Following the passing of Clyde Stubblefield earlier this year, Getintothis’ Mike Hill explores the many occasions the Funky Drummer’s work has been sampled.
It is six months since Clyde Stubblefield died of kidney failure at the age of 73.
For a man who outlived his three score and ten it is just 20 seconds of work which defined the legacy of a musician dubbed the most sampled drummer of all time.
That is how long the solo break which lands towards the end of the B side version of James Brown’s 1970 single the Funky Drummer lasts before disappearing in a rather abrupt fade.
Like all great rock and roll stories the first use of the sample is shrouded in myth but what is clear is Stubblefied’s drum break now features in more than 1,400 tracks including an A to Z of rap and hip hop tunes.
Dr Dre, NWA, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Above the Law, Ice T, Ice Cube, De La Soul, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, A Tribe Called Quest and on, and on….
The sample has assumed the name of the song which spawned it and almost half a century on the Funky Drummer remains an influence on the music world’s most influential.
Not that it turned Stubblefield’s drumsticks golden as all he received for his solo was a one off session fee while Brown and his estate copped for the copyright and 30 years of royalties and counting,
Here are 10 places you can find the Funky Drummer at work.
Public Enemy – Rebel Without a Pause (1987)
Public Enemy may not have been the first to sample the Funky Drummer – Pop Idol’s Pete Waterman was among a handful of people to beat them to it – but Rebel Without a Pause wrote a musical blueprint for a generation of rap artists and hip hop producers when the Bomb Squad laid down Clyde Stubblefield’s beats for the band’s third single.
By the time Fight the Power launched the blistering Fear of a Black Planet album the secret was well and truly out. Right there in the first verse, in fact, with Chuck D declaring, “1989, the number, another summer/sound of the Funky Drummer”.
Public Enemy went on to use the Funky Drummer more than half a dozen times, notably in the classic Bring The Noise. Waterman? Well his Roadblock was off the, er, blocks with the drum pattern earlier the same year.
The Stone Roses – Fools Gold (1989)
It took just four seconds and a nation breathed a huge sigh of life. That’s the moment Rene broke into the break which signalled The Stone Roses magic had not all been used up on their debut album and the second, or was it third, summer of love could swagger on across the depths of winter.
Guitarist John Squires would tell Q magazine: “We were signing copies of our single She Bangs The Drums in a Manchester record shop called Eastern Bloc. The owner said we could pick a couple of albums as a thank you and I picked out a breakbeats album because I like the cover and I wanted to see what it was all about. That’s where I heard the Funky Drummer loop that we built Fools Gold around.”
Years later Ian Brown told the NME: “The Stone Roses were mad into James Brown. We actually wrote Fools Gold over the Funky Drummer- we had it playing on a porta-studio and Reni had to learn how to play that beat.”
Madonna – Justify My Love (1990)
When rocker Lenny Kravitz stepped off Madonna’s carousel of producers he brought with him a sample of Public Enemy’s Security of the First World (from the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back long player) and slapped it right underneath the singer’s Justify My Love helping propel it to the number one slot across the globe and trick teenage boys everywhere into thinking Madonna was raunchy.
The move sparked outrage in the Enemy camp with rumblings of legal action from record label Def Jam. Producer Hank Shocklee waded in declaring, “I’m going on a rampage”. But Kravitz’s manager, Stephen Smith, hit back, ”If there is a lawsuit, it should be by James Brown.” He had a point.
Pet Shop Boys – Being Boring (1990)
For a band not shy of using a sampler Being Boring doesn’t actually sample the Funky Drummer but the opening track of the Behaviour album does faithfully ‘replay’ the drum pattern. Said to be one of Neil Tennant’s favourite Pet Shop Boys songs, the singer admitted the deployment of Stubblefield’s break was a nod to the rave scene exploding around them.
And it also uses the same chord change as Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, a move which was almost certainly not a nod to the rave scene. But what’s this opening the B-side of the vinyl version of Behaviour, the less heralded My October Symphony and among the strings, Italo-house piano and Johnny Marr’s wah wah guitar there it is again this time sounding a lot more like a sample than a ‘replaying’.
