Clyde Stubblefield, the "Funky Drummer," on Playing With James Brown and Getting Sampled By Hip-Hop Greats
There's a special show going down at Mezzanine this Saturday, Nov. 3, for the opening of S.F. Funk Fest: It's a mini-reunion of sorts for the musicians who used to play with soul godfather James Brown. Headlining is Fred Wesley, legendary trombonist, and joining him onstage will be drummers Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield.
While they're all fantastic musicians, Stubblefield, 69, is especially interesting: As Brown's drummer from 1965 to 1971, he played on many of Brown's biggest hits, including "Cold Sweat," "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," and "Ain't It Funky Now." But his largest contribution to musical culture arguably came with the Brown song "Funky Drummer," where, about five and a half minutes in, Stubblefield played a short, minimal, and hugely funky drum solo. Those 20 seconds became what's likely the most sampled piece of music in history, appearing on an almost countless number of early hip-hop records, including Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" and "Fight the Power," and many other songs by the likes of the Beastie Boys, Run D.M.C., and more. But because Stubblefield didn't any songwriting credit for the song -- and due to the early copyright looseness around sampling in hip-hop -- the funky drummer didn't see much in the way of royalties from his classic beat.
Ahead of the show, we spoke to Stubblefield about playing with Brown, getting sampled, and what he's up to these days. He performs with the Fred Wesley and the New J.B.'s, Jabo Starks, Fred Thomas, and Lyrics Born on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Mezzanine.
So James Brown saw you play in Macon, Ga., and hired you on the spot?
No, he didn't hire me on the spot. He told me to come to another part of Georgia. And Clint Bradley is a friend of his, so he told Clint to get me down there, and he did. And I auditioned with him onstage. And when we got through, he gave me $100, and he said he'll be getting in touch with me in a few days or so. So I waited around in Macon and I says, 'Oh, he ain't gonna get in touch.' I just forgot about it. In about a day or so, Clint Bradley got in touch with me and says, "Hey Clyde, Brown wants you in North Carolina." I says 'Oh, ok.' So I got all the stuff together of mine, and took off for North Carolina, and that's where he hired me.
What do you think he liked about your playing so much?
I have no idea, 'cause I don't know -- I just played what I feel.
What inspired you to play the drums?
I have no idea. I just play.
What was it like playing with James? Was he hard to work with?
Oh no, he was pretty easy to work with, playing music. He's just a tough person to work with for his directions. That's all. But it was pretty easy.
People always talk about him fining his band mates for making mistakes. Did he fine you?
Oh yeah, I got fined a lot. He just fined people on the spot.
But he didn't give you that much credit?
No, he didn't. He gave his valets, door people, the people that works around him and all of those people credit on stuff, and no band members got no credit.
It gets mentioned a lot how your drum work has been sampled endlessly, yet you've received few royalties for it.
Well, all the drum patterns I played with Brown was my own, he never told me how to play or what to play. I just played my own patterns, and the hip-hoppers and whatever, the people that used the material probably payed him, maybe. But we got nothing. I got none of it. It was all my drum product.
It seems like partly because of the rise of hip-hop -- which you sort of helped bring about -- people recognize beats as being a much more important part of songs now.
Yeah it was, it stood out there. And I got not a cent for it. I think that was disrespectful. And not even mentioning my name -- "Clyde on the drums, or playing the drums," or whatever. "These are his drum patterns." It got mentioned nowhere.
Do you remember coming up with those beats?
We were sitting up in the studio, getting ready for a session, and I guess when I got set up I just started playing a pattern. Started playing something. The bassline came in and the guitar came in and we just had a rhythm going, and if Brown liked it, I just said, "Well, I'll put something with it."
The one that blows my mind is "Mother Popcorn."
Oh yeah? I just played it. It just happened. I just started playing a pattern, that's all.
Do you feel like you're starting to get more recognition these days?
A little bit. I'm doing a lot of stuff with some hip-hop people right now. I go in and there's a DJ and a rapper up front when I play. I play for about 40 minutes and I'm through.
Do you still like playing the drums as much as you did back then?
Oh yeah, love playing drums. 'Cause I still don't know what I'm doing, I'm just playing and enjoying it.