Onstage, James Brown’s band would stretch songs out to ten minutes while he danced. After the gigs, Brown would herd the group into the studio to record the improvised jams they’d come up with that night. Local musicians would come by to party and network. Increasingly, Brown began to direct his musicians to pause a number of times inside the song, sometimes bringing everything to a complete halt, leaving just his voice unaccompanied. Music journalist Nelson George said, “All these kinds of stops and breaks—’cause he would literally make a sound—‘Uh’—and then, you know, slip-slide over, do a spin, come back, ‘Uh’ . . . would allow him to move around the stage, still be a vocal presence but not have to overdo the singing at a time when he’s also dancing.”
On February 1, Brown and his band stopped by Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina, en route to a show, and laid down “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in an hour. Brown made the rhythm even more staccato. Maceo Parker led the blasting horn section. New guitarist Jimmy Nolen rang out with the funky break Prince would reference in “Kiss” twenty-one years later. Music journalist Robert Palmer wrote that Nolen “choked his guitar strings against the instrument’s neck so hard that his playing began to sound like a jagged tin can being scraped with a pocketknife.” Richard J. Ripani wrote, “The rhythms played by the horns, guitar, bass, and drum are all different yet complementary.”
They did it in one take. It was supposed to be a run-through, but despite the fact that Brown felt he messed up some lyrics, he knew he had to leave it as—because everyone in the studio was dancing to the playback. He writes in his memoir that even though he was a soul singer, it was on this night that he started going off in his own unique direction.
“I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I had found out how to make it happen. On playbacks, when I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain way, I knew that was it: Deliverance . . . Later on they said it was the beginning of funk.” He’d been around as long as Elvis Presley, but ten years into the game, still hungry at thirty-two, he burst out with the next evolution of popular music.
The song was seven minutes long, so Brown cut off the beginning, sped it up, and split it into part one on the A side and part two on the flip. He had to hold the single back for a few months until a dispute with his record label was resolved. Then he gave it to popular New York deejay Frankie Crocker, who hated it, but the phones lit up immediately with requests that the station play it again. Released in June, it went to No. 8 in pop and No. 1 in R&B for eight weeks, and was nominated for a Grammy.
The lyrics of “New Bag” are simple—just Brown trying to get a “new breed” babe to dance with him by showing he can do the Jerk, the Fly, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato, the Twist, and the Boomerang. But the phrase “new bag” came to symbolize the new Black Power approach many activists were embracing, along with a new way to deconstruct the blues for the next generation of musicians. With the song, as music critic Dave Marsh wrote, “Brown invented the rhythmic future we live in today.”
The word funk had been around for a while. Motown’s house band was named the Funk Brothers; James Jamerson carved the word “Funk” into the neck of his bass. To be in a funk was like having the blues. But the term came to mean specifically James Brown’s new style.
First, he stripped out all the melody and harmony so that the whole song was just about the rhythm. Every instrument became just another form of drum/percussion— guitars, keyboards, horns bursting just single notes.
Then, increasingly, as the decade progressed, he changed the rhythm itself. R&B’s backbeat was “one two three four,” but Brown switched the emphasis to the first beat, “one two three four.”
Then he overlaid different rhythms simultaneously. The drums would be hitting the one, but the rhythm guitar would be playing on the two and four—syncopation.
“So l was able to hold that down on one and three, which nobody could play. . . . We just groove, people couldn’t even get the sticks up.”
For comparison, check Otis Redding’s version of “New Bag.” He doesn’t stop and start herky-jerky the way Brown does; he just plows ahead.
Funk evolved from soul and into the main black genre of the 1970s; then birthed disco and coexisted with it before being absorbed by hip-hop. The funk/disco beat was the first modern beat, the earliest one that kids today can relate to and dance to, the main strand of hip-hop’s DNA. In the early 1980s, samplers were invented, and per hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, James Brown was the most sampled artist, his tracks becoming the foundation of countless rap tunes. Brown was outraged that he wasn’t being paid for all this sampling, but it made him an icon with a reach unparalleled, the godfather of both soul and hip-hop.
Brown, with Tucker, James Brown.
Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues.
“James Brown: Soul Survivor,” directed by Jeremy Marre, American Masters (PBS, 2003), DVD.
Dan Bindert, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” All Things Considered, NPR, July 29, 2000, http://www.npr.org/2000/07/29/1080113/npr-100-papas-got-a-brand-new-bag.
George and Leeds, eds., The James Brown Reader .
Sullivan, Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 2.
Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul.