlier hits (including ‘Make it Funky’ (1971)) and also James Brown vocal samples from ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ (1970) and ‘Get on the Good Foot’ (1972). This chronologic duality is the starting point of the problem that concerns us here. Funkalicious.

The question is simple (even if the answer is not). Why sample James Brown’s voice when the man himself was in the studio recording a vocal? What purpose could it serve, especially when he was already replicating moments from previous hits? During the 1980s, the rise of hip-hop altered the landscape of American popular music. Sampling became a common formal technique, and the music of James Brown was arguably the predominant catalogue source for samples used. James’s frustration at being ‘replaced’ and having his work overtly plundered is evident in ‘I’m Real’. Here, he attempted to out-manoeuvre his new rivals by sampling his own work, thus asserting his status as original author of the sound snippets that were being frequently employed without direct acknowledgement. As the originator, Brown’s ploy was in part to educate fans of hip-hop who may have unknowingly encountered elements of his music, but who remained unaware of the contexts from which those sounds were garnered. The central questions I pose here focus on what the choice to sample himself reveals about Brown’s status as a Soul legend, and whether the contemporaneous James could sincerely live up to the mythic status inherent to the message of ‘I’m Real’ given its self-conscious form. This confusion appears to be an extension of Walter Benjamin’s conception of déjà vu as an acoustic effect – ‘the cool tomb of long ago, from the vault of which the present seems to return only as an echo’ (Benjamin cited in Breyley, 2009: 145) – only here the slippage between past and present is quite literal, involving the discordant imbrication of two divergent temporal states. Via a detailed investigation of the song ‘I’m Real’, I will probe Brown’s playful employment of his own past. His gambit, I will argue, may be read simultaneously as testament to his own glory, and as a signifier that the excesses of egotistic auto-projection were always more distant than they first appeared to be.

‘I’m Real’ is one of Brown’s later 80’s singles, following hits such as ‘Living in America’ (1985). So, the vocal references represent his glory days, especially in the face of these newer, glossily produced numbers – which are a far cry from the raw soul of ‘Please, Please, Please’ (1956). Ironically, the use of sampling represents this ‘progress’ formally, indicating advances in recording technology (arguably at the cost of the music itself). Papa’s got an old bag – and one is expected to be familiar with some parts of it. James was past his prime by this stage of his career. Thus, it makes sense that he would reference his back catalogue while still viable as a charting artist – before he was left ‘outta sight’.

But maybe he could only make this career extension because (ironically) he was regularly sampled in music of the period – as George Cole avers, ‘Brown is one of the most sampled artists in the history of hip-hop music, with more than 650 samples taken from just a dozen of Brown’s tunes’ (Cole, 2007: 327). So, in sampling himself, it appears that he was playing the same game as his hip-hop successors, proclaiming that he was really ‘Real’, or at least better than those who paid tribute to him (the ‘copycats’ in his terms). This is certainly how Rickey Vincent reads the song, stating that ‘James Brown finally responded to the barrage of “biters” who would nibble on his rhythms in…”I’m Real”‘ (Vincent and Clinton, 1996: 87). The 1980s rap scene was an era dominated by large gold medallions, a trait later rejected by numerous artists including Chuck D of Public Enemy, who associated the trope specifically with an insecurity of identity. He critically summarised the preoccupation thus, ‘I got to get a gold chain or I got to get a fly car in order to impress a sister or whatever, in order to impress myself, in order to make people feel good about me’ (Chuck D quoted in Keyes, 2004: 172). This superficial bolstering of self was (and arguably still is) a central trope of hip-hop identity, although such an over-exertion of the fundamentally fragile self is not just played out in physical terms. As Geoffrey Sill points out, ‘there is a marked component of self-aggrandizement and epic boasting in rap’ (1993, 60). If hip-hop has been associated with exuberant posturing to one’s own brilliance, this may have proven an apposite milieu for Brown’s reclamation of the music scene. Who’s the man? Well, surely it is the ‘Godfather of Soul’, the ‘teacher’ (as he so modestly put it). Who could ask for mo’ funk for their money? Yet, as I will go on to demonstrate, this equally seems to mask an ambivalence that makes the Brown persona an unknowable non-space, despite (or indeed because of) the overt designation of how “James Brown” signifies as a figure of musical influence.

