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GIVE IT UP AND TURN IT LOOSE:
JAMES BROWN + J DILLA: Highlights from Issue 30: Hip-Hop Nuggets

Highlights from Issue 30: Hip-Hop Nuggets

Illustrations by KEVIN CHRISTY

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Monday, April 09, 2007

The following piece is from Issue 30: Hip-Hop Nuggets. This issue is available for purchase on this site.

Give It Up and Turn It Loose:
James Brown + J Dilla

By Hua Hsu

I.

I only saw James Brown once. He looked exactly as I imagined he would, which was disturbing, since usually the people you know from album sleeves end up being less than you expected in reality. But there he stood, wearing a modest gray suit, his bangs a perfect, miniature tidal wave and his face barely frayed by the decades that anticipated this moment. Some older townies without day jobs fringed the crowd, holding up album sleeves as if to reflect his past greatness back upon him. Brown had come to Boston before and people had, quite literally, put down their arms to greet him — this was in April 1968, a day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when the telecast of his gig at the Garden soothed the city’s restless quarters. But on this day, some 30-odd years later and across the river, there was a vacancy in James Brown’s eyes as he scanned the multitude outside The Harvard Lampoon’s castle and let fly pithy James-isms like “Don’t be a fool — stay in school!” or “Yowww! I feel good.” At some point, a monster truck was beckoned. On Brown’s order, it was dispatched to crush a carton of eggs and a wooden chair, a symbol of the Lampoon’s cross-quad rivals. Brown disappeared into a limousine with a bunch of people who did not look like musicians.

Memory is never fair. For years hip-hop treated Brown’s every last tick and grunt as an article of faith to be studied, disassembled and put back together. There were the crusades: Super Lover Cee and Casanova Rud swaggering through “Do the James” on one side, Skam’s “We Didn’t Even Need James” and Kings of Swings’ “Stop Jockin’ James” on the other. Rap circa the late Eighties was a contest to see who could best reimagine these soon-ubiquitous sounds: the insistent kettle whine of “The Grunt,” the pendulum swing of “The Payback,” the activating phrase of “black and proud,” or the skeletal frame of “Funky President.” In the Netherlands, a triptych of dance singles affirmed his transnational appeal: “James Brown Is Dead” begat “James Brown Is Still Alive,” begat “Who the Fuck Is James Brown?” “James Brown is the happening phenomenon,” the Busy Boys reported on “Classical,” a claim supported by that Fresh to Rock single out of Miami, which gave its songwriting credits to “James Brown,” yet respected him enough not to sample his songs. Too Short probably approved: By the time of 1992’s “In the Trunk,” he had made “seven whole albums with no James Brown.” His lament: Rap had used Brown all up without paying the man.

And yet the old man was still around, waiting by the mailbox, his personal lows an ironic foil to the revolution his music had underwritten. It was chilling to see him that day — around the time, his name suggested a crestfallen mug shot, unaware of the ironies embedded in being the university humor paper’s guest of honor, accompanied by a wife whose embrace made you think, “This will not end well.” We all stood there and smiled for our own private reasons. I thought of what a burden it must be to live as long as James Brown, to witness and shape that much of the 20th century, to sing and dance a better world into being, and to bear the expectation that you are more than the sum of your flaws.

II.

As the ultimate deadline approached, James Yancey — otherwise known as Jay Dee or J Dilla — assumed the kind of diligence that distinguishes those who work to live from the blessed few who live to work. The stories were unreliable and scattered: one moment he was hospitalized and near death; the next he was spotted in Europe, performing from a wheelchair. It may or may not be true, this oft-circulated image of Dilla passing away last February in his mother’s arms, his own arms cradling a sampler. But it isn’t an unbelievable image.

A hip-hop song makes no mystery of its construction. Only its inspiration puzzles — the secret talent that can isolate this out of that. And so one still wonders how Dilla heard a harmlessly lush choral song called “Claire” and hummed “Players” over it, or why he thought it would make sense for Phife to duet with a Portuguese sample on “Find a Way.” His best songs assume the perfect amount of space: He underlined his arguments with a bit of hiss, or a dash of silence. On his recently reissued Ruff Draft EP, he strives for an aesthetic that sounds “straight cassette,” and so a charming crackle cycles through “Make ’em NV,” while a probably accidental chop sputters through the Slade-riffing “Wild.” On last year’s brilliant, cavalier Donuts — released days before his death — Dilla pursued a direct path of clean, sturdy and well-known loops. “Stop!” isolates the gorgeous waver of Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me” and stays there forever, while “People” lets Eddie Kendricks patiently rouse “my people…hold on” before urgency strikes, and the pace hastens mid-loop. The beats are narrow, true and strong, forging ahead, even as his body was too weak to follow.

Over the mournful strings of the Moments’ “To You, With Love,” the penultimate song, “Last Donut of the Night,” quotes an MC reflecting on the curriculum vitae of a star about to take the stage. Its splendor is interrupted by the last track, “Donuts (Intro),” which samples Motherlode’s 1969 hit, “When I Die.” Dilla clips a heartbreaking line: “It’s been hard to make you see / What kind of man I’m trying to be,” as the band harmonizes on the last syllables. He dwells on the texture, the words themselves lost in a pretty blare. Coincidence or not, it’s a sad, sweet sentiment. After all, what is life, if not an attempt to sing together and complete one of those harmonies so common and effortless in song?


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