Standing uselessly in the Gap the other day as my girlfriend tried on clothes, my mind wandered to the wretched dance music being relentlessly pumped into the hip boutique. Though I can’t dance a single step, I bounce around in my chair in near epilepsy every time I hear a booty-zapping groove. As such, the monotonous rhythms of most popular dance music since the disco infection does little to me but make me long for the sweet release of death. The very idea of dance music as we’ve come to know it through the African-American tradition has always been based around the notion of syncopation. It’s the very thing that gets the most dexterous butts out of their seats, but it’s also what befuddled the white folks who wanted to get down at Studio 54 or have some suitable background music while paying inflated prices for threads designed to make them look like they inhabit the fashionable socio-economic stratum somewhere between where they actually are and the position occupied by the sweatshop laborers that made the clothes. But I digress
James Brown knew a thing or two about syncopation and had righteous scorn for disco and, one surmises, its modern equivalent. “In funk, you dig into a groove, you don’t stay on the surface,” preached Soul Brother Number One. “Disco stayed on the surface. See, I taught ‘em everything they know but not everything I know.” For overwhelming evidence of this vast disparity between Brown’s knowledge and that of his bastard children, look no further than In the Jungle Groove, a collection of odds and ends from the tumultuous years between 1969 and 1971. Remastered and expanded by one long cut, it proves as vital a reminder in 2003 as it did in 1986 that the dross that superceded funk as pop’s premier dance music can in no way compete with the original. Still, it’s understandable that Brown doesn’t get the sheer volume of people moving that, say, Kylie Minogue can, just as it’s understandable that Stravinsky has only a fraction the devotees of John Williams. As fierce and visceral as the music on In the Jungle Groove is, it’s hard, tight funk that works itself into a coil more complex and tense than fans of funk-lite purveyors like Dave Matthews can safely ingest. Moreover, the album features none of the pop instincts that Brown showed with singles like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Instead, it’s made up of uncompromising funk jams that pay about as much attention to harmony and melody as the Bush administration does to credible intelligence. Lyrics are an afterthought as well, here trimmed back even from their Spartan norm, but even if Brown will never be in demand as a librettist, he can still make a sharper criticism of Richard Nixon with grunts and deft rhythmic counterpoint than poets of the century like Bob Dylan.
The music on Jungle Groove is great, of course, but a question remains: why re-release this album now? When it originally came out in 1986, Brown was soaring from both the surprise success of “Living in America” and his omnipresence via sampling in the exploding field of hip-hop. The album’s “Bonus Beat Reprise” of “Funky Drummer” begged to be rapped over, reducing the complexity of the original (also included) to an easily lifted nugget. But today, drum machines are sophisticated enough to make borrowing Brown’s beats less of a necessity for the funky people in hip-hop, and the real lucre lies in the mmm-sss-mmm-sss stuff blaring from every nook and cranny of your local mall. So what’s the point, you ask? At the risk of being obvious, In the Jungle Groove deserves another shot because the music earns it. Its origins as a quickie cash-in don’t detract from the undeniable power of the grooves unleashed within, nor are the proceedings hurt by the revolving-door lineup of the period. Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, and Clyde Stubblefield all come and go, but the funk remains undiluted. Brown’s diminished vocal presence and virtually non-existent instrumental input could lead listeners to forget about his importance in assembling the sound he’s known for, and certainly, all the sidemen he worked with at the time were major talent, but they were still sidemen, forged into a mold that was Brown’s stunning creation. In the Jungle Groove isn’t the best place to start investigating that creation, but anyone interested in Brown specifically or funk in general—and every responsible citizen should be both—shouldn’t stop digging before they get here.