One of our ways into this debate should be to pay attention to the motivations behind sampling in the period, and why Brown was such an influential figure. As John Scannell notes, ‘Brown’s resistance to the orthodox…appeal[ed] to the egalitarian musical outlook of a new generation of…DJs and dance music producers’ (Scannell, 2009: 122). While sampling became part of pop music’s evolution, it also had an important social function. Taylor observes that ‘in hip-hop…sampled material to this day tends to be used either as a homage to musical forbears, such as…James Brown, and/or it’s used as a way to establish a kind of musical community’ (Taylor, 2000: 149). Of course, Brown’s use of self-sampling does attempt to establish a communal relationship in the sense that it speaks back to his imitators, and places himself firmly at the apex of the musical hierarchy. Brown, after all, was required to pay tribute only to himself. Where other artists may have used sampling to honour Brown’s influential past, they also (perhaps accidentally) replaced him by regarding him as a legend (of the past). ‘I’m Real’ then acts to assert that James was still a going concern at this stage, entering into a dialogue with the musical forms of the moment.

Other artists used James Brown samples to indicate that he formed part of their roots, one that they had to directly acknowledge through extraction – the implication being that they could not replicate or supersede such material. The problem again then is in Brown’s intentional misuse of the technique, coupling literal sampling with his reproduction of past vocal motifs. His attempt to recreate those moments of past vocal greatness (‘papa’s got a brand new bag’, and so forth) suggests that he was still very much able to produce such material, and thus did not need to use samples. In utilising both present and past in one continuum, he may have been attempting to close the gap, suggesting that there was no noticeable distance between these two states. In that sense, the sampling is not redundant per se, but an excessive self-tribute that works to playfully bolster the self, as well as arguably maintaining a parodic, self-reflexive awareness of the previousness of that greatness. This at once situates him as the origin-point, while also pointing to the potential fragility of that position.

One of the complexities of this stance arises from the lyrical content of the song. There is, according to ‘I’m Real’, ‘nobody out there good enough to take the things’ Brown has. Except maybe the tense of this sentence is wrong – coming after a lengthy spell in prison, perhaps he should have been referring to those things he ‘used to have’. This is certainly the implication inherent in Daddy-O of Stetsasonic’s observation that sampling ‘was mutually beneficial to both the sampler and sampled, as it revived the careers (and bank accounts) of outmoded and pensioned-off musicians, predominantly the Godfather of Soul’ (Daddy-O, quoted in Bernado, 2007: 152). Brown’s jibing lyric ‘better take my voice off your record ’til I’m paid in full’, hints towards his acknowledgment of the economic dimension here, especially since this line is coupled with the handing over of cash in the music video that accompanies ‘I’m Real’. Yet it equally seems to dismiss hip-hop artist’s desire to ‘pay’ homage to their influences, or at least discredits such attempts. Brown’s version of ‘paying dues’ necessitates the maintenance of his success over his hip-hop protégés in the musical hierarchy (rather than the literal paying of royalties). Ironically, James’s cribbing of their new style, albeit influenced by the soul he ‘invented’ (as he puts it in the lyrics of ‘I’m Real’), was to give him his last chart single success. The self-destructiveness of this decline is meted out again in the music video where Full Force retrieve the James Brown records the DJ-wannabes are playing, and snap them – destroying Brown’s own back-catalogue. Maybe Brown’s claim that there was ‘nobody out there good enough to take the things I have’ was erroneous because he did not bargain on himself being ‘good’ enough to have ever had a firm grasp on them.

