March 29, 2011

Some Love for Mr. Stubblefield

How a band doles out songwriting credit has always interested me.  Genesis (for the most part) and Marillion, for example, tend to credit everybody on every track, even if the ideas that blossom into finished tracks can be traced to one or two band members.  At the other end of the spectrum, almost every Spock’s Beard song from the Neal Morse days were credited to him alone.  Regardless of whether the rest of the band gets some credit for arrangements, that recognition can be cold comfort down the road.

That’s because song writing credits are about more than properly recognizing a creative force.  It’s about who gets paid when the song gets played on the radio or TV or when a snipped of a song gets sampled for use in another song.  That’s the situation highlighted by this New York Times article about the great Clyde Stubblefield.

Stubblefield was James Brown’s drummer in the late 1960s (Brown saw him in a club in Georgia in 1965 and hired him on the spot).  Among other tunes, he played on a single recorded in 1970 (though not released until 1986) called “Funky Drummer,” which included a 20-second drum solo.  That solo, or parts of it, gets around:
If you’ve heard Public Enemy’s 'Bring the Noise' or 'Fight the Power,' you know his drumming. If you’ve heard LL Cool J’s 'Mama Said You Knock Out,' or any number of songs by Prince, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C., Sinead O’Connor or even Kenny G., you definitely know his drumming, even though Mr. Stubblefield wasn’t in the studio for the recording of any of them.
It is, according to the article, “the most sampled of all beats” and became “part of the DNA of hip-hop.”  But for all the uses of his beats by others, Stubblefield hasn’t seen a dime, because the songwriting credit went to James Brown, only.  It’s improbable that Brown “wrote” the drums bits, at least:
'We just played what we wanted to play on a song,' Mr. Stubblefield said in a telephone interview last week, referring to himself and his fellow Brown drummer John Starks, better known as Jabo. (Brown died in 2006.) 'We just put down what we think it should be. Nobody directs me.'
I read once on the Freaks mailing list that the only parts of a song that mattered for writing credits (legally) were the chord progression, melody, and lyrics (if any).  That leaves an awful lot of what makes music interesting twisting in the wind.  Certainly, a lot of what made James Brown tunes of that vintage so good is Stubblefield’s funk.  Witness:

I can’t give the man royalties he might should have a piece of.  All I can do is give a shout out and a little love.  Funk on, Mr. Stubblefield!

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