Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hip House Frees James Brown

Yaknow, house music isn't always awful. I mean, sure, we all know what it's like to skip past the obligatory, irritatingly terrible house song on an otherwise classic hip-hop album (along with the ultra-cheesy, whispered love rap). And we all know what it's like to go on a digging trip and recoil in horror at a DJ's collection of all cheesy club and house 12"s, priced at a dollar a pound. But still, every once in a while, house is awesome.

Now this is a record I'd after for a long time. I could picture the video from Yo! and Rap City, I could still sing the hook, and I had a reasonable idea of what the title of the song had to be. But there's actually several "Free James Brown"s from that era. Chili Most, Mass Appeal, some guy names Robert Lusson... all had records out called "Free James Brown." Plus, there were songs that weren't precisely titled "Free James Brown," but were close enough to throw ya off the track... "Free Our Brother" (which was indeed referring to James Brown) by Boogie Down, or even Luhuru's humorous take on the subject, "In Jail."

But the fine folks at the OldSchoolHipHop forums helped set me straight on the song I was after: "Free James Brown" by the Hip House Syndicate. Hell, I didn't even remember that it was a house song (which is probably why I kept passing over it on my search); I just remembered the Juice Crew-style posse cut (the girl even sounds like Shanté) of MC's taking turns kicking verses on the injustice that the great JB was in jail. Granted he led the police on a drug-induced, pistol-wielding high-speed chase after being accused of raping and torturing a woman at shotgun-point; but come on, this is the man that recorded "Give It Up Or Turnit a Loose" for gosh sake! Are you gonna wag your finger and nitpick every little indiscretion?

So, anyway, this is it. Produced by the one and only Farley Jackmaster Funk, the Chicago DJ/producer who damn near invented house music. Like a lot of house and club records, this actually came out overseas first. It was released as "Free At Last" in 1989 with a colorful picture cover first. But, like the sticker up top illustrates, the video broke over here, which compelled Select Records to put it out here in 1990. I got the US 12" 'cause I'm in the US, I found it for 99 cents, and it has more mixes.

The main mix, the one from the video etc, is on both 12"s - it's the L&R Mix. It's got the signature piano line with the fundamental house beat and groovy bassline. And really, that's the only one you really need. Still, the added remixes aren't bad. The Deep Mix features an unusual but catchy sample, and The House Mix features the same sample James Brown sample as Kool Moe Dee's "Death Blow" and others ("Get On the Good Foot"), and after all it's kinda fitting to have more James Brown music in an anthem dedicated to him. They're all essentially over the same core house track, though; so if you're hoping for more of a "pure hip-hop" version, you're gonna be disappointed.

You can't separate the house from this song, but that's ok. This is still classic hip-hop: "To free this brother is my duty/ No need for the nine or the uzi/ We can do this with justice/ All the jealous suckers know this!" Unfortunately, though, I don't think anything came of the Hip House Synidcate MCs, which is a shame. With the right production behind them, they could've had a fresh 80's album. ...Oh, and as for James? He did a little time for assaulting a police officer and some other stuff related to that chase; but he never had to face that original rape charge, and the evidence against him - DNA, polygraph, etc. - never got heard in court (if you're thinking, "I thought he was convicted for that," you're probably thinking of one of the many domestic violence charges against him; but those all came later). So chalk up 1 win for house music.

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