June 2021

The Most Sampled Drum Break

Clyde Stubblefield

Clyde Stubblefield


Hear the drummer get wicked!!!

Clyde Stubblefield

On November 20, 1969 “Funky Drummer” was recorded in Cincinnati by the James Brown band, and Clyde Stubblefield’s performance became the mantlepiece for which the song’s name was coined, and retrospectively for an era of music that has sampled his drum breaks on this hit. It is perhaps the most borrowed drum break in the world, used by over two hundred artists including Public Enemy, LL Cool J., De La Soul, Eric B and Rakim, and GangStarr.

Despite it’s prestige, “Funky Drummer” is not the historic anchor for Stubblefield, but more on that later.

Clyde Stubblefield started his musical career as a child in Chattanooga, TN when attending a military parade after schoo, he was awed by the percussion section, and afterward went home and immeditaley started looking for noise makers, *  “playing on just about everything that resonated sound: tin can lids, pasteboard boxes etc.” In his teen years, Clyde moved to Macon, Georgia, and at seventeen started playing with the blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland, and soon after met Otis Redding. Stubblefield’s career came full circle when he attended a club in Macon one night and after sitting in with the house band for a session, he was approached by James Brown who was attending the show, and asked to play with him.

Brown’s own orchestral set-up was a unique display that hosted five other drummers at the time that Clyde came into the network. But, it was an arrangement of a different sort because the drummers as a whole never played at the same time. Generally, one or two would fill the role for a given song, and others would be on stand by in case Brown did not like the way a certain drummer was playing. It was here that Stubblefield met his legendary partner in funk drumming history, John “Jabo” Starks. “Jabo” informed Clyde about how “these things” operated in the band and then the two quickly found out that they were really a team; they challenged each other’s creativity and through their companionship and talented drive, became the quintessential drummers for the band over the next several years. They had a similar fondness for the character of style and nuances of the band and at one point in their musical track together they become mutually known as “the funkiest drummers in the world.”

Stubblefield recalls both an incredible artistic freedom while working in this setting and a celebrated journey as they played throughout the states, through Europe and into Vietnam where they did a series of shows for the soldiers during the war years. Stubblefield was particularly grateful to Brown, through whose connections he was able to avoid the draft. As he states, *  “It wasn’t something I was really fighting against. If I had to go then I would’ve went, but I just didn’t understand it.” Stubblefield admitted other challenges about being part of the James Brown band, most notably pay. Band members were fined for misdirection in their play and they were responsible for many traveling expenses on their own. But, Stubblefield is clear to point out that such policies were preferable to an angry band leader who would yell at the band all the time. According to Clyde, James Brown did not act in such a way. Rather, he was cool and shrewd as a businessman, owning all of the rights to the music, and partitioning funds sparingly. So, in my own words, the talent pool did not starve, but they were never equitably compensated for their historical careers.

The break beat to “Funky Drummer” is a single improvisational moment in time that Stubblefield has mentioned not even recalling later on. *  “It was just something I put together at that moment, and people took it and made a big thing out of it.” A break that would on its own surely have made Clyde Stubblefield a wealthy man if he had any share of the rights to it, is actually not so much of a musically significant moment for the drummer. He has mentioned “I actually didn’t care about that beat.” Instead he mentions “Cold Sweat” as his favorite and “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” and “I Got The Feeling” as much more influential for him because he mentally prepared them. But, just as the following video clip will display, the seeming insignificance of momentary creation can be a brilliant masterpiece because one is free from thought or calculation at the time, because they are just casually in the zone doing what they do best.Medium:

Clyde never claimed to read music, count note lengths, or do any writing arrangements. He worked it out as he played it, or simply felt it and played.

In the years since his memorable run with the James Brown band, Clyde Stubblefield has maintained a continually busy and influential lifestyle, working on projects with “Jabo” including traveling percussion seminars, the recording of Funkmasters, and the instructional video’s Soul of the Funky Drummers with special guests Fred Wesley, John Schofield, John Medeski and Fred Thomas. He re-united with trombonist Wesley and the JB’s to record the album Bring The Funk On Down, and toured with them during a 1999 trip to Japan. Several of his own ventures include a recording for the series The Wire, a highlight in the recent documentary Copyright Criminals, and session work with The Masters of Groove. Clyde lives in Madison Wisconsin and has been playing regularly in the town for over 20 years, currently every Monday night with his band The The Clyde Stubblefield Band at The Frequency. He also spent significant time with a jazz trio for a monthly traveling radio program headed up by Michael Feldman, an experience that he explains as “one of the greatest musical families I’ve ever been in.”

Stubblefield’s current health has been compromised by the need for a kidney transplant and several fundraisers have been coordinated on his behalf. His beats will continue to resonate across the airwaves of sounds to come as it must be concluded from the aformentioned lists of sampling and recordings that the sound of the original funky drummer will continue drum. Clyde Stubblefield’s drum sticks were inducted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1995……DJ C Sinclair

All direct quotes are taken from Wax Poetics Anthology Vol. 1

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