Prince – Thunder (1991)
Not the Purple One’s biggest hit, in no small part due to the fact it was only released as a limited edition picture disc in the UK. But it was one of several tracks Prince dabbled with the Funky Drummer on including songs for Martika and Carmen Electra plus Gangster Glam from the Gett Off EP.
Asked by Modern Drummer magazine what makes a drummer funky Prince said: “Their sense of timing and spirit—and when their ego doesn’t ruin their playing. I don’t like it when a drummer plays too much and he or she isn’t listening. Some guys can have a great foot but no hands—or great hands but no foot.
“Listen to the song Funky Drummer. The drummer plays the same thing over and over, and that groove just locks you in.” After Prince died last year it emerged he had paid Stubblefield’s medical bills for him when he was diagnosed with cancer 15 years earlier to the tune of $80,000 on condition the gesture was kept a secret. The two men had never met.
DJ Shadow – Lesson 4 (1991)
As a man who made his name from seeking out and securing the rarest grooves from the four corners of the world surely DJ Shadow would not do anything as obvious as sampling the most sampled sample of all samples.
Yup, right there on the flipside of his debut single the Funky Drummer provides the groove alongside 37 other samples on the track Lesson 4. Sharing space with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Tom Jones, Funkadelic and five other James Brown related cuts this was Shadow serving notice of what was to come from an artist who just five years later would be considered the world’s foremost sampler on the release of his ground breaking Entroducing….. album.
Shadow later told New Orleans website Antigravity, “Something like ‘Funky Drummer’ is a break that I’m constantly tapping out. It’s drilled into my brain. So many hip-hop records used that break and it’s an amazing performance and a cool syncopation. The swing on that beat is deceptively difficult to master and I just think it’s one of the most genius breaks of all time.”
Model 500 – The Passage (1992)
From The Godfather of Soul to The Godfather of Techno, Juan Atkins has defined electronic music since 1980. As one of the pioneering Detroit dons he was still making the very finest techno when any track blasted out at an early 90s rave dared give itself the name.
The Passage first surfaced on the True Techno EP and sounds every bit as brilliant today as it did one quarter of a century ago.
There’s much going on amid the sweeps of electronica but there’s no missing Stubblefield’s break when it arrives and then moves through the gears as the layers of the track pile up. And right there etched into the run out groove is the legend, “True techno instead of breakbeat heresy”. Juan knew.
Burial – Hiders (2013)
It’s not obvious at first but the fanbase splitting Rival Dealer EP is when Burial found his funk. The title track features a hurtling break from the Soul Searchers’ classic Ashley’s Roachclip but it is Hiders which turns to the Funky Drummer.
A speeded up version of Stubblefield’s break whips in midway through a track which is unmistakably Burial but marks a near commercial diversion from the sort of material which made the mystery man’s name. This is urban balearica, the soundtrack of sunset from the balcony of a south London high rise.
Then the patter of raindrops arrive to break the reverie and remind us this is Burial and not the Cafe del Mar. A second drum pattern briefly nips in and out to confuse matters – and the pace of the sample is deceptive – but it is there.
Aphex Twin – Nutcrapper (2015)
Thirty years after the Funky Drummer was first sampled it still pops up in unexpected places today. Like a Soundcloud dump of 268 tracks by Richard James aka the Aphex Twin. The collection appeared early in 2015 and had disappeared before the year was out but not before fans had grabbed the tracks for posterity.
Down the years, and through his various guises, James has been happy to throw all kinds of noises into the (food) mixer so it’s no surprise the Funky Drummer has made the odd appearance. And Nutcrapper is an odd appearance from that Soundcloud dump featuring what sounds like a distorted children’s toy playing the primary riff from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite over the breakbeat. It’s just a surprise no-one thought of it before.
James Brown – She Looks All Types A’Good (1988)
Of course he did. And this time there’s no calling out the funky drummer on the way in as Stubblefield and Brown had long since parted company. But why wouldn’t he as this was 1988 and the Funky Drummer was the hottest hip hop sample in town.
This time around the break is there from the start for a track which turned the clock back past Rocky soundtracks to show Brown still very much had the funk. Never released as a single, She Looks All Types A’Good is a bit of a hidden gem among Brown’s vast canon of work.
Given Stubblefield never shared in any of the royalties from hundreds of other artists for his break it seems unlikely Brown sent a cheque his way for this number either.