The Beat Goes On: Remembering Clyde Stubblefield
When it came to making people dance, James Brown could say a lot of things but nothing got asses shaking quicker than a simple “Clyde”.
A key component of the James Brown sound in its peak years from 1965 to 1970, Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming on revolutionary records such as Cold Sweat, I Got The Feelin’, and Give It Up or Turnit A Loose helped introduce the ecstasy of rhythm to popular music. When Stubblefield’s death was announced this week, from kidney failure, aged 73, the world lost the man who helped set the pace for modern music.
When Stubblefield joined James Brown’s touring band in late 1965, the 22-year-old from Chattanooga was the one of six drummers on the roster. After a month of standing in the wings and studying Brown’s show, Stubblefield hatched a plan with fellow Brown drummer John “Jabo!” Starks to knock off the band’s extraneous drummers. The two worked in tandem – Jabo providing the classic American steady shuffle and Stubblefield breaking out a whole new bag. By the time Jabo and Clyde managed to weed out the competition, Stubblefield had formulated a syncopated drumming style which in juxtaposition to Jabo’s reliable beat produced what Brown biographer R.J. Smith refers to as “the wedding of a pinball machine and the blues”.
Stubblefield’s drumming was as intimate as it was dynamic. His experimentation within the framework of Brown’s songs infects listeners’ subconsciouses, bringing them further into the groove of Brown’s revolutionary extended rhythm-based jams. He made mountains out of minuscule accents and fractional left-hand taps, dubbing his molecular split-second snare hits as his “ghost notes.” Just as powerful as Stubblefield’s ever present beat within the groove was the frenzy inducing moments when the instrumentation was stripped away and Clyde was invited to do his thing. Most famously exemplified on his calling card Funky Drummer, Stubblefield’s breaks allowed for direct communication with the body, locking dancers into repetitive state of convulsion that drove towards a frenzied peak at the exact moment Clyde stepped out for a solo.
Since practically inventing funk on Cold Sweat, Clyde’s “ghost notes” have haunted popular music for the last 40 years. They showed up at the dawn of modern dance music as David Mancuso played the biblical Give It Up Turnit A Loose at his Loft parties throughout the 70s. They appear at ground zero for hip-hop when DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa built an uptown bedrock out of the same tune Mancuso played downtown. Each decade since, the Funky Drummer break runs like a river through the genre from Mama Said Knock You Out to Fuck tha Police and Fight the Power. Just as influential as the rampant sampling of Stubblefield’s breaks, James Brown and Clyde Stubblefield’s raw power groove – formulated upon an insistence on rhythm above everything – educated the pop music landscape as a whole, turning listeners into dancers with a new type of body music that foreshadows the proliferation of these same dance music sensibilities into every facet of pop music today.