Nas was almost right. Hip-hop did die. But it wasn’t on Dec. 12, 2006, when his new LP “Hip-hop is Dead” dropped. Instead, hip-hop died on Christmas Day in an Atlanta Public Hospital when James Brown took his three last breaths. “I think I’m gonna go” is all James Brown said when he left behind the world he had played so much part in shaping. On that day hip-hop lost its first MC.
Although at first imagining Brown as the world’s first rapper may seem like a bit of a stretch, further consideration of the facts makes it clear just how much of a hip-hop artist Brown was.
Not only was Brown the first singer who didn’t really sing to grace the mic, he completely changed the face of rhythm inspiring tracks with furies of drums so great hip-hop producers are still sampling them. In every sense Brown was the prototype MC, bearing all the vices that hip-hops artists of today are all too proud to flaunt. JB stole cars as a teenager, racked up domestic charges as if it were an Olympic sport, was arrested countless times for drug possession and other substance abuse-related incidents, and he even set fashion standards among those who chanted along with him when he said, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He was so ahead of his time he even led the white bronco chase down I-20 when OJ was still running through airport terminals on Hertz’ behalf.
At every turn, hip-hop learned how to be hip-hop by consulting the godfather of soul and funk. For a period between 1986 and 1992 DJs and MCs did just that. Every MC of the time had some sort of Brown sample within his album. Don’t believe me? Check the production of those during hip-hops breakout years – Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, Jay-Z, Biggie, and finally Nas all pay their respects to the godfather in the liner notes of their finest albums. That hard beat you hear in the background? That’s Brown’s band the JB’s. The ridiculous drums that drive Mama Said Knock You Out – James again. That brass section you swear was just another piece of percussion – Brown.
The whole idea hip-hop is founded on is one that Brown perfected: A strong and defined voice in the front with a hard but finely orchestrated rhythmic beat filling out the background.
That being said, I was deeply saddened to see the absolute lack of tribute paid to the hardest working man in show business. Not helping matters was the untimely death of former president inept Gerald Ford a scant few days following the death of Soul Brother No. 1.
Despite this blasphemous overshadowing of a legend, a part of me still held out hope that this year’s Grammy Awards would pay proper tribute with a 15-minute memorial that found today’s rap stars and DJs rapping and scratching his hits as they have so beautifully done from the beginning. No such luck. It boggles my mind that the Grammy Awards can begrudgingly honor the product of hip-hop but not the means by which it came about. When Ray Charles died a few years ago, they might as well have titled the show the Ray Charles Memoriam Awards. And Brown couldn’t even get his due? Amazing. Guess there’s always the BET Awards. Sadly, in this respect, hip-hop still has a lot to learn.
Listen to KCSU Urban Director Rory Heath on Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. to hear music by James Brown.
KCSU Urban Director Rory Heath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.