Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's 'Funky Drummer,' Dead at 73

Most sampled drummer in hip-hop history dies Saturday from kidney failure

Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's one-time drummer and the creator of one of hip-hop's most popular samples, has died at the age of 73. Credit: Robin Little/Redferns

Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown's one-time drummer and the creator of one of hip-hop's most popular samples, has died at the age of 73. Stubblefield's wife, Jody Hannon, confirmed the drummer's death to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was kidney failure.

"The Funky Funkiest Drummer Of All Time," Questlove wrote on Saturday. "Clyde Stubblefield thank you for everything you've taught me. The spirit of the greatest grace note left hand snare drummer will live on thru all of us."

Stubblefield, while a member of Brown's backing unit, performed on the funk legend's classic cuts like "Cold Sweat," "Ain't It Funky Now," "I Got the Feelin'" and Brown's landmark LP Cold Sweat and Sex Machine.

However, it's a 20-second drum break, a snippet of a Stubblefield solo found on Brown's 1970 single for "Funky Drummer," that marked the drummer's biggest impact on music.

The drum break served as the backbeat for countless hip-hop tracks, ranging from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," "Bring the Noise" and "Rebel Without a Pause" to N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" and Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride" to LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," Run-D.M.C.'s "Run's House" and Beastie Boys' "Shadrach." Even Ed Sheeran's "Shirtsleeves" and George Michael's "Freedom '90" were among the over 1,000 songs to sample Stubblefield's beat.

"We were sitting up in the studio, getting ready for a session, and I guess when I got set up I just started playing a pattern. Started playing something," Stubblefield said of creating the famous drum break. "The bassline came in and the guitar came in and we just had a rhythm going, and if Brown liked it, I just said, 'Well, I'll put something with it.'"

Stubblefield was not listed as a songwriter on the track and therefore didn't see much royalties from the decades of sampling.

"All the drum patterns I played with Brown was my own; he never told me how to play or what to play," Stubblefield told SF Weekly in 2012. "I just played my own patterns, and the hip-hoppers and whatever, the people that used the material probably paid him, maybe. But we got nothing. I got none of it. It was all my drum product."

Stubblefield added in a 2011 New York Times interview, "People use my drum patterns on a lot of these songs. They never gave me credit, never paid me. It didn't bug me or disturb me, but I think it’s disrespectful not to pay people for what they use."

Born in Chattanooga in 1943, Stubblefield served as a session musician and toured under Otis Redding before becoming Brown's drummer from 1965 to 1971. During his tenure with Brown, he partnered with drummer John "Jabo" Starks to form the powerhouse rhythm section that helped write the definition of funk music. In 2016, Rolling Stone placed the Stubblefield/Starks combo as Number Six on the list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. "Starks was the Beatles to Clyde's Stones. A clean shuffle drummer to Clyde's free-jazz left hand," Questlove told Rolling Stone for the feature.

"You have to understand this: We're two different drummers," Starks told NPR in 2015. "Clyde plays the way that Clyde plays, which, nobody's gonna play like Clyde. I play like I play. We can play the same tune, but different ways. You never played together on James' shows, but when he wanted to hear something different from Clyde, he'd point to me."

Years after Stubblefield left Brown's band, he and Starks reunited to form the Funkmasters, resulting in a pair of albums as well as an instructional video. Stubblefield, a resident of Madison, Wisconsin since the early Seventies, also released a handful of solo albums, including 1997's Revenge of the Funky Drummer.

In recent years, Stubblefield dealt with numerous health issues: In 2002, he had a kidney removed, and he suffered from end-stage renal disease in the last decade. 

While Stubblefield did not have health insurance, in April 2016, Stubblefield revealed that Prince secretly paid the $90,000 in medical bills the drummer accumulated while undergoing chemotherapy for bladder cancer. Prince considered Stubblefield one of his "drumming idols," Stubblefield told Billboard following Prince's death.

"We lost another Pillar Stone that held up the Foundation of Funk," Bootsy Collins, who performed with Stubblefield on Sex Machine, wrote on Facebook Saturday. "Mr. Clyde Stubblefield has left our frequency. I am lost for words & Rythme right now. Dang Clyde! U taught me so much as I stood their watchin' over u & "Jabo" while keepin' one eye on the Godfather. We all loved U so much."