Prison made him remember that, but not in the obvious ways. First and always, there was loneliness, and it was scarier than being an unloved boy in the woods. Now he was a middle-aged man, one who had been wealthy and worshiped, incarcerated with those who were just past being children. He says he didn't know these kids. Some of them were more hard-eyed, more without hope and flat-out dangerous than any "hardened" inmates he'd ever seen. They couldn't believe he was in there just for running from the law. "They'd say, 'Man, they put you in jail for nothing,' " he recalls.
But if they were hip to me severity of James Brown's sentence, the young inmates were not impressed with his soulful credentials. They looked at the older man in the processed pageboy, watched the way he carried himself, like he was somebody, and they said: "Who he?" These big, wise children with their fades and their shades and their tough New Jack Swing – THEY DIDN'T KNOW JAMES BROWN.
He didn't know how to explain to them who he was – what masterworks of his they live and breathe from their big, thudding boxes. Who was it that subdivided the most primordial bass line, who got so deep into polyrhythmic receptions, so far out the other side of the jam, that it all seemed brand-new? And who first pop-locked a funky femur and drove the sweat straight through shoe leather? Brother, it was NOT some cat who gooses twin turntables and scratches the hell out of perfectly good vinyl, HELL NO. It was NOT a bunch of fat dudes in surfer clothes and gold chains . . .
"They're talking about some cat I never heard of," JB grouches. "Some rapper or whatever." At night, the walls rang with the cassette ravings of the usurpers. He says the noise in jail is awesome. And until lights out – BOOM thunka-thunka BOOM – he heard that voracious street-corner roar, heard himself sampled "near unto death." He says he heard lyrics that would make a Sex Machine blush. "I just can't believe these kind of records exist in the world." No names, no ma'am, no way. So he stayed quiet, did Mr. Brown, until things started to turn around.
"You know when it came back to life? When their families started bringing James Brown tapes. They remembered then WHO IT WAS." He leans forward, incredulous. "They had forgotten WHO IT WAS. Who THEY were."
And who are they? James wasn't sure. They sure looked different and, have mercy, how those cats talked. "I may run into trouble but I GOT to say it Ninety percent of the black Kids, with what the system has done, seventy-five percent of their language is 'MF' and 'SOB.' They can't put words together but without that one [MF], which they think says EVERYTHING. You get that far down expressing yourself, ain't one place left by the graveyard."
Query him on New Breed styles and he is off and bellowing. STYLE? These boys needed him. "These cats get a hat, turn it around and wear it backward!" To some, a backward ballcap is the main b-boy mode. To James Brown, it makes no kind of sense, fashion or otherwise. "They don't need the bill. I say, why don't you buy a ROUND hat?" Another pet peeve: putting holes in jeans on purpose. "They DESIGN the holes!" Such raggedy attitude is unthinkable for a man who once owned 400 suits, a man who barbecues in silk and whipcord. "I don't care where I am, I got to be CLEAN! I kept my stuff pressed, starched, my hair done."
The Hair. Those closest to him worried about the effect prison shears would have on the Superbad Dome. "I think if they had cut his hair, it would have been the thing that crushed him," says Sharpton. He notes that as soon as James was sentenced, he was singing one refrain: "Make sure the lawyers go to the judge about my hair."
They pleaded Professional Necessity, and the 'do escaped unmolested. Every Saturday during visiting hours, Alfie Brown toted dryer, roller and potions to a room behind the warden's office and administered a wash 'n' set. And every night, the Godfather slept on a few rollers for maintenance.
Pride may have landed him in prison, but pride in the small stuff would keep him on the good foot Inside. James says that, of course, even in jail he started new styles. He was assigned kitchen duty, and the white uniforms that go with it were, shall we say, beat.
"I come in, I put things together, had it LAID down. It was the thing. I come with a STYLE."
In JB's soul kitchen, the jumpsuit was accessorized with a silk neckerchief. Collar up. "And I threw some shades on 'em." Even the white cats came up to him and praised what the Godfather did for a uniform. "It ain't never looked right till you come in," they told him. "It was a drag." In short order, the other inmates were peeling spuds in their Ray Bans and Vuarnets. James admits it made for an amusing tableau. "I had my following," he says, cracking himself up. "I HAD to have a following."
"Right," yells Reginald Simmons. "The kitchen JBs."
Before long, there was an Entourage as well. Three or four inmates accompanied James everywhere, protectors and acolytes. On visiting day, Rev teased him: "It's like one of those old gangster pictures – you got your own crew in jail." But they'd take care of him – big, tough guys who came to the Godfather with family problems, fears of getting "shipped" to a maximum-security joint.
On Saturdays, JB did his bit for an inmate-charity fund by posing with other inmates and relatives, two dollars a shot. Sundays, he toiled in the fields of the Lord. Singing in the prison choir got him early release when he was a teenager. This time he was choir director, lead singer, and he made that organ moan. His gospel group, he says, "was so good I could have recorded yesterday. I had them doing routines! I had them so sharp that the inmates wanted to get their autographs."
Once sparsely attended, the prison chapel was packed; Sunday was star time. The only downside, says James, was that inmates started getting visits from relatives they hadn't seen in months. "Everybody came to see James Brown, and it was really a shame. I felt sad." Still, that chapel was rockin', and maybe some sinners got saved.
"It was hip."
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