But what exactly was he claiming that he was better at? I am sincerely hoping that ‘it’ was not using samples, because ‘I’m Real’ really does not do that very well. One would be forgiven for breaking out in a ‘cold sweat’, or ‘getting up’ on the bad foot on hearing this particular number. Maybe the ‘it’ inquestion was being James Brown (aka the Funkmeister General). However, in order to make this case, he had to embellish his fading self by culling parts of his previous SuperBadness, proving that he was not that good at that either. Perhaps he was aiming his message solely at the ‘copycats’ (even if doing so entailed the need to replicate his own material), rather than attempting to re-conquer the charts. Brown’s own declaration that ‘”I’m Real” is the biggest record I’ve had in 15 years in the United States’ may be read as a statement of surprise given that the contemporary audience ‘had him playing hits he recorded 25 years ago’ (Jet, 1988: 60).

This is a crux-point of ontological confusion – in asking the contemporaneous James Brown to recreate moments of past glory, the audience of 1988 were denying the current greatness of his musical talent in search of something no longer strictly present. Again, we may wish to draw direct parallel tothe motivations of sampling. Mark Katz states that:

Even if the sampled musicians were to perform their chopped and looped parts in concert (an unlikely prospect!), they themselves could not exactly reproduce the original…even if it were somehow possible to recreate the samples, to do so would be to miss the point…it is the sample – not the live performance – that is the real thing (Katz, 2004: 154-155).

Again then, we are faced with the problem of James re-enacting himself, both in the studio and in concert. Such a disregard of temporal change (on behalf of both audience and performer) leaves us with a situation of horrific potential.

One means of seemingly easing the problem of anachronistic semi-present James Browns is to treat the technique as an extension of his musical milieu, his ‘willing embrace of “illogic” in the face of a dogmatic image of musical thought’ (Scannell, 2009: 120), and his persistent demands on bandleaders to make ‘something out of nothing or something out of any combination of things’ (Wesley, cited in Scannell, 2009: 119). Sampling himself then appears to fit the same logic of musical construction that entailed precisely the (re)combination of disparate and unexpected elements that was central to Brown’s musical oeuvre. Alternatively, we may read it as a joke of sorts, although it does not strictly follow that the use of sampling/repetition of his own lyrics was a self-reflexive ‘ironic thang’. Sure, there was always a sense of humour in his swagger, not least in his onstage dying/resurrection routine (documented in Wolk, 2004: 92-3). But was he being humorous, or was this indicative of egotism? If we read Brown as playful instead of simply narcissistic, the song’s statement ‘I know I’m bad’ takes on entirely different connotations, even if this particular single was one Lazarus-style re-entrance too many. Indeed, the self-praising lyrics may be too extreme to be taken seriously. His accusation that his rivals ‘steal my rhythm and my style, and you think you’re god’ suggests that his style and rhythm make him the god that they want to be (as if, by mimicking his position, they now believe themselves to be at his level). Rather than taking this too gravely, it may be indicative of Brown’s self-referential sensibility, in which ‘surface’ in privileged ‘over depth, and play over seriousness’ (Prior, 2009: 81).

At first it may appear that ‘I’m Real’ was not intended as a pun because the irony is missing, but the case may not be as direct as this. Let us briefly sojourn to look at a previous single to illustrate my point. ‘Too Funky in Here’ (1979) was the perfect opportunity for an ironic treatment. He could have made it an operatic ballad, or taken on some other form that was not at all funky, suggesting that he was so funky, that it is beyond our ability as listeners to distinguish what is or is not funk anymore. After all, if anyone could have re-investigated the parameters of what funk was, it should have been the Godfather of Soul. But, alas, ‘Too Funky’ is…well…just funky enough (I do not suppose it would have been so successful if it had been entitled ‘Adequately Funky’, or ‘My Funk will Suffice’ though). Of course, we may wish to read this song in another sense – its central conceit hinges on a dualism of form (Funk music) and linguistic play (funky meaning “smelly” – including Brown’s calls for ‘air freshener under the drums’) that can be interpreted in a number of ways. It can either be read as a matter of self-mockery (as in “my music stinks”) which directly tempers the self-praise he embodied in his status as legend. After all, Brown’s band-mates often criticised James’s ‘musical shortcomings’, and he displayed a ‘frank ambivalence toward[s]’ the ‘distinction between “good” and “bad” musicianship’ (Scannell, 2009: 118,123). There is every chance then that this auto-commentary was inextricable from Brown’s lyrical opus as an extension of his self-interest. Alternatively, and in a similar sense to ‘I’m Real’, it may be an accusatory statement. In this light, the song declares that the contemporaneous musical climate is in need of change (‘open up the door y’all!’) because the market has become saturated with imitators. If that was what he meant by it being ‘too funky in here’, the implication is that (as commander of when the atmosphere has exceeded its funk-potential) he was still the controlling force central to the debate.

