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It didn’t take long for Clyde Stubblefield to start hating his greatest creation. The 20-second drum break, which he first played in a Cincinnati studio near the end of an exhausting 1969 tour with James Brown, was by his own admission a product of boredom and frustration. “It was something I just put together to pass time away,” he told “The Trap Set,” a Los Angeles-based podcast about drummers, in 2016. It was an afterthought. A bit of half-hearted noodling.
Yet the beat hypnotized Brown, who instructed Stubblefield to continue playing until he’d written the rambling soul standard “Funky Drummer.” The song chugs along for more than seven minutes as Brown howls and free associates about juice and sweat. Its instrumentation feels like a half-drawn sketch: A guitar plink here, a flick of staccato organ there. Around 4:45, Brown warns us that he is about to yield the floor, about to “give the drummer some of this funky soul we got here.”
Finally: The beat. An immediate paradox, it is dainty yet assertive, meticulous but greasy. In between thwacks on the snare, Stubblefield releases a trickle of ghost notes and clipped washes on the hi-hat. “Ain’t it funky?” Brown interjects repeatedly, rhetorically. Of course it is. The eight measures are laser perfect; they don’t so much invite dancing as induce it.
It is easy to understand why countless musicians, from LL Cool J to Sinead O’Connor, would later seize upon “Funky Drummer” for their own creative use—why they would rip it, cut it, loop it, copy it. It is also easy to understand why Stubblefield, who was rarely credited or paid for the sampling, grew resentful of his own accidental brilliance—a throwaway idea that altered the course of American popular music, jazz included.
Stubblefield, to be clear, was not ornery by nature. His approach to drumming was affable, instinctual. “I love music,” he told The Sessions Panel, “and I perform it the way my soul and heart feel.” As a child in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he took inspiration from marching bands and the metronomic clanking of nearby factories. His first drums were not drums at all. “I got on them tree limbs and garbage can lid and learned my thing,” he told a drum clinic in 2012.
When James Brown invited Stubblefield on the road in 1965, Stubblefield was more impressed by his fellow drummer, John “Jabo” Starks, than by the Godfather of Soul. He quit Brown’s band not long after recording “Funky Drummer” and, like musicians do, began searching for a hometown. His choices were Los Angeles, London, New York or Madison, Wisconsin. He opted for the quiet of Madison.
The city—tightly-knit and music-obsessed—suited him. He established himself in the city’s thriving jazz scene almost immediately, appearing on keyboardist Ben Sidran’s 1974 release “Don’t Let Go.”
But Stubblefield’s relocation to Madison also presented an irony: As his world grew smaller, his influence exploded across genres—largely without his knowledge. Public Enemy used the “Funky Drummer” sample repeatedly on its platinum-selling 1988 release “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Sublime slotted it into a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” in 1992. It was stretched to warp speed to fit the “Powerpuff Girls” frenetic theme song in 1998, and it’s still dusted off by contemporary artists from Nicki Minaj to Ed Sheeran. By some estimates, more than 1,000 songs spanning nearly four decades sample the drum track.
Musicians tend to agree Stubblefield’s playing, on “Funky Drummer” and elsewhere, transcended the usual rules of time and technique. It was prophetic, supernatural. “There have been faster, and there have been stronger, but Clyde Stubblefield has a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer in the 20th century,” Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told an interviewer in 2011.
Lacking national recognition, Stubblefield nevertheless became a local legend in Madison. For decades he hosted “Funky Mondays” jam sessions at downtown venues, where young musicians were invited to join him onstage. He played in the house band for “Whad’Ya Know?”—an interview and quiz show that ran on Wisconsin Public Radio for 31 years. In his spare time, he did studio work for local and national acts.
Never a fan of rehearsing, he preferred to show up at sessions 15 minutes early and nail his tracks in one or two takes. “When Clyde came in, we said, ‘Dude, just play,’ ” recalled Butch Vig, a producer and drummer for the alternative rock band Garbage. Vig, who lived in Madison for 30 years, recorded Stubblefield dozens of times, including on his band’s 1995 self-titled album. After one early take, Vig says he was amazed by the ease with which Stubblefield created the syncopation between the hi hat cymbals while playing grace notes on the snare drum.
“How do you do that?” Vig asked.
Stubblefield just smiled. “I try not to think about it,” he replied.
Later in life, Stubblefield made efforts to recoup some of the royalties he missed out on with “Funky Drummer.” In 1998, he released an album of solo tracks and welcomed musicians to sample it for a price. Few did. He appeared in the 2009 documentary “Copyright Criminals,” which explored hip-hop music’s complex relationship with intellectual property.
Stubblefield was more interested in getting recognition than financial compensation. He got the former in Madison, where the mayor eventually declared Oct. 8 “Clyde Stubblefield Day,” and where the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2017 awarded him an honorary degree.
He spent his final years obsessing not over lost royalties but over football and the weekly poker game he hosted.
When medical bills piled up for his treatment for bladder cancer in 2000, Madison musicians held a fundraiser. Love 4 One Another, a charity set up by Prince, paid off the rest. The total was $90,000, according to Jody Hannon, Stubblefield’s long-time partner.
In 2011, Stubblefield was diagnosed with stage four kidney disease. He died on Feb. 18, 2017, at age 73.
Stubblefield loved to drive, even into his 70s, and often cruised through town in a blue Jeep Grand Cherokee, listening to local bands’ CDs.
“People would give him like a $10,000 car for $2,000 because he was Clyde,” says Joey Banks, a friend and protegé.
For a while, his drums sat stacked behind the Jeep, partially hidden from view, as though waiting for someone else to use them.
Byard Duncan is a writer based in Oakland, California. As an amateur drummer, Duncan knew of Clyde Stubblefield but did not fully appreciate the Madison drummer’s impact on American popular music until Stubblefield’s death in 2017. Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire and Rolling Stone, among other outlets.
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