by Eric Snider
I’m about to pose a question, but before I do that, let me say this: I already know your answer.
And furthermore, your answer will be wrong.
OK, here it is: Who is the most important American musical artist of the last 50 years?
For those of you who feel like playin’ along, take however long is necessary to come up with your answer (which I already know). Directly below is a placeholder. Scroll down when you’re ready.
Your answer is Bob Dylan.
And it’s wrong.
The most important American musical artist of the last 50 years is James Brown.
I was originally going to say that you could make a persuasive case for Dylan, but I’ve changed my mind: It’s not even close.
James Brown was the precursor to most of the main benchmarks of American music over the last half century. Funk. Hip-hop. Showmanship.
His 1965 hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” effectively unleashed funk on the world. When discussing art, it’s always a little tricky to name the sole innovator of a stylistic breakthrough, but if JB didn’t flat out invent funk, which I think he did, he certainly brought it to the fore.
Funk-based rhythms have been the bedrock of popular music, especially in the last two decades since hip-hop has been the predominant style in America, if not the world.
James Brown didn’t invent hip-hop, but he for damn sure was its prime influence. He is widely recognized as the most sampled artist in history, and his “Funky Drummer” and other songs provided key rhythm-track components to myriad early rap hits. (Check out a list of songs that have sampled his work.) And JB was a rapper, too. Maybe not a rapper like Big Daddy Kane, Nas, L.L. Cool J, Chuck D and Tupac (all of whom sampled his tracks), but a rapper nonetheless.
Further, the man known as The Hardest Working Man In Show Business was the most galvanizing showman of the rock ’n’ roll era. Before Michael Jackson, before Prince, before Usher and Chris Brown, before Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and Rihanna; hell, before Justin Beiber, there was — yup, James Brown.
Here's a short compilation video, set to "I Got the Feeling," that'll give you a taste of JB on stage:
Now, James Brown did a lot of fucked up shit, and in his later years he seemed only remotely tethered to reality. And that hairstyle …
But please remember that in his hey day James Brown was also a prominent social activist and, in his way, a topical singer/songwriter. Not as poetic as Bob Dylan, and not an outright protest singer like early Dylan, but JB, in his music and actions, took strong stances on civil rights, black identity and self-reliance, education and other critical issues during a tumultuous time in America.
All of this and more make James Brown, yes, the most important American musical artist of the last 50 years.