The problems we have so far encountered – of past versus present and a potentially humorous or critically ironic version of excessive self-grandeur – are equally articulated in ‘I’m Real’s promotional video. The video begins with a variety of James Brown impersonators practicing together at ‘Copycat Studios’, while DJs gasp in awe at finding a James Brown LP to spin. From the start then, even before Brown and Full Force enter to bring ‘the payback’, this is framed as a world entirely revolving around the Brown persona – as if ‘Copycat Studios’ does not have anyone else to mimic. It should not surprise us that the Brown-ego should infect the environment of the video, as the lyrics explicitly tell us ‘this is my world’. Thus, walls are lined with his pictures, and people on the street corners hold and point to posters of his visage.

Importantly, this also connotes that he is current, ‘street’, and still of relevance to ‘the people’ in a profound way (unlike, presumably, those anonymous copycats). This connection with the streets is magnified by his line ‘can I take it to the bridge?’ being met by Full Force’s specification – ‘yeah the Brooklyn bridge’. Furthermore, the city is tied directly into a melding of past and present. A monochrome shot of the Apollo Billboard advertising ‘James Brown and the Famous Flames’ is intercut (sampled and re-organised) with the same sign (this time in colour, thus signifying the present) advertising ‘James Brown and Full Force’. Crucially, both images have been filmed in the present, evidenced by surrounding detail that remains unchanged across the shots, one simply being rendered in black and white. The confusion between past images and present ones is thus further problematised, making a reinvention of the past in the present seem all the more implicitly plausible. The world infected by Brown’s multi-temporal personae, rendered via visual sampling, manifests Michel Foucault’s vision of the ‘accidental, transformational and discontinuous in the “profusion of entangled events” that constitutes “the world we know”‘ (Foucault quoted in Breyley, 2009: 148).

Later in the video, the impersonator we met in the opening sequence is stripped of his wig and jacket. These superficial markers designate ‘James Brown-ness’ in this climate, and only draw attention to James’ own façade of that same ‘James Brown-ness’ elsewhere in the video. That the lyrics discuss ‘steal[ing] my arms and my legs’ while the viewer is shown the limbs of the impersonator blurs the line between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’ even further. Thus, it becomes thematically difficult to separate the original Brown from his replacement, and this is the logical result of sampling given Nick Prior’s observation that ‘if the digital sampler was postmodernism’s musical engine, then hip-hop was its recombinant form, and the erosion of divisions between original and copy the celebrated consequence. Pop music had become an engorged repository of itself’ (Prior, 2009: 81, my emphasis). Brown enacts exactly this self-reflexivity through his over-wrought persona.

This displacement is manifested elsewhere in the video for other means. The video ends with a lacklustre band (notably all white, which may provide another critical commentary on the 1980s music scene in a racial sense) performing ‘Please Please Please’ in the most uninspiring fashion they can, their manager asking for ‘more of that James Brown mystique, magic, zeal, conviction’. Again, aggrandisement of the Brown persona is key, even though James himself is only present off-camera as teacher (he suggests that the ‘kid’ needs ‘more soul’). Here, his usurpation and absence from the musical scene appears to be inevitable, his physical disappearance meaning that his didacticism has to live on through the sound of his voice alone, reminding us that his recordings have been a prevalent influence on the musical climate during his incarceration prior to this single.

