"When I count to four I want everybody to lay out and let the drummer go;
and when I count to four I want you to come back in. Huh!
'Funky Drummer' is the name of a groove-based song by James Brown, although it is most famous nowadays for a short section of Clyde Stubblefield's drum performance. It was released as a single in 1970, reaching number 51 in the US pop charts. The song is a nine minute jam session, based around the interplay between an electric bassline, some stabbing horns, a rhythmic guitar, a smattering of electric piano and James Brown himself, who improvises over the top. The song is based around a single chord, anticipating Neu!'s 'Hallo Gallo' by a year. It is designed to be danced to, and people did dance in 1970, I have this on good authority, there being very little else to do of a night, computer games and the internet having not yet been invented.
"Ain't it funky? Ain't it funky!"
Taken purely as a song it is no more or less inspired than anything on Brown's 'Sex Machine', perfectly representative of the prototypical funk Brown was bringing down. The song doesn't really come alive until the fifth minute. At that point James Brown promises us that he will let the drummer play some of his drums unmolested by the other instruments, and indeed he does.
Thus, five minutes and twenty-two seconds into 'Funky Drummer', there are roughly twenty seconds of top-notch solo drumming. A guitar pluck and James Brown's vocal interjections ensure that none of the bars are usable without editing, but it's a simple matter of copying and pasting the first two kick drums of the second bar over the beginning of the first bar of the solo, and voila, you have the 'Funky Drummer' loop, all two point three five one seconds of it. In contrast, the slightly less famous 'Amen Brother' breakbeat requires no editing at all.
As a resource for budding rappers 'Funky Drummer' was as handy to have as Isaac Hayes' 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', and was already fêted by 1986. In that year a compilation of James Brown's groove-based songs was released on CD and LP as 'In the Jungle Groove'; the 'Funky Drummer' loop immediately became ubiquitous, helped along by a bonus track which presented the loop in instantly-usable form. Brown became a cool person to reference, Stubblefield even more so, the popularity of the loop bringing him out of semi-retirement to put his name to sample CDs.
As for the loop itself, there is a case to be made for it somehow bypassing the conscious mind in favour of the subconscious, for it is irrestably funky. It is a walking beat, encouraging a swagger with a slight 'pull-back' after the first snare hit. It is interesting to compare it with the 'Amen Brother' breakbeat, as the two rhythms start off in a very similar fashion, albeit that the production on 'Funky Drummer' has more space and more reverb. If you sequence both loops without any expression they seem remarkably alike, although 'Amen My Brother' has crashing cymbals. 'Funky Drummer' is more... spidery-like.
It's hard to write about music; harder still to write about the sound of music. The 'Funky Drummer' loop quickly became overused, most of the songs referenced above dating from the early 1990s. Nowadays it exists in the same netherworld as the orchestra stab, 'Hey kids, what time is it?', 'Aw yeah' and so forth, usable perhaps as a clever or ironic reference, but no longer sufficient in itself to underpin an entire song.