Sound of the Funky Drummer

Hip-hop owes Clyde Stubblefield a debt of gratitude–as well as millions in royalties.

It all started with a classic James Brown tune, a loose jam that sounded almost impromptu, but given Brown’s infamous perfectionism, was probably very well rehearsed. After a long series of nonsense lyrics and improvisations laid over a smooth, honeydew groove, Brown told his group to “lay out and let the drummer go,” which may have been music’s version of “let there be light.” For a brief moment, it was as if the waters of sound had parted to reveal the pure essence of funk. Even the Godfather himself was in awe. “The name of this tune is the Funky Drummer.”

About two decades later, the sound of the Funky Drummer would reemerge as the backbeat for hip-hop’s golden age. B-boys breaked (broke?) to the beat, MCs freestyled over it, and DJs sampled it over and over and over again. Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, N.W.A., Biz Markie, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J–the list goes on for miles and includes just about every name in hip-hop’s hall of fame. The Funky Drummer break is one of if not the most sampled beat in music, and one could make the claim that it has been more important to the genre of hip-hop than any rapper or DJ.

But what of the Funky Drummer himself, Clyde Stubblefield? In the 44 years since he laid down his historic beat, Stubblefield has not received a penny from the myriad artists that have profited from it. This is not necessarily a legal matter–as a session drummer, Stubblefield was never entitled to royalties–but it is troubling nonetheless. Stubblefield has now lived in Madison for over 40 years; until recently, he had played weekly shows with his band at the Frequency. In 2009, Stubblefield was hospitalized with kidney failure, forcing him to go on dialysis. Although royalties would help pay his medical bills, Stubblefield has said that the lack of recognition hurts more than the money. One thing is certain: whether it comes in the form of a check or a shout-out, it’s about time that hip-hop gave the drummer some.

Here’s five examples of the Funky Drummer break in action:

“Funky Drummer”

The original James Brown number was first released as a single in 1970, but it wasn’t put on an album until 1986, shortly before it was rediscovered by the hip-hop community.

“South Bronx”

Boogie Down Productions made this foundational diss track as a counter to MC Shan’s “The Bridge.” One of the first of many important hip-hop tracks to employ Stubblefield’s break.

“Lyrics of Fury”

Probably the most conspicuous usage of the Funky Drummer came in this furious battle track from Eric B. and Rakim. The greatest rapper of all time goes toe-to-toe with the beat in a way that only he can.

“Fight the Power”

Chuck D evokes the “sound of the Funky Drummer” right from the start of this iconic track. Public Enemy was possessed by the break, also sampling it on “Bring the Noise” and “Rebel Without a Pause.”

“Mama Said Knock You Out”

LL Cool J’s ferocious don’t-call-it-a-comeback comeback track puts Stubblefield’s break into overdrive. Like Public Enemy, LL utilized the Funky Drummer multiple times; it also features on “The Boomin’ System,” another stellar track from the same album.

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