This Day in History (December 20)

Dec 20, 1969: “Funky Drummer” is recorded

Drummer Clyde Stubblefield is not a hip-hop musician. He was born in 1943 and came of age long before that form of music even existed, so if you looked for his name in the credits of albums by some of hip-hop’s most important artists, you would come up empty. Yet you’ll hear Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming on many of those artists’ most famous tracks: Eric B & Rakim’s “Lyrics Of Fury” (1988); N.W.A.’s “**** Tha Police” (1988); Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” (1989); LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990); Ice T’s “O.G. Original Gangster” (1991). Along with literally hundreds of other hip-hop songs, each of those classics is set to a beat drawn directly from an eight-bar drum break played by Clyde Stubblefield on what is widely believed to be the most sampled record in music history: James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” recorded in Cincinnati, Ohio on this day in 1969.

Hip hop was born when DJs began rapping over dance records, and no dance records were better suited to rapping than those that included a “breakbeat”—a drum break that could be repeated almost endlessly as an accompaniment to rapping. It is impossible to know who first employed “The Funky Drummer” in this fashion, but it was so heavily entrenched in hip-hop’s DNA by 1989 that Public Enemy’s Chuck D. could call it out by name in “Fight The Power” as shorthand for hip-hop itself: “1989! The number, another summer/Sound of ‘The Funky Drummer.'”

“Funky Drummer” wasn’t so much a song as it was an extended groove. Like many of the James Brown records on which Clyde Stubblefield played, “Funky Drummer” had its beginnings in an ad-libbed jam before a planned recording session—a jam that the Godfather of Soul walked in on and declared ready to record. Instead of “lyrics,” “Funky Drummer” features James Brown sitting back and letting the groove hold center stage while interjecting the occasional bit of shouted encouragement to one of his individual band members. When he gets to Stubblefield, Brown lets it be known that he doesn’t want a fancy solo, but more of the incredibly funky underlying beat: “”Don’t turn it loose,” he can be heard saying, “’cause it’s a mother.”

The eight bars of drumming that followed on this day in 1969 went on to become the mother of all breakbeats.


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