Another kind of displacement is employed via visual sampling. Over the lyrics ‘I’m number one, original’, we are treated to images of James performing as a young sensation in the early 1960s. In the same way that the vocal samples juxtapose temporally divergent versions of the same man, his youthful stage presence is directly compared to his older self strutting awkwardly (even back-sliding into a member of Full Force at one point). Moreover, just as Brown does not live up to his previous status as a dancer, he also singularly fails to lip sync with the recorded vocal (perhaps he should have changed the lyrics of the song to read ‘I ain’t taking no lip…synching lessons’). If this is intentional, it may be read in several ways – firstly, it may be a dig at those that have to utilise his recorded voice instead of their own, and this is augmented by shots of the DJ who mouths along to the sample ‘J-J-James Brown’ throughout the video. Secondly, it may take a swipe at the trend for lip synching in pop music during the 1980s, implying that the technique is inauthentic compared with the talent and effort of Brown’s youthful stage performances (which are directly shown in the video). Finally, it may be read as a mode of further accentuating the gaps between the physical presence of Brown himself in 1988, and the recorded instance of his vocal performances (for which he will be remembered), which in some sense transcend time, blurring with and becoming indistinguishable from the past.

Let us return to this formal issue as raised by the recorded song then. The problem remains: why use a sample instead of the real James? Even if past his prime, the Sex Machine frequently impersonates himself throughout the song (‘can I take it to the bridge?’). The combination of this imitation alongside the presence of the Real voice of James Brown-past simply makes permanent a testament that he was releasing material as a shadow of his former self. Furthermore, there is an inherent problem with the song being entitled ‘I’m Real’, when relying on these sound-bites. It is not that it is not “really” James Brown that we are listening to, but that the sample (contextualised beyond his previous glory), although authentic, is somehow less ‘Real’ than the James recording live in the studio. Yet, arguably, the use of the sample is more genuine than the impersonation of his previous self. That is to say, the authenticity of the sample itself is not in question. It is certainly more contextually honest than the ‘past-it’ James pretending to be himself as a younger man (although this continuation of his career on the basis of his past glory could be deemed as exemplifying this same issue).

The argument is not one regarding the use of samples against live music, more of context and motive. Sampling, especially the looping of sound, can produce new and unexpected re-imaginations of those sonic instances, not least in combination with other sampled sounds. The loop allows the presence of recognisable rhythm in its conformity to a time-schema (a tempo, and the limits of the sample-loop). This is no less true when sampling is used in conjunction with live musicians. However, the difference between live music and sampling is not one of ease, it is one of rhythmic structure. The looping of sound creates its own ordinances of rhythm through repetition. Live musicians seek to perform a rhythm, and this performance is at the whim of the individual musician’s ability to accurately enact that moment. Of course, when it has been recorded, the moment is made permanent, and once that is the case,those moments can be re-investigated through their deconstruction and recontextualisation via sampling. This is especially true in Dance culture, where remixing has become a normative technique (Hull, 2004: 61) that allows artists to release multiple reinterpretations of their own work (Prior, 2009: 82).

So what is the problem with Mr. Brown doing the same? Well, for a start, Dance music is most often constructed from samples and sound-bites in the first instance, even if they are created by the artist themselves. So, the form itself invites remixing without re-performance per se. In the case of the indiscriminate littering of vocal catchphrases in the face of a new live performance, as found in ‘I’m Real’, the problem is not so much ethical as uncanny. It concerns the plundering and resurrection of a now absent, yet strangely present and disembodied James Brown. The ‘Real’ crux is where there is a collapse of space and time. Here, James inhabited the studio with his auditory doppelganger, a version of his selfhood that was no longer present (he proved it by replicating it). Just because that previous selfhood has been committed to tape, DAT, vinyl, or CD, and thus made permanent, it does not make the conflict between two anachronistic James Browns any less problematic – it only exacerbates the issue. This is especially true as, for the most part, he was re-performing these catchphrases live in the context of the new song, rather than sampling them all (would this have been worse?).

