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  • The Land of Somewhere Else: Refiguring James Brown in Seventies Disco
  • Alice Echols

This article is an orphan. Originally conceived as the opening chapter of my forthcoming book, Upside Down: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, it was meant to position James Brown as a foundational figure in the prehistory of disco.1 From the beginning I knew that a genealogy of disco that pivoted, however briefly, on James Brown might be something of a hard sell. After all, most people associate disco with Donna Summer, ABBA, the Village People, and the Bee Gees’ wall of falsetto, not with the soul man whose sonic audaciousness led to the creation of funk, which in turn helped to underwrite hip-hop.2 No, I suspected that both disco partisans and Brown loyalists would find such a Brown-centric genealogy of disco deeply unappealing. As for Brown, despite his Hummer-sized ego and his fondness for titles (the Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother Number One, the Father of Funk, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business), well, very likely he, too, would have resisted the claim that he was in any substantial way implicated in disco’s paternity. Even though Brown cut quite a few disco tracks, he often spoke dismissively of the genre, which he accused of bowdlerizing his pioneering funk, capturing only its “repetitious part.” In his 2005 memoir he described disco as “just about the opposite of everything I had come to stand for in music.”3 However, long before I started to actively worry about how fans and reviewers alike might evaluate my effort to write Brown into the history of disco, my editor, sensing precisely these problems, ordered me back to the drawing board for a new opening chapter, which is how this article came to be without a home.

For many people, be they diehard disco fans, Brown enthusiasts, or just casual listeners, disco conjures up a distinctly non-Brownian universe. Disco was not a Man’s Man’s Man’s World—at least not as Brown had imagined it—but a “nightworld” that ran the gamut from downtown to white suburban, and whose denizens included gay men tricked out in [End Page 19] macho drag, Studio 54 glitterati, and white working-class kids sporting polyester and platforms.4 In this glitter-ball universe, gay men and the “ladies,” either as vocalists or as much-sought-after objects of desire, held sway against an aural backdrop that featured that relentless four-on-the-floor THUMP. What could any of this have to do with the heteronormative macho funk of James Brown, Mr. “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”? Indeed, many critics have said quite emphatically, “Nothing.” For example, in his provocative book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George distinguished authentically black soul music, such as James Brown’s, from disco’s hopelessly whitened soul. And the incisive cultural critic Greg Tate wrote disparagingly of disco as “DisCOINTELPRO.” Tate believed that disco represented nothing short of a “form of record industry sabotage” that destroyed the “self-supporting black band movement” out of which black funk experimentation had grown, in much the way that the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of infiltrating and disrupting radical black activist groups had undermined the black freedom movement. Chuck D of Public Enemy called disco “the most artificial shit I ever heard,” music that was “sophisticated, anti-black, anti-feel,” not to mention gay, and upwardly mobile.5

The shape and texture of Brown’s music were in many respects a time zone apart from those of disco. A good deal of sixties soul music, from the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” to Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” and Brown’s “Mother Popcorn,” has an urgent quality absent from the “lush fluidity” that characterizes some disco, be it Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly” or the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme.” With his remarkable bands, Brown constructed a tense, staccato funk whose unpredictable breaks and bridges gave the music a ruptural quality substantially different from the plush, tightly seamed, 4/4 steamroller that was disco. Indeed...


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