Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Stubblefield was first inspired by the industrial rhythms of the factories and trains around him, and he got his start playing with regional bands. One day in 1965 Brown saw him at a club in Macon, Ga., and hired him on the spot. Through 1971 Mr. Stubblefield was one of Brown’s principal drummers, and on songs like “Cold Sweat” and “Mother Popcorn” he perfected a light-touch style filled with the off-kilter syncopations sometimes called ghost notes.
The technology and conventions of sampling — isolating a musical snippet from one recording and reusing it for another — also kept him from greater recognition. “Funky Drummer” didn’t appear on an album until 1986, when it was on “In the Jungle Groove,” a Brown collection that was heavily picked over by the new generation of sampler-producers....and the rest was history, with the entire hip-hop world, and then everybody from Madonna to Kenny G who wanted to grab some of that streetwise cool for themselves, sampling the Funky Drummer break to ubiquity. Soon the record labels and collection agencies got wind of this and started making demands for royalties (at one time, PolyGram apparently had four people working full-time, listening to new releases for uncleared James Brown samples). Unfortunately for Stubblefield, musical copyright law puts little weight on rhythm in ascribing authorship, and consequently he has received little in the way of royalties.
Stubblefield didn't stop with the Funky Drummer; a lifelong career musician, he has been playing in bands and on records ever since (fellow Madison, Wisconsin resident Butch Vig got him in on 1990s alternative band Garbage's first record, on the grounds that it'd be nuts to use a sample when the actual drummer lives nearby). Unfortunately, now his health is declining and, like many American musicians, he has no health insurance (in the US, unless you're either wealthy or a full-time employee, health insurance is generally unaffordable). To make money, Stubblefield has recorded a set of sampled drum loops, which may be licensed for 15% of any commercial sales, and also has a special edition of the sampling documentary Copyright Criminals. Or, if you want to throw him a few bucks, you can do so here.
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