Maybe this song was intended as a direct formal critique, attacking ‘discourses of authorship and authenticity’ inherent to ‘pop’s sense of itself as trading in talent and originality’ that in part hinges on ‘the immediacy and presence of the live performer’ (Prior, 2009: 81). Brown’s hyperbolic image may be read as having reached its peak in the context of ‘I’m Real’ as part of an über-critique of popular music that was entirely in keeping with his earlier creativity. Also, innovations in musical technology (from microphones and the phonograph, to digital sampling) have been historically met with criticism and misunderstanding because they so often appear to undermine ‘ideas of the unique performance and presence of the body’ (Prior, 2009: 86). However, rather than being part of Brown’s musical masterplan, it is more likely to be part of his experimental outlook or talent for ‘naively employing’ techniques and musical tropes to ends ‘for which they were never intended’ (Scannell, 2009: 130).

Perhaps the problems ultimately stem from the song being so ironically titled – although re-titling the song ‘I Was Real’ would introduce another set of problems. Alternatively, there is a distinct possibility that the predicament is sourced in the on-stage routine of collapse-and-return he so often performed as a young, vital man, but was unable to continue into his old age. The feigned heart-attack or collapse would have been an inappropriate stage device for James to enact during performance in the years before his death, simply because of the threat of its authenticity – that it might be for ‘Real’. Maybe I cannot let go of the fact that James himself starred in the BMW sponsored short film Beat the Devil (Tony Scott, 2002), in which James is depicted as having originally made a Robert Johnson-style pact with Lucifer to obtain his talent, and then has to challenge the Prince of Darkness (played by an exuberantly camp Gary Oldman) to a car race in order to gain eternal youth, and return to a state of his former prowess. It should be noted that throughout the film his lines were predominantly culled from his song lyrics, extending the playfulness located in ‘I’m Real’. This performance, 14 years after ‘I’m Real’ graced the charts, may have been the key indicator that the single (and the Godfather of Soul persona) always was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. We might even read this role as a retrospective revision of a previously sincere statement of (arguably misplaced) self-confidence in his return to the music business after his incarceration. Alternatively (and most cruelly), one may interpret this as the final manifestation of Brown’s lack of self-awareness – that he believed himself to still be the ‘teacher’, even when occupying the mythic space that only legends (inherently of the past) can.

In avoidance of such a judgement, I am more inclined to insist that the problem lies, in essence, with the paradox of recontextualising the permanence of a past moment. Prior’s observation that in the evolution of electronic music ‘the synthetic sign had replaced the organic referent to become the “real”‘ (Prior, 2009: 81) is particularly apt, especially given the contemporaneous issue of James’s organic decline from the stasis of former glory manifested by his recorded and hauntingly still-present self. As ‘I’m Real’ was released over two decades ago, the clash I have been examining seems to be all the more persistent. Its stasis ensures that the conflict of temporally divergent James Browns is becoming ever-distant from the listener’s contemporary replaying of that recorded moment, stressing the permanence of the problem. Yet, whenever the hit is returned to, the listener is faced afresh with the impossibility of two ever-absent Browns simultaneously inhabiting a shared time-space. Despite this paradox, the song itself remains tangible or ‘Real’. In case one needs convincing, (the now sadly deceased) James is still ready to tell us so, many times. His ‘reality’ is stressed by his multi-chronological presence, however arbitrary its implementation may appear to be. Mother popcorn, y’all.

Author’s Biography

Steve Jones attained a doctoral degree for his thesis Selfhood as Instance of Horror: Ontology, Ideology, and Narratives of Body-Terror from the University of Sussex, England, where he teaches within the department of Film and Media. His research interests include Horror film and literature, pornography, gender studies, feminism, post-structuralism, discourses of the body, and existential philosophy.


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