There was no one more instrumental in building the musical canon of hip-hop than James Brown, reportedly the most sampled man in music. No less than 12,168 of his samples (and counting) are currently listed on WhoSampled.com. Some of the earliest and most influential hip-hop records were based on fragments of Brown’s back catalog. Hip-Hop pioneers such as Eric B and Rakim, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Ice-T all dug deep for the right sound.
As sampling culture evolved, a broader church of musicians lifted loops from the Godfather of Soul, including Massive Attack, Tracey Thorn, Kendrick Lamar, U2, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and Kanye West. Last year, hip-hop and rap accounted for 21.7% of total music consumption in the United States. It is by far the most popular genre; more than rock, jazz, reggae and electronic dance music (EDM) combined. Brown’s impact on the modern cultural landscape is almost incalculable.
Brown’s right-hand man was saxophonist Maceo Parker, who joined Brown’s band in 1964. Their collaborations are, it is fair to say, legendary; “I Feel Good,” “Out of Sight,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” “Lickin’ Stick” and “Mother Popcorn” are totemic cultural achievements.
“Maceo! Blow your horn!” Parker’s name can be heard again and again in Brown’s classic recordings, as he drives his musicians to reach the highest levels of excellence. On stage, the two men were double dynamite. Parker’s distinctive sax punctuated Brown’s incendiary vocals and mesmerizing stage choreography with horn blasts that were both melody and percussion.
Some 55 years after his first collaboration with the Godfather of Soul, Parker joins me by phone after a soundcheck from Wolfsburg in Germany. He is generous with his time and reminiscences, and his laughter is quick and infectious. In an industry where diva-like behavior is not only expected but encouraged, Parker is still genuinely humbled by his good fortune. “Working with James Brown, you know that he started calling my name on the records, and as his music went out all over the world, so did my name. So it’s almost like, psychologically, people would be thinking ‘This Maceo guy must be OK, he must be good if James Brown keeps calling his name all the time.’ (laughs) It opened a lot of doors and made it very very easy for me.”
Parker grew up in a musical family, he explains. “My mother and father sang in church, and my uncle had a marching band, I’m born into this. I had a brother a year ahead of me play trombone, and I can’t play the piano in a marching band, so I moved on to the saxophone. Then my brother behind me played drums. Our uncle’s band was called The Blue Notes, so we called ourselves The Junior Blue Notes. When I played sax, I got the feeling that it was really meant to be.” Together with his brothers and cousins, Parker honed his musical skills “year after year after year after year after year!” They started listening to “funky stuff” and then playing it. “James Brown heard my brother play and wanted to take him out of college to join his band. We got together and said to James, ‘Well, why don’t you take both of us.'” Their argument was persuasive; Brown ended up employing Parker and two of his brothers.
Life on the road with “the hardest working man in show business” was something special, he remembers. “We felt good about it. We made a little; 25, 30, 35, 40 dollars a night, and we would keep maybe fifteen dollars, and give the rest to Mom. She liked that.” His older brother left music for academia and ended up being a law professor at Columbia University. “While me and my other brother, Melvin that played drums, you know we were chasing girls, chasing skirts and stuff, he was reading books, and we thought he was kinda crazy.” He recalls that spotting his brother in the University band was easy, “Out of the 4-500 people they had in the band, he was the only black.”
Parker started on his solo career in the early ’70s, releasing some definitive funk records as Maceo & All the King’s Men, and then as Maceo & the Macks. His solo work such as “Soul Power 74,” “Parrty” and “Cross the Track (We Better Go Back)” was subsequently lionized by hip-hop producers, the latter being sampled in 45 songs. Parker tells me about the meaning of the title: “‘Cross the track’ was an expression during that time, and it still may be, but it pointed to the black section of the city. Near or across the railroad tracks. The train is gonna come through, but that’s when you gonna find the black people.”
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Parker was still playing with Brown and was also a featured player with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band. Parker remembers Clinton’s unique concept with affection, “He said he came from outer space to show the Earthlings exactly what funky music is all about.” In 1990 Parker began the next stage of his creative life with the solo album Roots Revisited. It set the benchmark by remaining number one on the jazz charts for over ten weeks. His third album Life on Planet Groove brought him to the attention of younger, college-aged audiences and gave him a larger following throughout the world.
Along the way, Parker has guested with artists as diverse as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Keith Richards, Deee-Lite and Bryan Ferry; and it is evident that Parker is still enjoying every minute. His profound gratitude is the opposite of jaded. “Circumstance has made it, whatever it is, you’ve done something right. Out of all the players and musicians in the world, its narrowed down to this four, this five, this six. I’m part of that, and it’s really really special.”
Parker is rigorously even-handed with his praise, but out of all his collaborators, there is one who appears to have made a monumental impression. “Prince was really a sweetheart. When the heavens open up, the first thing you are gonna see is Prince. That’s the way I feel. Oh man, I’m telling you, I almost can’t put it into words how that felt, just being that close to him, walking around Paisley Park, coming up with new stuff…” Parker’s voice trails off. He worked with Prince on seven albums, and it is clear he still misses his dear friend. Many years before his death, when Prince was asked did he still enjoy playing live, he answered, “Are you kidding? I get to say: ‘Maceo, blow your horn!'”
Today, Parker is back on the road, and soon to be playing a series of high-profile concerts, such as the Roundhouse in London on Friday, July 5 as part of the Innervisions Festival. He is again genuinely grateful for this opportunity to travel the world with musicians he respects, to meet good people, and to share his message. “I am blessed with a group of musicians who embrace my concept, and like the way I do it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t stay with me as long as they have, the same as my management. It’s all positive. We enjoy working together and doing what we do. And you know, we’re just thankful that so many places open for us, where we can come in and share what we do with people. And that’s our mission, that’s our goal, that’s our quest.”
Positivity is central to Parker’s life mission; he continues, “My main objective or theme now is trying to spread love around the world. I’d say that almost every time I open my mouth, it’s all about love. It’s easy for me, I was born on Valentine’s Day!” Again, his infectious, warm laughter lights up the conversation. “Just to spread love, the word ‘love,’ wherever we are, so maybe somebody can hear that, and all the craziness will go away.” His vision for future generations is magnificently optimistic. “We, as a people, all around the world, could get serious about the young ones not even knowing anything about aggression and war. I don’t think it’s impossible.”
On his life’s mission to spread love around the world, Parker has a fairly intense tour itinerary for someone approaching 80. I ask how he maintains both his spirits and his energy. He admits to never drinking alcohol, aside from one time when he was in the army. The hangovers of his comrades the next morning were enough to put him off for life. He relaxes these days by watching movies, enjoying cowboy films in particular, and listening to older music. Ray Charles is an artist whom he never tires of. Parker says wistfully, perhaps reflecting on the relentless march of time, “When I get a chance to work with Ray Charles, I’ll be on the same stage with him, that looks like heaven to me.”
Parker’s warmth and gratitude for a life well lived are genuine. “I wouldn’t change a thing. If somebody came down with a magic wand that could change something in your life. No, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything was beautiful. And I owe it, we owe it, to our parents.” Our discussion draws to a natural end with Parker sharing the three words he will be saying on stage many times over the next two months of touring. “We love you. I say that all through the show. Now when you say those words, you are part of that group, and that makes you special.”
I would recommend taking the rare opportunity to see this giant of music performing live when you can, and to hear him say those words to you. They might even change the world.
Maceo Parker plays the Roundhouse in London on Friday, July 5 as part of the Innervisions Festival and continues throughout July and August on a European tour. His recent album “It’s All About Love” is available online.
Originally published in Forbes.
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