Benjamin Franzen/Brent Nicastro
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The Funky Drummer marked his 68th birthday earlier this month. He is confronting health issues. Something had to give.
Fresh off his exhilarating March 29 performance with Chuck D, Eclectic Method and the Copyright Criminals All-Stars on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Clyde Stubblefield has announced his withdrawal as drummer for Funky Mondays after more than 20 years.
Stubblefield anchored Funky Monday at O'Cayz Corral, where it began, and at venues including the King Club, where the weekly gig found a longtime home until the room closed in 2008. Then Funky Mondays migrated to the Frequency, where it continued the event's tradition of live funk, soul and R&B in a relaxed, spontaneous setting.
"He needs to get healthy," says the Frequency's Darwin Sampson, "and I think he needs to make some money." Funky Monday may feed the soul, but it doesn't put much food on the table or make much of a dent in medical bills. "We love Clyde, and we support whatever he needs to do," Sampson emphasizes, calling the Funky Drummer "a shining light."
Sampson heard about Stubblefield's withdrawal from Charlie Brooks, lead singer for the Funky Monday band.
Because of Stubblefield's health, says Brooks, "it's hard for him to do a lot of things." While Stubblefield recuperates, he adds, "we're just gonna keep it going," with Karri Daley joining Brooks on vocals. Also in the band are Steve Skaggs on keys, guitarist Joe Wickham, bassist Dave Goplen and drummer and nephew Bret Stubblefield, backed by a rotating horn section.
Stubblefield says he is doing great, though he had a tumor removed from his kidney in 2002, is enduring renal disease and is on dialysis. By way of explaining his decision to leave Funky Mondays, he says, "I got tired of it." His tone suggests not restlessness or disaffection but rather fatigue and a plate piled high with other obligations.
Even with other projects on his menu, the soul-music pacemaker plans to revisit Funky Mondays on occasion. "I'll go down once in a blue moon," Stubblefield says, "whenever I feel like it."
Clyde Stubblefield has always had a lot going on, and despite the change, he still does. On the heels of the Jimmy Fallon appearance, he'll soon embark to D.C. for a reunion with much of the crew that played with his old boss, James Brown. The Chocolate City Soul Revue, June 4 at Constitution Hall, will feature original Funky Divas Vicki Anderson, Martha High and Marva Whitney, bandmates Johnny Griggs, Jabo Starks and Fred Thomas, and James Brown's master of ceremonies, Danny Ray. Stubblefield was the propulsive cornerstone for Brown's band, known for his famous break in the song that gave him his nickname, "Funky Drummer."
Perhaps the most impressive thing Stubblefield has going at the moment is the product he was promoting on Fallon: Copyright Criminals: The Funky Drummer Edition. On its cover, the new box-set release of the 2009 documentary film has a picture of Stubblefield behind drums, sticks poised.
Copyright Criminals examines both sides of the heated discussion regarding compensation for musicians like Stubblefield, whose beats and breaks have been sampled to such an extent that he can stake a legitimate claim as the involuntary godfather of hip-hop. Directed by Benjamin Franzen and written by Kembrew McLeod, the film features interviews with attorneys, producers and musicians from George Clinton and De La Soul to Digital Underground and Public Enemy. On the Fallon show, Chuck D and Stubblefield performed "Fight the Power," the 1989 Public Enemy single that sampled Stubblefield and whose lyrics mention the Funky Drummer.
The new box set includes an exclusive 12-inch vinyl record, Clyde Stubblefield's Ultimate Breaks and Beats, also available as digital files. The disc is meant to help compensate Stubblefield, belatedly. The beats he recorded for it require credit and 15% royalties for their use.
Copyright Criminals premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and ran in 2010 on PBS's Independent Lens. The box set also includes a featurette called The Art of Sampling with Cee-Lo Green, as well as extended interviews with Stubblefield, Chuck D and De La Soul. There are audiovisual remixes by Eclectic Method, a clip called The Funky Drummer in the Studio With Chuck D, featurettes by the Center for Social Media explaining fair use, and 45 Copyright Criminals All Stars trading cards. Plus stickers.
The arguments at the center of Copyright Criminals hinge on the nature of intellectual property, amid profound changes in attitudes toward creative license and the rise of technologies that have rendered it ever easier to sample vintage sounds. There remain unanswered questions about recorded music. What is the value of those sounds? How can people be compensated for their creative impulses? Long after they've been left uncompensated for their work, how can they seek reparations, and from whom?
The significance of these issues is reflected in the documentary's soundtrack, which spans from James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic to Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and beyond.
In a New York Times article published the day Stubblefield played on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the drummer noted that not only has he gone uncompensated for his drum tracks - which have been sampled by artists from the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J to Kenny G, Sinead O'Connor, Prince and Public Enemy - but has also gone largely uncredited and unacknowledged.
"I feel good about it," says Stubblefield of Copyright Criminals: The Funky Drummer Edition. Indeed, there is a sense that belated acknowledgement is being paid by the box set. Still, he says, "I'd like to have the money, too. All the hip-hoppers that sampled my drums are living in big homes, with six cars and pools and all that, and I haven't got a goddamn thing for it."
But if Stubblefield could turn back the clock, he adds, "I'd rather have the acknowledgment." He knows of only two artists, Melissa Etheridge and the Roots, who gave him credit where it was due. To have his funky beats and breaks sampled and imported into other artists' songs over and over and over again, without citing him as the source, is what stings. "I don't like it," says Stubblefield. "It's disrespectful."
Does that mean the Copyright Criminals box set is too little, too late? "No, it's not," Stubblefield answers. It is, he says, "a good time right now."
As momentous occasions go, Stubblefield's departure from Funky Mondays is all the more significant because he is handing over drumming duties to his nephew Bret Stubblefield. That makes the change less like a valediction and more like a torch - or drumsticks - being passed.
"It's incredible," says Bret, 38. "I'm just glad that I'm able to continue playing drums as my uncle has for many years, and keep the tradition alive." Bret has already introduced some beats to his 14-year-old son, he notes. He and his wife, Stacey, also have a nine-month-old who may likewise prove an heir to the tradition.
Describing his uncle as "my father's baby brother," Bret calls it an honor to step into the gig. "I'm totally petrified," he admits, noting the seasoned company he joins. "My knees are shaking and all that stuff, but the more I do it, the more comfortable I get." And despite his trepidation, he says, "I feel more comfortable in this group as I ever have playing drums."
Uncle Clyde, he explains, "has been a big part of my drumming," introducing him to some key beats early on. If the Funky Drummer's nephew has come a long way since, keeping time for bands including the Heart Attacks and Unified Soul, "it's still a little nerve-wracking when Uncle Clyde is there watching."
Bret says Copyright Criminals has deepened his understanding of his uncle's situation. It is, he says, "a good piece of information" that let him hear the perspective of musicians who have taken samples of Clyde's music. "It's nice to see these other artists give credit where credit is due," he says.
Copyright Criminals also boosted his already substantial respect for Clyde Stubblefield, he adds. "I still don't know how he does it," Bret says, marveling at his uncle's sublime mastery of the drums, his innate rhythmic command.
"Anytime he decides he wants to come down there," Bret says, "he knows the drums are waiting for him. I'd rather sit and watch him."
Funky Mondays Band
Frequency, Mondays,9:30 pm