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<< Keeping Up With the Beat

Rediscovering Funky Drummer


Today, I'll be examining "Funky Drummer", the James Brown song that gave us one of the most widely used drum loops in history.  You've heard it everywhere, from DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince and N.W.A. to Nine Inch Nails and Pizzicato Five.  It's that short little burst of drum that you know when you hear it, courtesy of Clyde Stubblefield.  But there's more to the original song than that.

Hi folks.  I'm Jasper Welk: music critic for the South Denver Independent Music Appreciators Weekly magazine "Ka-Blam!" and local session bass player.   And I enjoy erotic role play with homeless men.

I was at a local all-night bondage parlour located in the depths of LoDo, receiving open-handed slaps across my bare stomach from a ripe old gent named Mitch when I heard Sublime's cover of "Scarlett Begonias" on my iPod playlist.  I enjoy jamming out to some good 90's ska-punk when I'm receiving a sharp dose of calloused hobo palm punishment.  I like to move my body back and forth to the jerky beats.  So when the slower, funkier song began to play I found my mind wandering.

I allowed Mitch to rest his hand for a moment as I switched gears and brought up the original "Funky Drummer" on my iPod.  From the opening countdown, the man means business, and the James Brown Band is on board with him.  This began as a "vamp" piece, just jamming and using the groove to make the band a tighter unit, but along the way, something magical happens.

Mitch began pounding my upper torso with a cut length of garden hose as those electric organs kicked in.  Quick pops and long wails.  And then James has to proclaim "Call the law!  Call the law!  Bring on the juice!"  And in comes the saxophone to join the conversation.  It's masterful.  Organ and woodwind taking turns, then playing together, shifting the balance of their influence until James Brown has to proclaim its absolute funkiness.

The song breaks into its second act, the sax is the clear winner of the earlier exchange, but that organ tries to sneak back in to a get a few words in edgewise.  It's at about this point that James Brown himself recognizes the drumbeat.  The riffs remain intact for several seconds, and then he proclaims that he wants to "give the drummer some".  The guitar, sax, and organ syncronize, falling back in prominence as the drumbeat prepares to take the spotlight.

And then there it is.

James Brown counts it down. One, two, three, four....

The beat had been playing for most of the song.  Innocuous behind the scenery being chewed up by the other instruments, as well as the calls of the band's frontman.  Stubblefield was only going with the groove.  Helplessly hooked into the funk.  It was a moment with too much sensation to go unnoticed.  THe beats simultaneously rigid and clumsy.  The anticipation of the ride going off the rails, only to be rescued from oblivion.  Like when Mitch chokes me to the point of unconciousness and then punches me awake.  It was a brief moment of musical mastery that demanded to be played over and over again.

James Brown himself recognized the moment.  His restrained utterances crept through.  More like he was marveling to himself at what had just happened.  But the show must go on, and the rest of the band brings back the muscle over the raw skeleton Stubblefield laid down for them.  Before it ends, James Brown declares the song is titled "Funky Drummer".  A name that wasn't even conceived of before the first note was played, but was earned like a medal of honor in the battle of funk.

I'm undergoing some minor surgery this weekend to correct some scarring from a nipple that had been accidentally snipped off by some over tightened alligator clips, the other end of which Mitch had connected to an array of lantern batteries.  I'm looking forward to spending my recovery exploring all the ways which the "Funky Drummer" loop has been used.  If any aural sensation can heal my weakened flesh, it is surely that.

And Mitch, if you read this, you ran out of Mistress Helen's Crevice of Pain before I could pay you the twenty bucks.  Please meet me back there next weekend; let's say Saturday at seven o'clock.  I'll get you caught up.

The loop:

 This is the full song: